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Four Ways Schools Can Support Teachers to Become 'Actively Anti-Racist'

(This is Part Seven in a multipart series on this topic. You can see Part One here, Part Two here, Part Three here, Part Four here, Part Five here,  and Part Six here.)

The question is:

What should teachers learn from the killing of George Floyd?

In Part One, Antoine Germany and Lorie Barber shared their thoughts. 

In Part Two,  Dr. Tracey A. Benson and Holly Spinelli contributed their commentaries.

In Part Three, Joe Truss and Janice Wyatt-Ross made their recommendations.

In Part Four, Jeffrey Garrett, Keisha Rembert, and Erika Niles wrote their responses.

In Part Five, Denise Fawcett Facey and Adeyemi Stembridge, Ph.D., offered their voices to the conversation.

In Part Six, Terri N. Watson, Oman Frame, and Martha Caldwell answered the question.

Today, Shannon R. Waite, Ed.D., Dr. Sheila Wilson, and Kimberly Nurse share their reactions.

Part Two discussed what educators should—and should not—do in response to Mr. Floyd's death.  In today's post, Shannon R. Waite, Ed.D., discusses what schools as institutions should—and should not—do.

The final post in this series will appear tomorrow. 

You might also be interested in numerous past posts appearing here on race and racism in schools and how to combat it: Race & Gender Challenges

"Your discomfort is killing us"

Shannon R. Waite, Ed.D., is a clinical assistant professor of educational leadership at Fordham University. Prior to coming to Fordham, Dr. Waite worked in various positions in the N.Y.C. Department of Education (NYCDOE). Dr. Waite has served as both a co-PI (principal investigator) and PI on the N.Y.C. Men Teach Research Team and is currently a co-PI on the R.A.C.E Professional Learning Community for faculty in the GSE at Fordham University. In March of 2018, Dr. Waite was appointed to the Panel for Educational Policy as a mayoral appointee. In her role as a member of that panel, Dr. Waite uses her voice to increase the levels of both transparency and accountability that students and their families deserve in the educational decisionmaking process:

The tragic and untimely death of George Floyd has rocked the nation to its core. It has set off a revolution that we haven't seen since the civil rights movement. The world mourns the death of Mr. Floyd and the countless murders of other Black men, women, and children before him. The physical, economic, and social impact of COVID-19, particularly in low-income and immigrant communities and communities of color, literally, fuels the fires we are witnessing. Teachers around the country and the world must lean into this moment and commit to doing the work of interrogating their own internal racism, bias, and prejudice. These ideologies are the result of the ahistorical, uncritical, racist education they received, weaponize, and perpetuate on the communities they purport to serve.

The educational system in this county is inherently racist. White-settler colonialism is the fundamentally racist, classist, and hegemonic framework of education in the U.S. This ideology gave birth to the anti-Black narrative that is baked into the foundation of the nation. What teachers should learn from the death of George Floyd is that all educators are complicit in sustaining the system responsible for his death. If you as a teacher have not committed to doing the work of understanding your internal racism, implicit bias, and prejudice, you are complicit in the deaths of Black people, and people of color broadly, across the nation. If you are not committed to the work of being actively anti-racist, you are complicit in validating the physical and spiritual murders of Black men, women, and children daily. If you espouse the ideology of colorblindness and champion the myth of meritocracy, you are complicit in the vilification and denigration of Black people in this country.

This tragedy is a teachable moment. Institutional racism and anti-Blackness are responsible for the death of Mr. Floyd, and every teacher who chooses to remain willfully or dysconsciously racist has blood on their hands. Mr. Floyd's humanity was demonized in the eyes of ex-Minneapolis police officer Chauvin; however, all of the ex-police officers vilified Mr. Floyd. In the moments preceding his inhumane death, Mr. Floyd's life was deemed less valuable. Those seeds may have been planted in the homes those ex-officers were raised in; however, the racism and anti-Blackness that depreciated his worth was nurtured inside of their schools. Devaluing Black lives is modeled in schools daily by well-intentioned, progressive, tolerance teaching, dysconscious, and overtly racist teachers, alike. At the heart of the issue lies a true paradox; 2020 marks the end of the period in which White and colonized people of color can opt to be neutral or center their discomfort. Black lives matter or they don't: There is no middle ground. You are either choosing to do the work of becoming actively anti-racist and confronting the inherent anti-Blackness in education or you are choosing to sustain it.

