I have always known my place as a white educator – and that place is one of constant growth, reflection, and education. When I was in my teacher prep program, I knew I wanted to teach in a high needs school. Admittedly, I was scared to pursue it immediately even if I knew it was ultimately where I belonged. I was scared to fail as a new teacher, suffer burn out, be insanely stressed, and I was unsure if I would handle my classroom management appropriately. I taught my first year in a suburban and the experience not only helped me develop confidence, but it made me want to be in a high needs school even more. However, I have always known as a white educator from an extremely privileged background, that I cannot just show up to the high needs school and become the new Erin Gruwell. I spent countless hours of my free time during teacher preparation and my first-year teaching preparing myself to be an effective educator to all students – including students of diverse backgrounds. In light of the demonstrations and conversations that are happening in our country right now, I think it is important that all educators understand their role in supporting students of color.
In schools, we demand compliance: sit there, stay in your seat, be silent, walk perfectly in the hallway, don’t talk back, respect authority. Click To Tweet
Our education system is often unfriendly and unwelcoming to students of color. In schools, we demand compliance: sit there, stay in your seat, be silent, walk perfectly in the hallway, don’t talk back, respect authority. These acts of compliance are often rooted in white American traditions, but they are not the way our students of diverse backgrounds naturally conduct themselves. It is not because they are wrong or were raised poorly, it is because the system is intolerant of anyone who does not fit neatly in the box. The system will also punish harshly for those who do not comply, and we see in the statistics that our students of color are unfairly disadvantaged from these practices. And while the issue of intolerant policies is important, we cannot overlook the fact that many educators hold biases against students of color, whether they recognize it or not.
There are specific school policies that further impact our already disadvantaged students. Homework policies that expect extensive or daily homework work against students who may have to work to help make ends meet for their family – especially when there is no wiggle room. Truancy policies that lead to court and fines negatively impact students who already live in poverty, with costs that sometimes end up being hundreds of dollars. Not to mention, students may not have access (physical or monetary) to a doctor to provide notes to excuse their absences. Additionally, we demand attendance from our students but when they mess up, we don’t let them come to school – it is illogical. Additionally, many teachers will write students off who do not meet these sometimes unrealistic expectations.
Students of color are two to three times more likely to be suspended – that is not a coincidence. Educators may be biased against their students or expect unrealistic levels of compliance, and the administrator handing down punishments may have biases in how they hand them out. The biggest concern with this particular aspect of how we treat students of color is the amount of disruption we cause to their education with suspensions. In some schools, students who are suspended do not get the opportunity to make up the work they missed. In others, they may get the work when they come back and are days behind other students, or work is sent home and they must complete it without a teacher or peer support. This greatly damages our student’s ability to maintain their grades, pass their classes, and even graduate. I saw this happening at the alternative school I teach at and approached my principal with solutions. That conversation resulted in me implementing a shift away from out-of-school suspensions, a better in-school suspension model, and providing these students with the support they need because they messed up, not in spite of it.
Let’s investigate an example. Maybe you are at the front of the room doing a little direct instruction. You have two students in the back sitting next to each other, one is a black girl and one is a white girl. Suddenly, the black girl says loudly “bitch, back off.” You stop teaching to immediately reprimand the student in front of the class for her language. When she tries to explain that the girl next to her kept trying to poke her afro with a pencil, you interrupt her and kick her out of the room for talking back. Maybe you write a referral, maybe you don’t, maybe she ends up in detention, or maybe even suspended.
We ask the police to de-escalate before using excessive force; as a teacher, ask yourself if you have ever been guilty of excessive discipline without attempting to de-escalate. If you are being honest with yourself, you know you do not always de-escalate behavior in your classroom and while these interactions are not life and death, they can potentially be the first domino in a series that will result in a student dropping out of school. Would you continue attending school if you felt like you did not belong? Or if you felt like you couldn’t do anything right? What if you felt like the staff actively antagonized you all the time?
When we police and suppress our students of color for being “loud” or “disruptive”, we are doing them a much larger disservice. We are suppressing passion, leadership skills, persuasion, confidence – all in the name of compliance. These mistakes that we make in our classrooms and on our campuses turn education into a center of trauma for some students, rather than a center of opportunity, support, and community. Furthermore, we alienate them from their own background or community when we subliminally communicate to them that their way is the wrong way. We are telling students of color they do not belong in our school, even if we do not explicitly say it – we push them out. We create unwelcoming environments for these students and then wonder why they seek belonging from a gang. We push students out of our schools and then wonder why they drop out and give up on themselves. We so deeply impact their access to a worthy and supportive education and then wonder why they must turn to selling drugs or have violent outbursts when the teacher or cashier or police officer are not listening to their pain.
So, what are we going to do about it?
The basics of teaching students of diverse backgrounds come down to respecting who they are and being a culturally relevant educator. I highly suggest when you teach in a Title I or high needs area to explore the neighborhood your students live in. You need to understand what kind of access they have to transportation, food, medical care, support services, etc. as well as develop authentic empathy for your students. Stop using microaggressions like “where are you from”, “you are very articulate”, or “I don’t see color”. There are countless other examples, ultimately these phrases communicate (whether you intend to or not) a hostile and unwelcoming message to your students of color. Another example is mispronouncing student names. Learn your student’s names, even the ones that are really difficult to pronounce. Write it down phonetically and practice it every night for the first week of school until you get it. There is no excuse to not be able to pronounce every student’s name by the end of the first week, this is a bare minimum expectation.
You should also be leveraging your students’ rich and diverse experiences in the classroom. This could be done by giving students space to share in discussions, debates, or writing things that are relevant lived experiences. There is also a lot of opportunities to use students’ interests and backgrounds to engage them in the learning process. For example, a government teacher may give an assignment where students propose legislation, and a student who is a refugee may write a proposal for more compassionate refugee laws and support services. Additionally, building relationships with students is critical to your success as an educator, and that will mean different approaches for each student. You may even have to work extra hard to make that connection with students of color if they have been previously alienated by schools and authority figures. You must put in the work with them.
Lastly and most importantly, you need to educate yourself and never stop educating yourself on the needs and experiences of students (and people) of color. There are so many amazing resources out there today, from books to movies, to TEDTalks, which can all provide you a better understanding of what your students go through on a daily basis. They can also help you unlearn some of your own biases because you have a responsibility to better yourself for your students. So please, before you return to school in the fall, be the student again and learn for the sake of your kids.
Suggested books, movies, and TEDTalks: this is not a complete list and I encourage you to seek out more resources when you finish these.
For White Folks Who Teach in the Hood
Bridge to Brilliance
The New Jim Crow
Why Are All the Black Kids Sitting Together in the Cafeteria?
Teach Us All
The Bad Kids
Dear White People
How America’s Public Schools Keep Kids in Poverty
How Students of Color Confront Imposter Syndrome
Why Open a School? To Close a Prison
Help for the Kids the Education System Ignores
Why Black Girls Are Targeted For Punishment At School
How to Fix a Broken School? Lead Fearlessly, Love Hard
Teach Teachers How to Create Magic
Every Kid Needs a Champion
The Real Story of the Black Panther Party
How We’re Priming Some Kids for College – and Others for Prison
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