September 16, 2020 | Kian Northcote
The struggle for racial justice has captured much of the world’s attention this year following the deaths of George Floyd, Breona Taylor, and Ahmaud Arbery in the U.S.
It’s forced us all to ask challenging questions of both ourselves and others.
It’s caused many of us to reconsider our ancestors’ legacy and ponder how best to move forward and create a kinder, more tolerant society.
Nowhere is the debate on racial equity more critical than in the classroom. That’s where we can have real and inclusive conversations about racism.
Inevitably, as some K-12 schools return to face-to-face learning, questions about Black Lives Matter (BLM) and police brutality will feature prominently with both students and teachers.
Let’s consider how educators of all races and backgrounds can tackle these issues and help prevent racism in a school environment.
- How can I get better informed about racism?
- What are some strategies for creating inclusive classrooms?
- The importance of culturally responsive teaching.
- How can I talk about racism with my students?
- How can I lead by example and set high standards?
How can I get better informed about racism?
When we consider our relationship with core social issues and how we can become more informed, our first instinct is to seek out tools and resources that will give us greater insight. But there’s more to it.
If you want to combat discrimination, it’s essential to look inward first and address your own implicit bias.
Implicit bias refers to how we unconsciously stereotype certain people or adopt a specific attitude towards them that is harmful.
Let’s face it. Bias exists within all of us although it’s often unintentional. But, for students of color, the consequences can be devastating.
If you feel empowered to take an anti-racist approach to your classes, you should begin by acknowledging your own biases and develop strategies to overcome them.
One way to do this is to analyze your behavior in the classroom:
- Are there individual students you spend more time with?
If so, is it because they reflect who you are and your cultural values?
- Are you allowing everyone to contribute in class?
- Who do you correct most and why is this?
- Are you influenced by another teacher’s impressions of a student?
Here’s a detailed guide on recognizing implicit bias and several useful resources to help retrain your brain.
After you’ve begun to identify and address your own biases, it might be a good idea to invest in a professional development course that will enhance your skills.
A good example is The Safe and Healthy Schools’ Certification Program from the John Hopkins Center for Safe and Healthy Schools.
This course is comprehensive and focuses on equipping both schools and teachers with the knowledge to develop safe and healthy learning environments with a holistic approach that includes tackling racism.
Educators can also benefit from an evidence-based approach that contains lessons that touch on self-reflection and implementing restorative practices, which are critical to understanding and addressing implicit bias.
What are some strategies for creating inclusive classrooms?
As we adapt to COVID-19 and the “new normal,” the need to develop safe schools is more pertinent than ever.
Creating inclusive classrooms should be central to this because students who feel secure and cared for will adjust quickly to new school policies.
But when we prioritize inclusivity, it can also be a crucial strategy for preventing racism.
A great way to foster a sense of belonging in your classroom is to create a diverse, multicultural environment.
This is vital if you’re working with younger students who are naturally curious about their own identity and their classmates too.
Try out these suggestions for diversifying your classroom:
- Include visual aids like posters, wall charts, and pictures of people representing different cultures and genders.
- Develop a collection of books that not only feature people of color but were written by them too.
- If a student wants to talk about race or racism, have that conversation. Do not sidestep the issue because that suggests race is a topic that should be avoided.
This resource bank is dedicated to helping elementary school teachers build more inclusive classrooms.
Putting the time and energy into developing safe spaces for all your students can be draining, especially if you’re a teacher of color who might also feel pressured to take a leading role in promoting anti-racism across your entire school.
It’s important to develop self-care strategies so that you can manage the expectations of your students and sometimes your colleagues too.
Another unfortunate consequence of the global pandemic has been an increase in discrimination that many Asian students face due to the virus’s origins.
The video below from the John Hopkins School of Education details different ways teachers can support their Asian students, including having inclusive conversations that reinforce the fact that COVID-19 is not the fault of Asian people.
We have more helpful videos around building safe schools within our resources section.
The importance of culturally responsive teaching.
Anti-racist teachers understand the importance of culturally responsive teaching (CRT).
They’re able to create curriculums that acknowledge race and ethnicity in an explorative way that supplants traditional approaches that may be outdated and insensitive to the effects of historical trauma on black students, especially.
CRT focuses on keeping students of color engaged and included by incorporating a range of relevant classroom materials.
