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Educators Shouldn't Avoid the Tough Conversations

Several months ago, I was conducting research in a middle school with mostly Black and Brown students when, amidst the project, I learned of an armed robbery that had been committed by three high school students fewer than three miles from this middle school. One of the robbers had gone to this middle school herself. The incident made national news because the store clerk died from the gunshot wound. About a week after the robbery incident, I returned to the middle school eager to learn about how the teachers responded to the situation and how students dealt with all the media attention and community discourse concerning the robbery.


H. Richard Milner

While students talked extensively about the robbery, the robbers, and the victims among themselves, teachers did not lead lessons or otherwise general conversations or engage with the students about what happened inside or outside of the classroom. They vigorously avoided the topic. Teachers at this middle school moved forward  as if the robbery had not even taken place and, perhaps most importantly, as if the students were not affected by it.

I have observed similar practices in which teachers refused to engage in conversations about race and other tough issues. This has been particularly true when it comes to White police officers shooting unarmed Black youths or adults, as well as the brutal shooting of nine parishioners in a church in Charleston, S.C. A persistent response from educators is that they are expected to—and accordingly teach—a real curriculum. Educator comments that I have heard include: "The robbery [and these incidents] do not have anything to do with student learning." "Why would we glorify violence?" "Focusing on the robbery [and these violent acts] might encourage students to do the same thing." "Parents probably wouldn't appreciate a lesson about something so pathetic." "Why would we focus on [these issues] when they do not have anything to do with raising our students' test scores?"

Other educators are concerned that they are grossly underprepared to address the traumatic and social-emotional needs of their students: "Students sometimes feel sad when these events of violence take place." "I'm not trained as a counselor, a social worker, or a psychologist." "I am trained and paid to teach a real curriculum, not to lead a therapy session."

However, what educators must understand is that a "real" curriculum for many Black and Brown students is a society that allows unarmed Black people to be shot, killed, and treated in powerfully inhumane ways. Moreover, educators must understand that even when they are teaching a "real" curriculum, that has been predetermined to be "essential" by those in power, some students are not learning it because they are grappling with the realities of trauma, racism, and other forms of discrimination. In this way, society offers a real curriculum that must be taught if we have a fighting chance at helping all students deal with and counter the effects of racism and the various manifestations of hate. Many Black and Brown students see themselves reflected in racist acts, and such reflections manifest in their social, behavioral, emotional, academic, and psychological well-being. Thus, the "real" curriculum must be reimagined during these challenging times.   

H. Richard Milner IV is the Helen Faison professor of urban education at the University of Pittsburgh, as well as the director of the Center for Urban Education in the university's school of education. He is the author several books, including Rac(e)ing to Class: Confronting Poverty and Race in Schools and Classrooms (Harvard Education Press, 2015). He can be reached at [email protected]. Follow him on Twitter @MilnerHRich.

Editor's Note: Read what each contributor had to say about the responsibility of educators to challenge racial injustice

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