This moment is a call to action for communities across this nation, and who best to lead this charge than schools? Schools can create the conditions to support teachers in becoming actively anti-racist by:

1. Seeking out and uplifting the voices of the Black students and families in their school communities.

2. Partnering with those students to examine and problematize discriminatory systems, practices, and policies in schools.

3. Analyzing, revising, and abolishing practices and relationships that do not serve Black communities.

4. Creating space and providing the resources necessary for teachers to do the internal work of becoming critically consciousness, reflective practitioners equipped to shift mindsets.

Schools should also be mindful that this is not the moment for:

1.Making empty commitments that bode well optically and do not alter the policies and systems that sustain the oppression of Black children in schools.

2. Investing in neatly packaged character-building curriculum or one-off inspirational talks with experts; neither will address the racism Black students experience in schools.

3. Regurgitating the "All lives matter" counter narrative. The inherent anti-Blackness in the U.S. requires that Black people advocate for our humanity and our inalienable right to live.

4. This is also not the time to look toward people of color to lead the work of dismantling a system we did not build. White teachers and leaders must step up and talk to other White teachers and leaders about committing to the work of educating themselves and taking steps to become actively anti-racist and confront anti-Blackness in schools.

Now is the time to dismantle the master's house and create different tools to rebuild it. It is time for teachers to do the brave work of embracing their internal discomfort to make space for the critical consciousness required to shift the pervasive racist and anti-Black culture within our schools. 

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"We must tackle the issues that the world presents"

Dr. Sheila Wilson is an educator with over 30 passion-filled years of teaching elementary, secondary, and postsecondary education.  She is an avid presenter and believer in lifelong learning.  Dr. Wilson works to build the capacity of educators and parents in the institutions where she serves and through her consulting company, AmplifyED:

The demonstrations for equality that have reverberated out across the world in relation to George Floyd's horrific public killing has me as an African American educator reeling. While consumed with anger and disbelief, part of me wonders how we got here as a nation. However, it is the other more rational part of me that understands the history of white privilege, the embedded systematic racism, and the current promotion of violence from the highest level of the government. As this grave injustice is playing out on the global stage, it most definitely has implications that will impact the conversations teachers will inevitably have to field with students.

As teachers, we must learn that our responsibility is greater than ever, as there is a fundamental disconnect in what students are being taught and what's being modeled for them in this country. How can we talk to students about being respectful and making good ethical decisions when they see leaders and those who are meant to protect and serve doing the complete opposite? Where is the evidence of humanity?  In these increasingly heinous scenarios, is justice ever served? More times than I can count, perpetrators (typically white) are able to use scripted rationales (I feared for my life, he resisted, stand your ground) to escape the consequences of their actions. Let's not forget the blatant attempt to discredit the victim in some way as a means to validate their death. This narrative is predictable, infuriating, and exhausting. Is this the best we can do as the self-proclaimed "land of the free"? That phrase bears the question, who is really free?

With certainty, as educators we must tackle the issues that the world presents. In considering Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs, it must be noted that the social-emotional needs of students of color will look very different tfrom those of their white counterparts. Having constant access to news via social media, can a black child really feel safe in this world when they are able to view the callous killing of someone that looks like them? What we are currently experiencing, on top of the COVID-19 pandemic, is truly too much for an adult to bear. I weep for students who have to grapple with understanding the racially unjust world that they are growing into.

