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Response: Teachers Can't Ignore Racism Issues and Hope They 'Will Go Away'

(This is the last post is a three-part series. You can see Part One here and Part Two here.)

The new question of the week is:

What are the biggest mistakes teachers make when approaching race and racism issues in the classroom and what should they do instead?


In Part One, guest responses come from Marian Dingle, Sydney Chaffee, Raquel Rios, Rinard Pugh and Dr. Kimberly N. Parker. You can listen to a 10-minute conversation I had with Marian on my BAM! Radio Show. You can find a list of, and links to, previous shows here.

Part Two's contributors were Dr. Tehia Glass, Dr. Erin Miller, Eddie Moore, Jr, Ali Michael, Marguerite Penick-Parks, Dr. Chezare A. Warren, Brian L. Wright, Ph.D., and Leah Wilson.

Today, this three-part series will be wrapped-up by Dr. Larry J. Walker, Dr. Jaime Castellano, Dr. Mara Lee Grayson, Ashley S. Boyd, Jennifer Orr, and Kelly Wickham Hurst.  I have also included comments from readers.

Response From Dr. Larry J. Walker

Dr. Larry J. Walker is an educator and former Capitol Hill staffer. His research examines the impact environmental factors have on the academic performance and socio-emotional functioning of individuals throughout the PreK-PhD education pipeline. Following him on Twitter @LarryJWalker2:

Race continues to be a dominant issue in the United States. Teachers and students are inundated with social media posts, television and various other platforms that highlight divisions that don't occur in isolation. The current political discourse underscores how challenging classroom conversations regarding race can become in urban, rural and suburban school districts. This is particularly true considering that public schools serve majority-minority populations. Unfortunately, public school teachers don't reflect current student demographics. Public school teachers are predominately White. According to a report from the Department of Education published in 2016 titled The State of Racial Diversity in the Educator Workforce, they comprise more than 80% of teachers nationally. The lack of diversity complicates delicate conversations regarding the Trans Atlantic Slave Trade, Reconstruction, Civil Rights Movement and other topics including community policing.

While some school districts have sought to discuss issues such as race impact suspension and expulsion rates, the lives of far too many Black students have been upended. Fortunately, conversations regarding explicit and implicit bias have forced teachers to consider how their actions impact student-teacher relationships, parent-teacher relationships and student achievement. The decisions teachers make in real time can have a lingering impact on students that are often misunderstood. So, what should teachers do to confront a topic (race) that is taboo?

First, teachers have to recognize that uncomfortable subjects - including race - cannot be ignored. Sometimes educators choose to overlook racial incidents in classrooms or school settings that increase hostilities. In an egalitarian society the rights of underserved communities have to be protected. Teachers are usually the first line of defense when it comes to bullying. Turning a blind eye to intolerance can lead to serious long-term problems for subgroups including anxiety and mental health challenges. Thus, teachers and administrators have to ensure classroom rules, student handbooks and student groups embrace diversity. Recognizing that racism is tangible is a necessary step to address a contentious issue.

Secondly, teachers shouldn't solely focus on the contributions of racial or ethnic groups during a designated week or month. For example, every February schools throughout the nation celebrate Black history month. Limiting the success of Black pioneers to one month is not acceptable. Conversations regarding prominent Blacks should be woven into school and district lesson plans from the first to last day of school. The country frequently undersells people including Ida B. Wells, Ella Baker and Carter G. Woodson among others. Considering the current student population teachers have to incorporate the lived experiences of subgroups in textbooks and other classroom materials.

Teachers shape the lives of students from various backgrounds. For this reason, they have to confront biases rooted in misconceptions and stereotypes. In addition, ignoring historical and contemporary problems hinders student development and complicates classroom relationships. Students have waited too long for a paradigm shift. The time for change is now.

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Response From Dr. Jaime Castellano

With more than 30 years as an educator advocating for the educational rights of Hispanic/Latino students, Dr. Jaime Castellano has served as a teacher of the gifted, assistant principal and principal supervising gifted education programs, district-level gifted education coordinator and director, and state department of education specialist/expert in the field. He also serves as a reviewer for the Journal of Advanced Academics (JAA), Journal for the Education of the Gifted (JEG), and Gifted Child Today (GCT):

Mistakes are bound to happen when approaching issues of race and racism in the classroom, considering that 80% of the public school teaching force identifies as White, and approximately 50% of the public school student population is not. This human resources disparity often results in teachers not approaching the subject in an intelligent, engaging, and interactive way; whereas others make the mistake of thinking they know everything and become a bit overzealous in their approach to issues of race, ethnicity, and identity.

Understanding Relational Pedagogy

Culturally competent teachers and administrators who "get it" when approaching issues of race and racism in the classroom put themselves in a position to make a difference based on their ability to use relational pedagogy. Here, that means the use of instructional processes, strategies, and activities that promote increased academic achievement and mastery of learning. It also means having a connection that empowers and encourages students to include any element of their culture, ethnicity, or language in demonstrating what they know and are able to do. When relational pedagogy is used effectively, teachers and administrators become better able to develop a positive, supportive, and responsive relationship with each student and to help each student take pride in his or her individual and cultural identity.

