Looking Back and Pressing Forward

As Teaching Tolerance reflects on the last decade, we are reminded that the work continues.
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The last 10 years haven’t always been pretty. The nation has continued to wrestle with systemic racism, white supremacy, antisemitism and Islamophobia, xenophobia, anti-LGBTQ ideology and gender inequality. Of course, these issues also manifest in schools, a microcosm of the oppressive structures in the world.

That’s why Teaching Tolerance (TT), along with other social justice education organizations, ramped up efforts in the last decade to advocate for safer and more welcoming school environments—and to help educators do the same. 

In our 28 years, TT has provided guidance and support to educators who are intentional about anti-bias and antiracist work. As the TT community continues to grow, we aim to become more available to meet the needs of those who are preparing youth to be proponents of positive change. 

As we enter a new decade, we’re reflecting on the challenges and successes of the last decade and planning our work toward a more just and equitable future. 

Addressing Educators' Needs

Racial History

As a nation, we struggle to talk about race, specifically our nation’s racial history. This is most certainly the case in schools, from state-level history standards to individual practice. In the last decade, we’ve made it a point to turn the tide on this front so that educators have the resources they need to teach the truth about race in the United States. 

A key element in that effort was addressing instruction around the civil rights movement, which has long been limited to a simplistic Martin Luther King Jr. and Rosa Parks narrative. With the 2011 report Teaching the Movement, we shared our findings on states’ generally timid standards on the subject. We followed that up with a 2014 update and a suite of resources to help educators do a more robust job of teaching this history. 

We also know that teaching and learning about American slavery has essentially been fraught since the end of the Civil War. People even continue to debate whether slavery was the cause of that war. (It was.) More importantly, teachers and students have let us know that they need better resources for doing this history justice. So, in the last three years, we have prioritized helping educators improve curriculum so that students have a better understanding of the historical and present-day significance of slavery. Our Teaching Hard History: American Slavery resources provide educators with materials to deepen their coverage of the subject in the classroom. 

In 2019, we expanded our Teaching Hard History resources with videos and a K–5 framework. And we were able to show the full range of that history with the publication of our newest lesson series, based on historian Richard Rothstein’s influential book The Color of Law

School Climate

Honest, culturally responsive curriculum is critical for our young people, and the environment they learn it in is just as important. In the last decade, we paid attention to research on the experiences of marginalized children and youth at school. We then worked to give teachers and administrators practical tips to support and advocate for marginalized students and ensure their schools are equitable. For example, we released best practices guides for serving English language learners and LGBTQ students in 2013. In 2018, we updated Best Practices for Serving English Language Learners and Their Families and Best Practices for Serving LGBTQ Students, addressing the need to be intentional when creating inclusive school environments.

Another priority has been to fight hate and bias at schools. Amidst a polarizing presidential campaign and election in 2016, we’d heard anecdotally that schools were starting to reflect the hateful rhetoric we’d been hearing in the news. So we surveyed educators about what they were witnessing at their schools and recorded our findings in The Trump Effect and After Election Day: The Trump Effect, both published in 2016.  

To help support educators in this new environment, in early 2017, we sent physical copies of Responding to Hate and Bias at School, Speak Up! and Let’s Talk! to every principal and superintendent in the United States. 

TT stayed attuned to school-based hate and bias incidents and began collecting data in the fall of 2017. Data we collected from news reports, along with a national survey of educators, helped produce our 2019 report Hate at School, which illuminated the pervasiveness of these incidents at schools, as well as the political polarization of classrooms. The report also affirmed that school leaders are essential to ensuring that hate and bias cannot thrive on school campuses.

Professional Development

We know that if culturally responsive practices, accurate history instruction and inclusive school climates are to take hold, then educators need ongoing support to sustain those processes and build them into a school’s foundations. Professional development is a crucial part of those processes and that building. That’s why, in the last decade, TT focused on effecting systemic change through professional development.  

We began producing webinars in 2014 with a series on religious diversity, co-hosted by our friends at the Tanenbaum Center for Interreligious Understanding. So far, we’ve hosted 54 webinars, from discussing the importance of home visits to explaining nuances about Afro-Latinx history. More than 37,000 people have attended our webinars—live and on-demand—and almost half came in the last two years as our web presence and community grew.

Our podcasts—Teaching Hard History: American Slavery, Queer America and The Mind Online—provide additional ways for educators to expand their own learning.  

In 2018, TT built a team of trainers and began offering in-person workshops for schools and districts. Our trainers have crisscrossed the country, providing supportive resources and challenging educators who are dedicated to social justice education. In the program’s first full year, the PD team traveled to 34 states, facilitated 122 sessions and reached more than 8,600 educators.  

“Little did we know teachers from around the country were waiting for us to make face-to-face professional learning opportunities a reality,” says Val Brown, professional development manager. “The PD team continues to be blown away by the support from educators around the country, and we can’t wait to take this work into the next decade.”

Most importantly, the in-person efforts have benefited students. “Do not ever underestimate the profound impact that you make in American education,” one eighth grade history teacher told us. “Your approach has allowed me to teach without the boundaries that an earlier generation thought were imposed upon them. Your organization has had an impact on not only my life, but on that of the hundreds of students who have come through my door.”

Celebrating and Supporting Educators

As we train educators on responsive, inclusive curriculum and practices, it’s also important to us to be a source of celebration and support. We’re so grateful to our community of teachers, who equip students with the skills necessary to thrive in diverse settings, work collaboratively, achieve academically and confront injustices. In 2011, we launched what is now known as the Teaching Tolerance Award for Excellence in Teaching. We’ve since awarded dozens of teachers who are dedicated to social justice in their school communities. 

That same year, we also established the Teaching Tolerance Advisory Board, comprised of active K–12 educators as well as faculty in schools of education. These educators give us expert advice and feedback on our resources and initiatives. The advisory board has also grown into a meaningful personal learning network and support system for members.

We’re also proud we’ve been able to support educators and students through our Social Justice Educator Grants and Voting and Democracy Grants. We’d had a grants program many years ago, but we revived it in 2017. Since then, we have awarded grants to nearly 300 recipients. The grants, ranging from $500 to $10,000, have helped propel anti-bias projects and encourage students to learn about democratic processes. Past grantees have created podcasts and websites, developed television shows and performed on stages to explore equity issues in their communities. They’ve even developed a thriving Facebook community.  

“It’s clear that grant projects make a big difference in the classroom experience—both for teachers, who can take creative ownership and do something different, and for students, who have agency in their own hands-on project learning,” says Jey Ehrenhalt, grants manager. 

Looking Ahead

In the last few years, we’ve also worked to help educators be responsive to current events with The Moment, create custom lessons with our Learning Plan Builder and establish inclusive curriculum with our diverse Student Texts Library

As we look ahead to 2020 and beyond, we commit to continue helping teachers and schools educate children and youth to be active participants in our diverse democracy. We know the work is ongoing, and we want you to know that we see you. We’re here to support you as you strive to ensure an equitable environment despite barriers. And we’re here to continue learning from you and pushing further because of you. Let’s go!

Dillard is a staff writer for Teaching Tolerance, and Bell is the program's managing editor.

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Learning for Justice in the South

When it comes to investing in racial justice in education, we believe that the South is the best place to start. If you’re an educator, parent or caregiver, or community member living and working in Alabama, Florida, Georgia, Louisiana or Mississippi, we’ll mail you a free introductory package of our resources when you join our community and subscribe to our magazine.

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