Let me start with this: I love teachers and school leaders. I do this work each and every day in schools because I believe in their impact on the individual, national, and global level. Teachers, in this country in particular, do some of the hardest damn work and, in many cases, are deeply internally driven (because we know it isn’t “for the money and the summers off”, am I right?) to show up every day for one the greatest responsibilities in this world: educating the mind, body, and spirits of young people.
I’m writing this post because I care about you/them. I’m writing this because I know that, in addition to teaching your subject, you are also tasked with making sure people are safe, that they aren’t hurting each other, and that young people feel whole each and every day. You’re also tasked with confronting some of life and society’s greatest challenges (in no particular order): poverty, hunger, violence, children’s basic needs, active shooter drills, a child who comes into school with a bruises, hormones, friendships-enemies-friendships, sexuality, sexual activity, social media, … the list goes on. And, you don’t get a pay bump for any of those — you are driven to connect with other humans, to provide, to inspire, to teach, and to love — and for many, the reward is knowing you are doing something every single day that makes this world better, even when it doesn’t always feel that way.
Truthfully, I wasn’t the greatest teacher in my early years (I’m confident I got much better as time went on and as I benefitted from helpful feedback). I think back to my very first year teaching 6th grade at a well-resourced independent school. While I wish I was awesome, truth is, even if I wasn’t the best teacher in the world, those students were going to be successful because they had many other people supporting them, helping them navigate this world, and connecting them to the opportunities only few can dream about. Many (not all) came from families where advanced education was a given, and that career success was going to come as a result of hard work as well as a safety net of love and resources. And, thanks to LinkedIn and Facebook, many of the students I taught those three years turned out just fine - they became Vice Presidents of global banks, professors, business owners and entrepreneurs, Broadway actors, successful musicians, teachers and school administrators, outstanding parents and caregivers, and more.
Though I may not have been skilled, in those early years, around classroom management, I did walk in with one particular skill that many others on the faculty did not have: I knew how to have difficult conversations about identity. My more formal training in leadership, facilitation, race, and racial identity meant that I knew how to stop a class, address issues of bias or racialized comments, get curious about the comment’s origins, and scaffold learning around these topics. I wasn’t afraid to lean into these conversations, unlike many colleagues who got uncomfortable, “shushed” the commenter, and moved on. I knew how to do this. It was a learned skill, not just a passion project.
As I travel across the country in workshops with teachers and school leaders, I meet so many adults who know that racialized, racist, or identity-based comments are damaging to a classroom climate. They know that these comments deteriorate trust in the classroom and in them, as adults. They know that these comments are hurtful to children who are there to do their jobs, too: to learn. They do know this. They can clearly spot when a comment is offensive. They can clearly spot when a student has said something that has hurt others. They do have that “tingling feeling” when they, themselves, have said something in a lesson or lecture that didn’t land quite right or triggered that “oohh, no s/he didn’t!” response.
They know when it’s happened.
They do not always know what to do next.
In my workshops, we spend a lot of time on case studies. But, rather than speed off to “how does this all end, “ I work with teachers and school leaders to process, examine, and understand their own experiences with conflict, risk, speaking out, and what they know about issues of identity. After all, if you are conflict averse (perhaps you grew up in a home where conflict was a negative experience, or if you had witnessed conflict=bad), you are less likely to confront an issue in your classroom that might bring up these same feelings. Maybe those feelings are rooted in gender. Maybe those feelings are rooted in race. Maybe those feelings are rooted in “Oh, I’ve tried to address conflict, but it didn’t go well, so I never really felt confident enough to do it again.” Those are questions for you to figure out.
In the meantime, here are some of the steps I encourage teachers and school leaders to take when faced with an incident that has aspects of identity baked into it:
TAKE A TIME OUT/TAKE A BREATH …. BUT DEFINITELY RESPOND. You, out of all the people in that room, are role modeling what to do. Young people are watching you to see what is expected of them. Huge responsibility, right? I know. It really is. And, let’s be honest, it’s a moment that our graduate or teacher preparation programs didn’t cover. So, it makes perfect sense if you feel unprepared.
Helpful phrases: “Okay, let’s pause right here for a second, let’s talk about that word you just used”;
“That’s an interesting use of language you chose just now. Why did you choose that word?”;
“Hey! I heard that. C’mon everyone. We’re better than this, right? We are not the class where that word is okay in here.”
I’m not saying you need to dive into a whole TED talk about what’s going on, but students need to know that you know what’s up. Students need to know in the moment that what they said was offensive; and students who are on the receiving end of it need to know that you care.
YOU DON’T HAVE TO KNOW ALL THE DETAILS TO KNOW IT’S OFFENSIVE. Listen, I don’t know everything there is to know about everything. I just don’t. And, too often as teachers and school leaders, we don’t take the same advice that we give to our students each and every day — “You will likely make mistakes today. And, that’s part of the learning process.” Teachers, I believe you know enough about what is racist, racialized, or just plain icky. You do. Because, my gosh, whether it’s in a critical race theory class, a sociocultural-foundations in education class, or learning about what the hell Gucci did with their turtleneck sweaters via Instagram, you are surrounded by tons of learning moments. But, sometimes we feel uncomfortable when students know we don’t know something. I’m asking you to role model what it means to make mistakes. I’m asking you to role model that it’s okay to not know it all, but it isn’t okay to ignore learning.
Helpful phrases: “I don’t know exactly where blackface comes from, but I do know that it isn’t right”;
“I’m not sure why that term is offensive, but (child in the class) says it is hurtful to them, so, we aren’t going to use that word. "
“(Child), thanks for letting us know about this. I’m going to read more about it after class, though.”
