Care and Feeding is Slate’s parenting advice column. In addition to our traditional advice, every Thursday we feature an assortment of teachers from across the country answering your education questions. Have a question for our teachers? Email email@example.com or post it in the Slate Parenting Facebook group.
My daughter is finishing up the third grade. I know her teacher is just trying to get by right now, with distance learning and the end of school so near, but I’m disappointed that her class hasn’t taken the time to talk at all about George Floyd, police brutality, and racism in our country. What’s reasonable to expect from a teacher in terms of them talking to their students about racism?
I recognize that these are difficult times with the students not together in their normal classroom, and maybe they would have talked about it were they there. But it got me thinking about what my general expectations should be. I obviously have a big responsibility as her parent, and we do talk regularly about these issues. But I’d love to know what you think a school’s and teacher’s role should be. And if they’re falling short, what can or should a parent do about it?
—All in This Together?
I’m glad this question came in. These past few weeks have been difficult for teachers, but they pale in comparison to what many of our black students are going through.
I want to acknowledge the young black people, who are tired, scared, and looking for answers our world can’t give you. I see you. Your life matters. I believe that schools don’t only have a role, but an obligation to engage with our students on race.
As a black male teacher, I take classroom conversations about race very seriously. Unfortunately, many teachers feel it’s inappropriate to talk about race and racism in school. Some feel it’s taboo. Some may feel they’re unequipped with the necessary knowledge, training, or tools to broach the topic. Or they are fearful. This is unsettling because for many students of color, exposure to racism and discrimination begins in school.
For context, black students are disciplined at school at a far greater rate than their white peers: According to a 2018 study from the U.S. Government Accountability Office, “Black students accounted for 15.5 percent of all public school students, but represented about 39 percent of students suspended from school—an overrepresentation of about 23 percentage points.” I live and teach in Seattle, and the Washington State Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction reported that black students are disproportionately disciplined at a rate of 8.3 percent as compared with 3.4 percent for white students. An Education Week Research Center analysis of civil rights data collected by the U.S. Department of Education found that in 43 U.S. states and D.C., black children face an unusually higher arrest rate at school, which it says may be because black students attend schools with a higher rate of police presence. Here in Seattle, black students make up only 14 percent of the student body, but we’ve found they account for nearly 50 percent of students referred to the police by Seattle Public Schools employees.
Last year in Seattle, a white staff member at Rising Star Elementary (formerly known as Van Asselt) called the police on a black fifth grader who was attempting to leave the classroom. Early this year, a Florida cop was fired for arresting a black girl who was 6 years old.
If we don’t address systemic racism in schools at the classroom level, we as a system will continue to fuel the school-to-prison pipeline. We owe it to our students, especially those of color, to restructure schools as anti-racist institutions, and the only way to do this is to start talking about race—at school and at home.
Where Should Teachers Start?
Please don’t dive in head first. If you are a white teacher and want to offer yourself as a resource, make sure that you have your privilege in check and that you’ve read the literature. If you don’t have a clear understanding of critical race theory, you risk causing more harm, especially to your students of color. I’d suggest reading So You Want to Talk About Race by Ijeoma Oluo and How to Be an Antiracist by Ibram X. Kendi. Both books offer comprehensive introduction to critical race theory while also challenging nonblack readers to reflect on their own implicit bias.
Check in with your administrators and ask for support. Administrators play the primary role in setting the tone for the school, and they have the ability to hold staff accountable to provide an equitable education to all students. Also, many public schools have funding for teachers to seek professional development on topics such as culturally responsive teaching and implicit bias.
Unfortunately, not all administrators are responsive to incorporating these principles into the overarching culture of the school. If your school’s administrators are resistant, you can still promote these values in your own classroom. I’d suggest reading the book Teaching for Black Lives to support this work. However, if you feel your administrator would be supportive with some guidance, I’d recommend asking that your staff read the book Courageous Conversations About Race. This book teaches readers how to engage in tough conversations about race in a way that makes the space safe for everyone.
Talking about race and racism should happen throughout the year, not in a single conversation relegated to Black History Month or in response to the news. Set a time—ideally at the beginning of the school year—to incorporate discussions about race into your lessons. Approach these conversations in an organized manner. Treat them as you would if you were preparing to teach an academic unit. Determine what you want your students to leave the conversation with and work backward from there. Finally, consider your age group. These conversations will look different depending on the grade you teach. Here’s some advice for elementary, middle, and high school teachers.
For Elementary School Teachers
I like to start by asking my students if they understand the meaning of words such as racism, justice, power, and protest. If they don’t, teach them. Here is a list of picture books that I use to help illustrate the meanings of these words. The first step for elementary students is building an understanding of the words and terms we use when talking about race and oppression.
