It's Time to Make It Clear Where You Stand on Race and Equity in Schools
This post is part of a six-week series based on new NNSTOY videos called "Courageous Conversations About Race in Schools."
By David Bosso
As a White man I can recall only a few times in my life when I have been viscerally aware of the color of my skin. The first was when I visited the Bahamas with my college roommate, who had grown up there. I was uncomfortably self-conscious. Still, this was the first time it occurred to me that being perceived and treated differently along racial lines is what my roommate and friend experienced every day. Years later, I traveled to Ghana and heard little kids calling out, "Obruni! Obruni!" when they saw me. The term is the Twi word for "foreigner," and usually is translated colloquially as "White person." Although I had read that the expression is not meant derogatorily, I could not shake the feeling of being acutely cognizant of my identity. Such incidents made it starkly evident to me that I have an extremely limited understanding of the lived experiences of people of color. I never have had to deal with prejudice and discrimination in all its insidious forms. I never have been confronted with racially-charged aggressions. I have lived my life and I have spent my teaching career under a blanket of privilege.
I am used to "White spaces." I teach in the same high school I attended as a student, and I live in the same insular, predominantly White, town where I grew up. As a student, I had exactly one teacher of color until college. The faculty and staff in my school district are overwhelmingly White, and at every educational event I attend, there is a noticeable lack of educators of color. 2016 Washington Teacher of the Year, Nathan Bowling, in his recent piece, rightly affirms that "[s]tudents of color need to see more people of color in positions of expertise and authority."
White students need to see more educators of color in our classrooms and schools as well. If I had teachers of color as a student, and if, during my teacher training, issues of race and privilege were explicitly addressed, perhaps I would have been more mindful of how identity as a White teacher has shaped my perceptions. I would have read Jonathan Kozol's Savage Inequalities and Ralph Ellison's Invisible Man less as social discourses that seemed distant and inconceivable and more as reflections of reality. I would not have been so taken aback the first time a student addressed me as "Mister" without my surname, as I had learned to expect. I would have been more unequivocal in explaining why "All Lives Matter" is a perfunctory, misguided rebuttal to "Black Lives Matter." I would have been more aware of how the hidden curriculum of our educational system inherently favors some students and marginalizes others, and I would have been more aggressive in questioning such institutional practices.
As a social studies teacher, I have always prided myself on cultivating a sense of open-mindedness, acceptance, compassion, and respect for others. I want all of my students to feel welcome and supported, and I want them to learn to ask deeper questions, understand and care about global events, and feel inspired to tackle significant social challenges.
Despite these ideals, I used to think that it was my responsibility as a teacher to remain impartial and to allow students to arrive at conclusions through their own acts of critical thinking and discovery. Last year, though, in the midst of our ongoing political and cultural tensions, I felt I needed to be more forthright. I wrote the following statement, printed it, and posted it on the door to my classroom:
American ideals are valued and practiced in this classroom. Regardless of your national origin, religious beliefs, racial identity, ethnicity, gender, sexual orientation, citizenship status, socioeconomic background, ability, or any other characteristic, you are welcome, safe, supported, respected, supported, and have a voice here.
Perhaps because of the tenor of our times, the sign received quite a response on social media, from colleagues, and from students. As determined and proud as I am to stand by these principles and to ensure that such beliefs are embraced and carried out in my classroom and school community, I am also dismayed to feel the need to proclaim them. Still, to simply display these words means very little if they are not supported by action: initiating discussions with students and colleagues, calling out bigotry, advocating for fair policies, and taking a stand against injustices.
I can see now that my experiences as a student and as a prospective teacher essentially prepared me to teach students who look like me. This is true for many White teachers. As professionals and moral beings, we cannot claim to carry out the ideals of education in a democratic society if teachers and schools do not provide for the academic, emotional, and social needs for all students, including students of color. The only way that we can begin to disrupt the institutional structures that prevent all students from reaching their full potential is by challenging the very norms, values, and expectations that perpetuate a cycle of disillusionment and disenfranchisement.
Among the most important first steps that White teachers can take to upend the status quo is to "acknowledge the difference that difference makes," as 2012 Maryland Teacher of the Year, Josh Parker, suggests in a recent video. Parker means that, among other measures, White teachers must recognize and confront their own views and biases. Although unnerving, it is necessary if we want to move from rhetoric to action. NNSTOY's Courageous Conversations About Race in Schools provides an introspective starting point for those seeking to spark dialogue and further thinking about the role of race in our schools.
In one of the Courageous Conversations videos, Ken Patterson, a teacher in Baltimore County Public Schools, asserts that we cannot begin talking about equity if we do not have a strongly held belief that all students can achieve. As teacher and activist José Luis Vilson states, "We have to respect the idea that we are all fully human and all fully capable."
Now is a good time to take stock of where our biases may exist. This is difficult for some of us because we have yet to realize the ways by which our experiences influence our thoughts and actions. As teachers, we must believe in the promise and potential of all of our students. As a White teacher, I am doing all of my students a disservice if I am not making efforts to examine, criticize, and transform the attitudes, policies, practices, and expectations from which I, and those like me, have benefited. Neutrality and objectivity are no longer options. Our students cannot afford for their teachers, especially White teachers, to remain quiet about such pressing issues of race and equity in our schools.
David Bosso is the 2012 Connecticut Teacher of the Year and a member of the National Network of State Teachers of the Year (NNSTOY). He teaches social studies at Berlin High School in Berlin, Conn.