STOP DISMISSING THE CONCERNS OF CHILDREN. Okay, this one’s personal. When I hear of racist or racialized incidents in my children’s classrooms, I have two immediate questions: “How are you feeling as a result of this?” and “So, what did the adult in the room do?” Honestly, I don’t put a whole lot of responsibility on their peers/children because I know far too much about our educational system and the curriculum that is taught in this country (aka not one that affirms learning about Black, Brown, and Indigenous people). I do, however, know that adults have a different responsibility in this situation. Imagine my emotions when I find out that children express concern in their classrooms — and I mean, directly, not “round about” — and to learn that the adult in the room was dismissive. What do I mean by dismissive? How about “Oh, xxxx, you’re making way to big a deal of this” or my latest favorite, “Oh, c’mon, it was the 1980s” (when subjected to a film that had absolutely no connection to the academic lesson, day or outcome, and is known for being a totally racist and rapey movie that even the star of that film has problems with)” or “No, (other student) isn’t trying to be racist.” In these incidents, this young person advocated for themselves, was explicit about their discomfort, and was dismissed by the adult in the room.
Helpful phrases: "I hear your concern, (student). What would be a helpful next step for us right now?”; (note: as a way to give agency to the student, not to be responsible for the education of the class)
“Thank you for letting us know, (student). This conversation is clearly not appropriate. And it doesn’t align with our classroom environment.”;
“Thanks, (student). Honestly, I don’t know enough about this topic, but clearly I need to learn more”;
“(Student making offensive comments), not okay, seriously. That term is really offensive. We have to move on to our lesson for the day, but we will be coming back to this topic.”
PARTNER WITH PARENTS AND CAREGIVERS. I have been super lucky when I was a teacher to have principals who proactively dealt with potential issues. I have been on administrative teams where we have spent time crafting emails, responses, and notifications for parents/caregivers to be aware of things of concern. Having worked in K-12 schools closely, I know that there truly is no extra time to squeeze out in a day. And, hopefully, proactive communication doesn’t need to happen often when racialized or inappropriate incidents occur. A few times in my children’s experiences, they have come home to tell me of a very troubling incident in a classroom where a teacher was present. And, then I waited… waited.. waited …for even a quick note from a teacher or school leader. Silence. Nothing. I want teachers and leaders to know some things about that silence — while that silence is usually a result of “we are putting out lots of other types of fires” or “we are understaffed and underresourced and just trying to breathe”, your silence can also signal acceptance. There have been a few incidents — racial — at the schools that have been grossly unacceptable. Like, grossly. And, in all of those cases, I have been the one to reach out to the schools. I have certainly received school wide voicemails about graffiti, but have yet to receive an email from a teacher about an incident in the classroom.
Helpful phrases (teachers, feel free to copy this for your template):
“Dear families, today in our ____ class, we had an incident that I want you to be aware of in case you want to continue this conversation with your child when they get home from school. Today, students (e.g., viewed a movie that had inappropriate language/nudity/racial stereotypes; engaged in conversation in which there were racist phrases used; had a discussion about identity that may have been difficult and hurtful to students in their class). While education is meant to be challenging and to include issues of social identity, experiences, and beliefs, I also know that some conversations can create a sense of mistrust and worry. I have checked in with the students in class to see how they are doing individually and overall; however, I thought it would be important for you to have this information as well in case there were additional conversations you wanted to have with your student. If you would like to reach out to me, please do so. As a dedicated teacher, I am committed to making sure that each one of my students feels supported in my class and at our school. Thank you, xxxx.”
ENGAGE IN YOUR LEARNING/BUILD YOUR NETWORK. Between teaching all day, faculty meetings, parent/caregiver emails, discipline hearings, IEP meetings, follow up conferences with tutors or specialists, and, by gosh, having things in your personal life also need attention, it is no wonder that teachers and school leaders are exhausted. Teachers and school leaders are tasked with doing more and more and more and more each year. So, what would it mean to partner with an organization or a trainer or a facilitator to help you through this learning, particularly around addressing race or identity in your classrooms?
Build your network of other teachers who are running on the same schedule and who also need to build skill.
No time to read a text book on culturally responsive teaching right now? Okay, so grab a young adult fiction book by responsible writers (preferably ones who hold the identities of their main characters) and get a glimpse into the issues (my favorites? Jason Reynolds, Benjamin Alire Saenz, Angie Thomas, Sandhya Menon).
Regularly check out teaching resources like Teaching Tolerance or Facing History
Ask questions. Ask questions. Ask questions.
Teachers, I love you. I really do. I know that what I’m asking of you is both another component of your work and such an integral part of your work. If children aren’t feeling secure in your ability to advocate for them, to stand up for what is right, and to address issues that can hurt and harm them, then they simply don’t learn as well. We need to continue to create conditions where our students come into our classrooms feeling whole, are challenged by what we teach and what we facilitate, and leave feeling whole.
I was in a powerful workshop where a parent of color held up a piece of paper. They then tore it into pieces - first in half, then in quarters, then in smaller and smaller pieces. “This,” the parent said, “is what happens when my child is at school and experiences racist and racialized incidents.” The parent then grabbed tape and began taping the pieces back together. “And, this, this is what I have to do when they come home.”
How can we change this narrative? What would this mean if this were true every single day? What would need to happen for us, as educators, to believe this is true?
Let’s build skill. Get curious. And work to keep our children whole.
Peace and love,