But why is CRT so vital?
Well, let’s take a look at two pivotal moments in American history: the civil rights movement and slavery.
Earlier this year, a report by CBS News highlighted how both topics suffer from a lack of consistency and accuracy across K-12 schools. No mandate exists to ensure different states are on the same page when it comes to teaching them.
The same report concludes that some states do not directly teach slavery or the civil rights movement.
With such little thought put into emphasizing black history, it leaves educators with little choice but to avoid mainstream textbooks that may be inaccurate or biased.
Fortunately, CRT can be liberating for both teachers and students. Here’s a couple of reasons why:
- It encourages teachers to think outside the box and seek out more authentic material. Both the Zinn Education Project and Rethinking Schools have a wealth of impactful, engaging ideas on teaching about racism.
- Students are empowered to learn about one another. Culturally responsive teachers can encourage their class to research, share, and present information on their cultural backgrounds and their peers, which is excellent for building trust in the classroom.
Adopting a culturally responsive mindset is the first step in becoming a culturally responsive teacher.
“When we prioritize inclusivity, it can also be a crucial strategy for preventing racism”
How can I talk about racism with my students?
Racism, be it systemic or overt, is often sustained through silence.
Some white teachers feel uncomfortable discussing racism with their students because they feel ill-equipped to do so or fear accidentally offending someone and being outed as racist.
This is a mistake.
Yes, tackling this subject can be uncomfortable, but that doesn’t justify practicing avoidance.
As the past few months have shown, the consequences of not talking about racism and not being prepared to have challenging conversations are all too real.
If you’re planning to engage with your students about racism for the first time, here are a few suggestions from two teachers of color on how you can do that:
- Treat race as a multi-faceted subject: embrace the positive aspects of black American culture and history, as well as discussing the negative things the country has done to black people.
- Be open and honest: It’s okay to admit that you’re exploring how best to talk about race for the first time. Your students will respect your honesty and appreciate the effort you’re putting in.
- Use your platform to show that you care for your students of color. Give them a voice, tell them that their opinions count, but don’t rely on them to frame the debate as that lends itself to tokenism.
- Spend time reading and learning about racism so that you’re better equipped to take an anti-racist approach to your lessons.
Download this detailed guide for tips on how you can structure conversations around race in your classroom.
The most important thing to remember is that you shouldn’t be afraid to talk about it in school. Like most things connected to teaching, your self-confidence will grow as you gain more experience.
How can I lead by example and set high standards?
An important part of teaching about racism is leading by example.
Through your actions, you can set high standards by emphasizing how important it is to hold yourself accountable for your choices.
This makes perfect sense: personal accountability is about learning valuable life-skills and taking ownership of our decisions.
For example: If a student is deliberately racist at school, there should, of course, be repercussions.
But the problem with accountability is that it often lends itself to a zero-tolerance approach that is flawed.
It’s not hard to see how this can happen.
Race discrimination is arguably the most enduring moral and political issue of our time.
Still, the desire to do the right thing by taking a clear stand against discrimination can sometimes trigger a heavy-handed approach that favors punishment over repairing harm.
But what does this achieve? How can it change attitudes?
Many teachers now advocate for a restorative justice approach to discipline that looks to resolve a conflict by encouraging communication between persons harmed and persons responsible for harm.
It enables teachers and schools to take the initiative by creating safe spaces where students can look to resolve their grievances through meaningful dialogue.
Restorative justice circles are just one example of a concept that encourages teachers to be innovative by empowering students to take responsibility for their actions in a progressive way.
If we accept that racism often stems from ignorance and an unwillingness to see the world as others do, then justice circles can help solve this because they prioritize collaboration. They allow us to see things from someone else’s perspective.
Rann Miller at blackyouthproject.com talks in more detail about the transformative power of restorative justice, and why it’s a necessary tool for countering discrimination.
Education can create change.
The 1964 Civil Rights Act pledged equal access to education for all Americans. Yet more than half a century later, we still see countless people fighting to end systemic racism.
Every human should have the right to teach and study in schools that are free from discrimination.
Teachers like you can play a vital role in enacting this change.
You can internalize and impart new knowledge, you can access unbiased and inspiring resources, and you have the platform to bridge divides and promote anti-racism in the classroom.