No one ever said that teaching was an easy job. Well, a few people who inaccurately believe that teachers only work nine months each year may have, but anyone who's been a teacher, known a teacher, lived near a teacher, or lived with a teacher knows that teaching is a work of heart (and it's hard!). There are the typically or traditionally hard aspects of teaching: multiple subjects, grades, reports, differentiation. But what about the emotional toil? Educators spend countless hours worried about students' lives at home and how prepared they'll be for the future. While these are, in fact, difficult and emotional parts of teaching, have we inadvertently done students a disservice by avoiding another hard topic? What about the hard racism conversation?
Right or wrong, many educators have avoided this topic in their classrooms. Some feel that their students are too young to understand such a complex issue. Others don't feel that there is time to address something if it's not explicitly called for in the state standards. Some teachers wonder how they can talk about social justice and cultural diversity when their schools are mostly white. Other educators feel that it is not their place to address such an emotionally charged topic, and rather than accidentally swaying students to or from one belief or another, they leave the elephant sitting in the room and carry on with their predetermined lesson plan.
The reality is, as educators, our job is to educate. While we aren't called to teach our students what to think, it is our responsibility to teach them how to think. Sometimes that includes hard conversations and uncomfortable topics.
The good news, however, is that it's never too late to get started. The expression "Better late than never" is certainly true when it comes to addressing, seeking to understand, and eliminating systemic racism. While we can't go back and undo years of suffering, slavery, and a lack of equality, we can learn how to talk about race and begin the process of educating the students in our classrooms about racism so that they can grow to be an active part of the change.
While we may feel inadequate or ill-equipped to start these crucial conversations, it's important to remember that our students don't need us to be experts on race relations and racial reconciliation. Rather, they need us to:
Children often internalize and understand more than we give them credit for. Hopefully, they aren't hearing racial slurs or being surrounded by blatant prejudice,; nonetheless, they are probably witnessingwitness their parents lock the car doors when drivingpassing through certain neighborhoods. They may be hearinghear music that subtly suggests a certain type of lifestyle for certain nationalities. Perhaps, they've noticed the lack of presence that certain populations have on television series or in movies. As educators, itIt is irresponsible for useducators to act likeas if we are color blind or like we don't see color. Not seeing the beautiful variations of color in our classrooms is not the goal; seeing and celebrating the diversity is! People are different. We look different. We come from different places, speak with different accents, and have different life experiences. Rather than trying to minimize all that makes us unique, we need to be honest about these things and create a classroom whereenvironment in which students acknowledge and celebrate alleverything that makes them different!
Recognize that talking about race, racism, and prejudice can be difficult. It can be emotional both for us as adults and for our students, no matter how old or young they may be. That being said, it is crucial that we ensure that our classroom is a safe space. Whether we want our students to feel comfortable to share personal examples of how racism has affected them or ask clarifying questions about what racism is, it's imperative that we foster an environment that allows both to take place.
Conversations about race, racism, and reconciliation won't happen by accident. While they may happen in passing, it is our responsibility to create those opportunities by using culturally appropriate read-aloud books. We need to engage our students in lessons about racism. We need to take the time to listen and learn from African American thought leaders and educators and use resources that they've shared to facilitate these conversations and learn from their point of view. We need to share stories of famous black Americans and use their lives and experiences as a crucial part of our content.
In order to understand racism, our students need to learn to be empathetic. That means we, as teachers, must be empathetic as well. Showing empathy doesn't mean we have to know what it feels like to experience a life different from the one we've known as "normal"; it just means we have to be willing to imagine what life might look like for someone else. How can you teach empathy? How can you create opportunities for students to see and understand the struggle of those around them? Using activities to teach empathy you'll be able to help students not only appreciate the need for social justice but also imagine what life may be like for fellow students who have a disability, neighbors who come from families that look different from their own, and people who were reared with different beliefs.
Students learn from our vulnerability. While some students may think teachers are perfect, we know the truth. We are human! That being said, teachers that make mistakes give permission for their students to make mistakes. If we were being graded, few educators would score 100% when it comes to teaching and talking about social justice and racial inequality. But underperforming in the past does not seal the deal for the future. As educators, we need to be willing to admit when we're wrong. We need to do our best until we know better. Then once we know better, we do better. That time is now. Our students of color can't wait. The underrepresented populations in our classrooms deserve more. When we pause and reflect on the past, we can be more purposeful about the future.
No one said teaching was easy-especially in the midst of a global pandemic and civil unrest. The truth, however, is that teaching is an honor. Your students will look to you for reassurance, for guidance, and for insight. Use your position in the classroom to help facilitate the hard conversations that need to take place. Encourage your students to find their voice, be empathetic, and help ensure that the future is brighter, for all students, than the past.