Empathy is Also Part of the Journey

The ability to share the feelings of another person is important, because each student comes to school with his or her own personal story. Therefore, teachers and leaders need to be attentive to (and understanding of) each learner's personal perspectives.

Step one in programming for success is to build positive, meaningful relationships with students. When students know who you are and trust that you want to know who they are, they are more willing to team up with you to achieve academic success. When it comes to approaching race and racism issues in the classroom, successful teachers and administrators need to ask questions when unsure. Victories need to be celebrated together. When these things occur, struggles can ultimately become problem-solving opportunities.

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Response From Dr. Mara Lee Grayson

Dr. Mara Lee Grayson is an Assistant Professor of English at California State University, Dominguez Hills. Her scholarship and creative work can be found in Teaching English in the Two-Year CollegeEnglish EducationEnglish JournalColumbia Journal, and Fiction, among other publications. Her book, Teaching Racial Literacy: Reflective Practices for Critical Writing, provides practical suggestions for instructors seeking to implement anti-racist curricula in the composition classroom:

When Students Talk about Racism, Teachers Should, Too

Learning about racism is a personal process as much as an analytical one, and race talk in the classroom can be emotionally challenging for students and teachers. For students of color, who may have experiential knowledge of racism, talking about race and racism might bring up painful memories or feelings of anger and frustration toward an unjust society. White students, who may have never had to address the influence of race on their lives, might struggle to see themselves as raced individuals. While difficult, emotion and self-reflection are integral to a dimensional understanding of race and racism. It is important for students to develop the skills with which to critique the systemic structures that maintain racism but it is not enough; in order to truly practice racial literacy, students need to reflect as individuals within a system of oppression.

As teachers, we must do the same.

Too often, however, teachers shy away from talking about their own positionality in the classroom. Some teachers avoid talking about themselves because they don't want to divert attention from students' own feelings and experiences; other teachers consider personal sharing inappropriate inside the classroom. Still others avoid sharing their own racialized experiences because they simply haven't done the self-reflective work necessary to understand those experiences yet.

In my experience as a racial literacy educator, I have found it is imperative that I address the way my own positionality influences my understanding of race and my experiences with racism. As a white woman, my race - like my gender - is front and center, whether or not I address my positionality aloud. There is no pretending it isn't there and if it's there, ignoring it not only contributes nothing to the curriculum, it also leaves a long

How can teachers address their own positionality and emotional learning justly and productively during discussions of race and racism?

  1. Do the racial literacy work. Instructors must reflect upon their own positionality and explore the ways in which their experiences have influenced their understanding of race and racialized issues. Ideally, instructors will begin this work before they introduce any conversation about race in the classroom - and continue to self-reflect and examine their own thoughts and feelings as the conversation continues. (For one approach to critical self-reflection, check out my previous post on the racial autobiography).

  2. Share the emotional journey. Instructors who share openly how they have come to understand the emotioned components of race and racism help to create a safe, brave space in the classroom where students come to know that emotional learning is an acceptable adjunct to critical thinking. When teachers discuss their experiences with racism, students may feel more open to sharing their own.

  3. Do the assignments with students. Anytime a teacher directs students to complete an assignment that has the potential to evoke strong emotional reactions in students, she should try out the assignment herself first. Understanding the assignment experientially as well as theoretically enables instructors to develop a more comprehensive pedagogical framing for the assignment and a more complex understanding of its outcomes for students.

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Response From Ashley S. Boyd

Ashley S. Boyd is Assistant Professor of English Education at Washington State University where she teaches courses on Young Adult Literature, Methods of Teaching English, and Critical Theories and Critical Literacies. Her book published with Teachers College Press, Social Justice Literacies in the English Classroom:  Teaching Practice in Action, analyzes case studies of practicing English teachers to identify specific pedagogic approaches for advancing equity both inside and outside of the classroom:

As a White teacher starting my career in the South, race was ever-present in the work I undertook with students, both in terms of content (the literature that we read) as well as in my pedagogies (how I interacted with students).  Today, the racial make-up of students in our classrooms continues to diversify while the teaching population remains predominantly White.  Thus, this question is of utmost import.

First, in planning to approach race in the classroom, it is crucial that we as teachers first take the time to reflect on our own racialized backgrounds and socialization.  Most of the time White teachers take those for granted, thinking in many ways that others have been raised as we have or that they possess similar cultural norms and patterns.  That just isn't always the case.  Therefore, thinking about our cultural norms, such as the language patterns we use, the holidays we celebrate, or the ways we were taught to treat adults, can give us the reflective capacities to know ourselves and to realize that others are different from us.

And, most importantly, we have to acknowledge and welcome the fact that those differences do not equal deficits--that just because a person of a race/ethnicity unlike ours may use different language patterns, celebrate different holidays, or treat others differently than we do does not mean they are somehow lacking--or, even more importantly, that they need fixing. Rather, we have to honor and value those variations and find ways in our classrooms to do so.  

