You’ve been getting ready for this soon-to-begin school year. You have been reading books, attending workshops, thinking about lessons, collaborating with colleagues. You have arranged your classroom; put out books; hung artwork; organized supplies. You have thought about this next group of students, students you will come to call “my kids.” You have wondered if you know enough to teach them; hoped that you have stored up enough energy to love them.
And then Charlottesville happened. With their anger showing, white supremacists marched, proud in their racism, torches in hand, guns slung over shoulders, words shouted in unison “Heil Trump,” “You will not replace us,” and “White lives matter” and suddenly all the preparations for Monday —whenever your Monday is—didn’t seem quite enough.
Some children and teens will enter your classrooms over the next few weeks more knowledgeable than many adults about what created that weekend. These students will understand that, all too often and for too many, white identity has long been tied to making sure non-white groups don’t succeed, or at least don’t succeed as much as they do. A country born of leadership that felt compelled to explain that all men are created equal though some men are only three-fifths human was bound to face problems.
And some—because of youth or because of protective parents or because of just not knowing—won’t comprehend what just happened. They won’t know that white supremacists marched bearing clubs and guns, that counter-protester Heather Heyer was killed by one of the protesters, that the former Ku Klux Klan leader attended the march and explained that this protest “represents a turning point for the people of this country. We are determined to take our country back . . . .” Some students will arrive Monday in your classrooms and not know.
Yet all of your new students—those who know and those who don’t—will sit together in one classroom and look to you. They always look to you. The whole nation—even when they don’t realize it—looks to you. You are our nation’s teachers. In all likelihood, you didn’t sign up for this. You wanted to share your love of science, your excitement over math, your joy of reading. You wanted to share Charlotte’s Web, not Charlottesville’s pain. You expected to remind little ones—and bigger ones—to be kind; be fair; be nice. Share. Listen. Respect one another. But perhaps you didn’t expect those lessons to be so critically important; so immediately necessary. Perhaps you hadn’t expected the anger, the confusion, the frustration, the racial violence to be part of their young lives. To follow them to school.
I can’t help but think of the two questions that guided what my colleague Bob Probst and I kept thinking as we wrote Disrupting Thinking (Beers and Probst, Scholastic, 2017):
- What needs to change?
- What assumptions make those changes hard?
As I think about those questions, I realize that I need to amend the first one: What needs to change about me? It would be far easier to ask that broader question, “What needs to change?” Then the answer can be out there, about someone else, about another town, another race, about other people. Those racists, those people. Them. Not me.
But if I always blame someone else, I never give myself the chance to grow, the chance to become better; I never give myself the chance to be a better person in this world and in my community, a better person as I stand next to those who don’t look like me, a stronger person who learns how to better speak up and speak out against racist words and actions. What needs to change about me? That’s a harder question for any of us about any topic. But when the topic is racism, I believe it’s a critical question for white people—this white person—to ask. People of color did not ask for racist acts to be committed and they do not benefit from sustaining them. We must ask – I must ask – who benefits when any person of color is kept oppressed in any manner, by any other person. The answer is so very obvious. (Some will say that this is true of any group that is oppressed. I agree. But this post is about racism.)
Some changes will require deep reflection, heart-felt conversations, raw honesty, and bravery. Perhaps you might start small and build from there. Perhaps this list could be a guide:
- Hearing our names matters. Can you pronounce your students’ names? Don’t say, “I’ll just call you . . .” or ask ,“Why’d your mom give you such a hard name?” or laugh aloud as you mispronounce a child’s name. Ask for help. Ask the student to tell you how to say his/her name.
- Seeing ourselves matters. Take a close and critical look at the reading (and viewing) materials in your classroom. Who is represented? How is that group represented? Who isn’t there? What does this say to each student? Don’t forget to look at those inspirational posters on your walls and the walls of your school. Who is represented in those posters? Who is not? And look at the staff in your school. Do students see teachers and administrators who look like them? If not (or if rarely) do you talk with students about this inequity? How can you and colleagues change who students see in your school?
