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Learn About Institutional Racism So We Don't Fail Our Students

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Guest post by Jill Berkowicz

Preparing students for their futures demands understanding people of all colors, races, and socioeconomic levels.  

No matter if you are working in an all-white community, a wealthy community, or an integrated community of all socioeconomic levels, or a community in poverty, we are missing the mark on this one.  

Institutional racism exists, and as institutions, we have a responsibility to learn and teach, model and advocate.

First, we must recognize that most all educators, teachers and leaders, and the staffs we work with are sorely undereducated about the effects of institutional racism and their roles in perpetuating it.

Academic Success

While there continues to be an excess of wonderful, experienced folks who have devoted their lives to sharing what they have learned and what they believe, professional development, no matter how often or infrequent, has limited or even excluded lessons in race and the societal and/or institutional role in limiting the success of our black children.

What we have focused on are our methods of teaching and learning, SEL, curriculum, technology use, grading, curricular integration, STEM, STEAM, etc., etc. The changes made in these areas have been the work of teachers and their leaders. And I find two things to be true. One, to say that student success hasn't changed is wrong.  

While teachers were being trained, observed, and evaluated on this plethora of new ideas, the community of children entering their classrooms has been changing. Schools have welcomed a much broader spectrum of students requiring much of their teachers. Teachers learned and changed, and the results held. That is not schools' failing. That is schools' succeeding in academic measures, overall.

Failing Our Black Students

Yet all the professional development offered, in wealthy communities and poor, in mostly white communities and in communities that are a majority black, few have focused on institutional racism. Why is that important? No matter shifting to STEM or STEAM, a new schedule or integrated subjects, technology integration or grading or not, understanding who we are teaching and knowing the life they live and are heading into is critical.

 We say "all children ..." in our mission and vision statements. Those words we give lip service to, regarding the success we prepare them for, are empty if all of us don't learn more about race.

Begin by Learning

How you go about this is an individual decision. I am certain many will think, "Who has time?" or "I'm not a racist so what is there for me to learn?"  I suggest we take a cue from the times we live in. It isn't always about a speaker or a facilitator, or a mentor or that much time.

But we do need to prioritize our attention and value the time it will take to continue to learn and understand and act. Learning can begin from watching documentaries, together or at home alone. This can be an effective beginning only as long as the follow-up is a continuing conversation, attended by everyone who works in the school and facilitated by any one of you.  

How this unfolds will be individual. Some will struggle with understanding. We are still missing the mark on this issue, and I hope you take encouragement to begin by watching just two videos (13th and The Naked Truth: Death by Delivery)... "13th"  is pretty clear about the path our young black men (and women and their families) may take ... from our buildings into the prison system.

Don't think it applies to you? Please watch it. "Death by Delivery" is a view into the reality that our young black women face. They die in childbirth more than their white counterparts. Why shouldn't we understand the world our students live in and may find themselves in their futures?

Watch these two documentaries and look at your students. I'm certain you will feel changed. And be sure to advocate an ongoing conversation about how you can change the institutions you work in. Educators and the institutions we work in can make a difference. This is a change that we have to prioritize. We can no longer ignore our roles in institutional and individual racism. Begin by opening your hearts and minds, learn and lead change. 

Full disclosure: I have retired. A gift is in being able to stand back and see the bigger picture. Those to whom I remain connected through mentoring keep me in the knowledge of the current state of education. When I was a middle school principal, I had a student of color who had a particularly bright mind.   She has gone on to be a very successful woman, and I am blessed that we remain in touch. I once asked her if she ever felt bias from me. Her response was to tell me, "No. But I did from the system you worked in." Her words linger. How much did I not know about the black children in my care? And how little did I do to learn and educate myself and my colleagues and change the way black children were treated? It is her words that propelled me to write this piece. She knows who she is, ... and I thank her.


Jill Berkowicz worked in education for more than 30 years. She was an elementary general education teacher and went on to teach middle school students with special needs. She was a middle school assistant principal, principal, and ended her public school career as director of curriculum and instruction including overseeing technology integration. She taught graduate courses at SUNY New Paltz to aspiring school leaders. Now retired, Jill privately coaches educators and enjoys helping develop and support leaders in their continuing work to lead change. She also wrote The STEM Shift: A Guide for School Leaders AND wrote Leadership 360, a blog for EdWeek for five years, both with Ann Myers. 

picture made using pablo.com

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