Take it slow. When I have conversations about race with my students, we usually focus on one topic per lesson. For example, one day we may have a lesson about identity, where we talk about what makes us unique and similar. The next day we may discuss intersectionality and how we as people with many unique traits can change our experiences and how we see the world. Then we might turn to discrimination, discussing how and why people treat one another differently based on the way they look or what they believe. Don’t feel the need to cover all these topics in one sitting.
Connect current events to history. It’s much easier to explain current protests by comparing them to the civil rights movement. My students have been able to make connections between the marches taking place here in Seattle the past few weeks and the march from Selma to Montgomery and the March on Washington.
Engage parents in the conversation. No matter how much we talk about these issues with our students, the real work happens at home. Make sure you’re on the same page with your students’ families before diving into these conversations. If your student is getting a different message at home than at school, it could further confuse them and erode their trust with you or their parents. A simple phone call or heads-up to parents will do. It’s also important to avoid letting families “opt out” if you can. Black students can’t opt out of their lived experiences; others should not be allowed to opt out of engaging in conversation about race.
For Middle School Teachers
Middle schoolers can handle a slightly more nuanced approach to talking about race. Begin by having them engage with their own identity. A great way to do this is by having students complete an individual or class identity map, a project in which they map out all the aspects of their identity, such as their race, religion, or gender (if they choose to subscribe to one). Activities like these help students better understand themselves as well as their peers.
Ask questions about their experience. This New York Times article has great video resources and guiding questions that you could use to get your students talking about their own experiences with race and racism.
Explore solutions through collective accountability. For example, every year my students and I create a classroom contract that we all sign. It consists of three to five guiding principles that we all agree to, like being respectful of one another and treating others as we want to be treated. If a student breaks the contract, we revisit it and remind everyone of the commitment we made to one another. Imagine if every classroom had an anti-racist contract where students could hold one another accountable for their actions with the goal of forming a more accepting classroom community.
For High School Teachers
High school students should be more equipped to have conversations about race and racism, but educators need to be prepared to set clear guidelines to ensure the conversations take place in safe spaces, especially for students of color. Begin by setting group norms for these conversations. Some common norms include assuming good intent, staying engaged, and expecting to experience discomfort. Setting norms provides guardrails and eases tensions about having potentially uncomfortable conversations about the very personal topic of racism.
Stick up for your students of color. Some white students have never been pushed to consider their race in relation to others’, and this can often lead to assumptions and harm at the expense of black and brown students. Be vigilant during these conversations and address micro- and macroaggressions as they arise. I truly mean that: Stop the class and address the microaggression in that moment. Explain why it’s harmful and present alternative ways to communicate. By stopping the class, you show the importance and urgency of addressing racism or discrimination as it happens. Use these moments to teach your students how to stick up for someone who is experiencing racism.
Be unapologetic in your critique of the systems. Many of my colleagues who teach high school are wary of inserting their personal beliefs into their instruction. One of my colleagues went as far as having a debate on whether it’s more appropriate to say “Black Lives Matter” or “All Lives Matter.” Giving unbridled airspace to these ideas can be harmful to black and brown students and perpetuates racism in learning environments. If you are an educator who is committed to combating racism, you must be clear and resolute in the way you present these issues to your students.
Challenge your students’ beliefs. If a student is advocating for police reform or divestment, ask them why. It’s not enough just to say you believe in something; we have to teach students how to articulate their positions.
If your school is neglecting to have these conversations, you should bring the matter to everyone who will listen. Discuss it with the teacher, your administrators, or even your PTA. And if you witness racism in the classroom or among students, report it immediately. Acts of racism in elementary schools are commonly missed or ignored. If we want to make schools safer for students of color, we all have a role to play. Ask your administrators about the school’s equity plan and approach. How are they actively working to keep kids of color safe? If they don’t have answers, continue to ask the questions and demand they take action.
If your school community remains resistant, much of the advice given above can be implemented at home, in some cases even more effectively. I’d recommend reading through the books and resources as a family and making similar contracts and commitments as recommended for classrooms. The important thing here is to try.
Whether you’re having these conversations with a kindergartner or a high school senior, it is important to remember that this is a process, and we as school communities need to practice this regularly. You won’t do it perfectly; you will make mistakes. We are all on our own journeys of understanding how we fit into the world and the impact our race has on that position. As educators we have the opportunity to help shape the worldview of the future of leaders in this country. If we truly want to live in a world where black lives matter, we all have to start talking about race.
—Mr. Hersey (second grade teacher, Washington)
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