- Having a chance to speak matters. Who speaks up in your classroom? Who needs help finding his or her own voice? How do you encourage all students to speak, to be heard, to listen, to participate?
- Being brave matters. What’s your response to colleagues who say, “Those kids just can’t do this” or “I teach white students, too, so shouldn’t they be represented in the curriculum and on the posters in my classroom?” or “We can’t worry about racism issues; that’s for families to discuss” or “That’s not my job. I’ve got standards to cover” or “If those parents would just speak English” or “I didn’t oppress anyone. This isn’t my problem.” When you hear those comments—and you probably will— silence is not an answer; silence is an agreement. Use your voice and speak up. Start a conversation. Remember that disruptions require that we ask ourselves what assumptions make change hard.
- Listening matters. Listen to your students’ stories. Ask them if they’ve experienced unfairness. Are they afraid? What could the school community do to change things. What could you do? What could they do? What conversations would they like to have in school?
This list is just a first step. Websites such as the following offer important resources and support:
A podcast by leading educators Sara Ahmed, Sonja Cherry-Paul, and Cornelius Minor is worth every minute you’ll spend listening: http://www.heinemann.com/blog/the-heinemann-podcast-dismantling-racism-in-education/
It’s critically important to look closely at the books in your classroom. When students of color look through the books on your shelves, how often will they see a book by an author who looks like them, a book with characters who look like them? Can your LGBTQ students see books about them? Your Muslim students? Your Jewish students? Do you expect one or two (or three) authors of color to represent the entire range of experiences of everyone of that race? (Likewise, do you expect that of the students of color you teach? That one colleague in your department?) We all need to do better with diverse books. If you have yet spent time at the following website, I encourage you to do so:
As you are looking at the books in your classroom, note where the “diverse” (as one teacher called them) books are. Are they on a shelf or in a basket labeled “Diversity” or “Multicultural” or “Culturally Responsive” or some other such designation? Why? If this is to make easily visible a large number of books that you know your students want to read and should read, be sure your students know that is the reason. If it’s to highlight the few books you have, invest in more. If it’s to say to students or visitors, “See, I’ve got these books covered” then there’s an assumption that needs to be checked.
I’ll close this post with an excerpt from Disrupting Thinking, words written long before Charlottesville, but that now resonate even louder with me.
“The last few years—and particularly the 2016 Presidential election year—have shown us brutality, racism, sexism, misogyny; hateful language and acts toward members of the LGBTQ community; increased bullying in schools; vitriolic language and unsubstantiated assertions via Twitter, personal blogs, YouTube videos, and online news sources. Because the Internet allows a level of anonymity, some people may feel “safe” being vulgar, dismissive, and hurtful. But the words are still there and the impact—whether inflicted by an unknown person or a prominent political figure—is still painful.
We [Bob and I] think that developing more compassionate citizens is a desirable goal in and of itself. But not only is compassion a desirable characteristic of people, we also think that it is a necessary characteristic of readers. The more capable readers are of compassion, the more likely it is that they will be able to read well. Compassion should sharpen the readers’ ability to see other points of view, other perspectives, and to imagine the feelings of those who hold them. It should enable readers to take, if only momentarily, the perspective of someone else and thus better understand motivations and thinking.
Ultimately, we are teaching children to read the text of their own lives. We want them open to possibility; open to ideas; open to new evidence that encourages a change of opinion. We want them using reading and writing as tools that help them in the re-vision of their own lives. We want them to have a better tomorrow. You are, for so many of these children, their best hope as schools stand as gatekeepers of a better tomorrow. As always, we are proud to stand beside you, though truly, as we have said before, we stand in awe of you.”
Those students—all students—will sit and watch and wait to see what you do and say. I have always placed my faith and trust in teachers. I do so again, today.