Once we have done this reflective work, we must constantly be vigil to checking our own biases "in the moment" of teaching. Asking ourselves, for example:  Did I just assume that student was doing something wrong because of his race?  Did I call on everyone equally today?  Did I roll my eyes when those girls too loudly responded? at the end of each day or class period can expose our own latent scripts.  These sorts of microaggressions can be rampant in our everyday work as teachers, and we must be committed to improving ourselves if we intend to provide inclusive spaces.  There is always work to be done--we live in a society in which we have been so conditioned by whiteness that it takes consistent effort to mitigate its effects. 

A final recommendation for teachers is to be open to making mistakes and acknowledging them--and to do this in collaboration with your students.  If we can be open about issues related to race/ethnicity and make our own work and growth transparent for our students, we can serve as models for them. Furthermore, students will be more likely to share their diverse experiences in an open environment where they know they will be respected, where their teacher openly discusses race, and all can grow from learning from one another.  Embracing that race is a factor in our society aloud, and welcoming a discussion of it precludes its continued existence as a taboo topic or one that is only discussed negatively.  Ignoring race perpetuates notions of colorblindness and privilege that only serve to uphold oppression rather than dismantle it.  Reflection and action then, every day, even in small moments, are vital for change.  

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Response From Jennifer Orr

Jennifer Orr has been an elementary school classroom teacher for twenty years in Title I schools in northern Virginia:

The most significant mistake that teachers make around race and racism issues in the classroom is ignoring the problem and hoping it will go away. Facing such issues can be exceptionally difficult and it is far easier to pretend it isn't happening and hope that it stops on its own.

Another common mistake is to address the problem without actually addressing it. Teachers often address the bullying that is happening without actually addressing the racism. They are looking at the symptoms of the problem but ignoring the disease.

Lastly, because this issue can be so difficult to face and teachers can be so uncertain as to how best to face it, they might choose to simply try to shut it down. Make it clear that such behavior is unacceptable at school and punish students who cross the line. This will appear to solve the problem but is another way of looking at the symptoms and ignoring the disease.

One way to address racism in the classroom is to be proactive. Do not wait until there are problems among your students or racist statements are being made. Provide students with ways to explore the issue before problems occur.

This can be done in a couple of different ways. One of my favorite ways of dealing with challenging issues is through literature. We are teaching in an era in which children's and young adult literature is phenomenal. The choices available to teachers are wide ranging. The summer reading lists at this site are a great place to start if you need titles and ideas.

Another possibility is to engage in class discussions. No matter what you teach, listening, speaking, and forming ideas will be a part of your curriculum. These conversations can be justified in any classroom. And should be. Literature is a wonderful way to get started with these conversations. Read a picture book (no matter what grade you teach - picture books are astounding literature that can be read in a short time and lead to powerful discussions) and then talk about it. Working through ideas and challenges based on a fictional account can sometimes be much easier for students than doing so around something happening in their lives. Using literature allows them to remove themselves somewhat from the discussion and, therefore, to feel more comfortable tackling a challenging issue.

That said, discussions around issues of race or racism in your classroom, school, or community are definitely also worth having. They can be more difficult as they are more personal for students. Setting some ground rules around respectful conversation will be critical. As the teacher you will also need to be listening carefully to words and tone as well as watching body language and facial expressions to ensure that students feel safe. If a student does not feel safe the conversation needs to stop. Difficult conversations are more likely to go well if conversations around less intense and emotional topics have happened in that space before. The stronger the community of learners and the more students are willing to take risks together, the more likely they will be able to have an open and meaningful conversation without alienating or harming anyone. Students' safety, in all ways, is critical.

Racism is a significant challenge in our schools and in our society. It is not something educators can ignore. We must, all of us, find ways to help children work through their understanding and grow as people. Just as we do in so many other areas.

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Response From Kelly Wickham Hurst

Bio: Kelly Wickham Hurst is a 23-year educator, classroom teacher, and administrator who founded Being Black at School in 2016. BBAS is an advocacy organization that uses frameworks and data to assist schools in being more equitable. She's a mom of 6 and grandmother of 2 and lives with her husband in Springfield, Illinois:

The biggest mistake teachers make is saying they are "color blind." That's not at all true and we've been sold a lie that it is. The hubris of teachers saying it means they're missing all the students of color who have lived experiences that this country built as a foundation. It's in the way we set up government and the first people who got to vote (white men of "good moral character") which left out a whole swath of people and has only been a fight for equity ever since. Too often teachers outright ignore racism or fail to address their own bias which contributes to it. They should investigate their bias, read some Paolo Friere, and our PD should revolve around getting the 83% of white teachers to fully caught up as to the harm they continue to inflict. It should be what our restorative justice rests upon.

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Responses From Readers

Thanks to Dr. Castellano, Dr. Walker, Dr. Grayson, Ashley, Jennifer, and Kelly, and to readers, for their contributions.

Please feel free to leave a comment with your reactions to the topic or directly to anything that has been said in this post.

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You can also contact me on Twitter at @Larryferlazzo.

Education Week has published a collection of posts from this blog, along with new material, in an e-book form. It's titled Classroom Management Q&As: Expert Strategies for Teaching.

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