In the words of American writer Audre Lorde, survival is not an academic skill. The simple fact is, educators cannot prepare children for the world without addressing what's happening in the world. I believe it is prudent that teachers equip students with the knowledge they need to succeed and thrive. That might look like helping white staff members realize their white privilege and how it can impact their interactions with students of color. This would better position them to more equitably meet the needs of diverse student groups. Teachers should advocate for a curriculum that promotes an accurate account of historical events rather than the "whitewashed" version that perpetuates superiority of one race. Further, as teachers, we must prepare our students of color academically as well as teaching them resilience to overcome inevitable social obstacles. For an African American child who does not have the benefit of white privilege, educators must be intentional about fostering within them an internal belief in their greatness because the world will not celebrate them.

If we truly mean to serve in the best interests of all students, teachers should seek out more development outside of curriculum mastery and teaching strategies. It is only when teachers see their students (that includes color) and all the challenges they face, then they can truly address their needs. Teachers are masters at using data to determine an academic focus in order to meet students where they are and to support their growth. Similarly, teachers must look at the world around them, use the data (unjustified killings of black people), and understand the unfair road ahead for students of color.

There is much work to do if we are to grow as a nation. And since racism is deeply rooted in every institution, it should come as no shock that changes are long overdue in our schools. Teachers are on the front lines as they directly engage with students. Black teachers have shouldered the burden of advocating for African American students with regard to academics and behavior for far too long. We, black teachers, know the struggle of racism in America because we've lived it. Now is the time for all teachers to be open to much-needed changes related to the injustice and inequity of racism. The first step is acknowledging that there is a clear advantage for white people in this country.  With this singular admission, we can begin the much needed work, and for us, it begins in America's classrooms.

*the terms African American, black, and people of color are used interchangeably

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White teachers and black teachers will learn different things from Mr. Floyd's death

Kimberly Nurse is an enthusiastic educator that believes in the power of potential.  With over 16 years of experience as a special education teacher, she has taught in the elementary, middle, and high school setting where she remains active today.  She has collaborated on and organized several key initiatives showcasing the leadership of young African American males and females within the community.  She is driven by the need to serve others and continues to do so through her nonprofit organization, It Takes a Vision:

Unfortunately, this question should be twofold—meaning what white teachers should learn from the killing of George Floyd and what black teachers should continue to do after the death of George Floyd.  Let's explore the difference. 

White teachers have lived under the cloak of white privilege for so long that it has not affected them nor the way they deliver instruction to students.  Whitewashed history has paved the way for a society that tends to turn a blind eye to inequality as well as inequity.  There has never been a reason to change the narrative and tell what others would call quite simply the truth.  America is fractured and has been for centuries.  The repairs required for necessary healing have been ignored because ignorance is bliss.  Students have been subjected to a history that showcases the superiority of whites and the inferiority of blacks.  As a result of this despicable slaying recorded yet again for the world to see, white teachers are finally feeling the pressure of millennial activists that seek to promote change.  White teachers will finally have to take a stand.  As educators, they will have to embrace the role they play in the lives of young people who are eagerly awaiting their response.  White teachers will be faced with difficult questions that will simply not go away, and their responses will be pivotal.  White teachers will have to learn how to deal accordingly with minority students after this latest killing of George Floyd.

Black teachers, on the other hand, welcome change. They have lived the injustice placed upon an individual based on the color of their skin and seek truth for all students. The killing of George Floyd is nothing new for black teachers.  Despite the continuous murder of numerous black men, women, and children proudly displayed by the media, they have had to continue to subtly ignore their own history and teach the version that prepares students to turn a blind eye.  Black teachers have been caught in a conundrum of existing trauma all the while making sure that the emotional needs of their students are met.  These educators will continue to forge against the ever-present achievement gap, inequitable resources provided for black students, and the lack of diversity and cultural competence in the teaching workforce.  Sadly, racism and discrimination are the way of life for black teachers and black students.  Research shows that black boys are three times more likely to be suspended than white boys, and black girls are four times more likely to be suspended than white girls.  Students thus believe institutional racism to be the way of life.  Black teachers have taken the reins in order to shift this way of thinking and promote a positive culture that has more to offer than what society suggests it should. 

So when asked what should teachers learn from the killing of George Floyd, we must remember that we are not all in this together...at least not yet. 

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Thanks to Shannon, Sheila, and Kimberly for their contributions!

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