1. In the Classroom
In your classroom you have the advantage of time and authority. You—working with students—can set ground rules and limits about slurs and hurtful comments. You can interrupt a moment, suspend the planned lesson and devote the time needed to discuss and explore the impact of what was said.
(We know that you are inundated with mandatory curricula, testing and other things that fi ll classroom time, and we also know that the issue of creating a safe and welcoming environment for all students is something you believe in—and something worth the classroom time.)
“We talk about intellectual safety in our class, that we’re a community where inquiry and reflection can happen—and a community where everyone can feel safe,” says Amber Makaiau, the ethnic studies teacher in Oahu, Hawaii.
This gives students the language to speak up throughout the year, Makaiau says, both in and beyond the classroom. In the classroom, they can use their shared language (“I don’t feel safe when you use that term”). Outside the classroom, they are empowered to speak up against biased remarks because of the understanding they have reached inside the classroom.
Makaiau describes the classroom as a place where teachers and students can “unpack” language. “So if someone says, ‘We have to respect each other in our classroom,’ we don’t stop there. We take it further, to explore how different people from different cultures define respect, and how we balance its many meanings within the classroom.”
The need for a prompt and strong response to biased remarks in the classroom has been explored earlier in this guidebook. Some teachers, though, move beyond spoken responses and require follow-up action from their students.
“If someone says something inappropriate or offensive in my class, I stop what I’m doing and have them write a letter of apology,” says Tracy Oliver-Gary, the AP history teacher from Burtonsville, Maryland. “It might be something sexually offensive, or something involving bias—anything that may offend another student in class and make them feel targeted. It happens, and I say, ‘Start writing the letter.’”
2. In the Teachers' Lounge
The teachers’ lounge is a place where uncomfortable peer-to-peer situations may arise. Conversation might be more casual there. Insensitive comments and biased assumptions may be voiced more frequently.
A fellow teacher made a joke to other staff about the band students, referring to them as ‘band fags.’ Needless to say, I told him it wasn’t funny and certainly not appropriate.
A colleague I barely knew expressed sadness that his Jewish and Hindu students were all going to hell [based on his Christian beliefs]. I was left breathless. It took me a few seconds to recover enough to tell him—firmly but gently—that I did not share that belief, for a lot of reasons.
The level of the peer relationship must be considered. How close are you to this person? There also must be some sensitivity about who else is present, who else might hear any interaction and how they might react.
All those factors are at play, but the basic strategies still apply. Do speak up. Don’t antagonize. Do keep your eye on the goal: to keep communication channels open and help someone realize the effect of biased comments.
Consider this incident:
Two educators were talking in a teachers’ lounge at a school in the Pacific Northwest. Each had a sibling from the same family as a student. The teacher of the younger sibling said, “Those parents don’t care a thing about their child’s education. They don’t even come to parent-teacher conferences.”
Hearing that, the second teacher—the one who relates this story—took a breath and considered how to respond. She had visited the family’s home and knew some of the pressures and realities the parents faced: living in poverty, working multiple jobs, having unreliable transportation. Getting to a parent-teacher conference was not a case of not caring; it was a simple impossibility, given their situation.
“That’s a bold statement, to say a parent doesn’t care about a child’s education,” the teacher says, recalling the moment. “What was going on was that this teacher had not worked to engage herself with the student’s family, to understand what was going on in that home. She hadn’t done her job.”
Can one teacher tell another teacher, “You’re not doing your job”? Not without some sparks.
So this teacher took a different tack. She told the teacher, “You know, I’ve had a completely different experience with the older sibling.”
She then described the family circumstances that were working against the parents’ school involvement.
“I put a face on it. I made it real for her. And she got it. I saw the light bulb go off, and she realized she’d made some assumptions based on her own thinking about ‘those’ kinds of families.”
3. In Hallways and Common Areas
Hallways—like buses or playgrounds—are places where student-to- student bias can thrive if no one speaks up against it. A middle school student related this story:
A boy in the hall—a popular kid with lots of friends—routinely cackled at a girl with hearing aids when he passed her in the hall. As she got near, he’d shout the line from a cell phone commercial: ‘Can you hear me now?’
His friends and classmates (including those worried about fitting in or losing his friendship) laughed at his “joke.” Other students—and adults—within earshot didn’t join in the laughter but said nothing in response. They allowed cruelty to have the last word. The student with the hearing aids spoke with the principal about it, and the principal objected, saying, “We don’t have that kind of bullying here.”
You have mere seconds in the hallway to speak up. The bustle of students moving quickly between classes creates its own kind of chaos. So any intervention needs to be quick, clear and pointed.
A teacher overhearing the boy’s remark might say, “Jacob, that’s not funny. If you say that again, I’ll be forced to call your family in for a conference.” That might encourage one of the bystander students to say, “That’s not a cool thing to say. Stop it.” If more students joined in, the pressure might be enough.
The hallway is where you need to have your comments ready. They must be brief, no more than a sentence or two, and they must be easily delivered above the din.
Advance strategy also can come into play. Three teachers can promise each other they’ll all speak up, together, the next time it happens—because it will keep happening if no one speaks out against it.
Other speaking up also can occur, including saying comforting words to the target of the abuse and asking how she would like to be supported. (She may be suffering so greatly that she wants no added attention, for example.)
Had the principal responded in a more supportive fashion, he could roam the hall, waiting to encounter a similar incident himself, then simply take the bully to his office and address the situation seriously, outlining consequences if the behavior continued.
4. In the Cafeteria
Cliques, racial and ethnic lines, socioeconomic class—so many factors are at work in the cafeteria. National surveys of students continue to indicate that the cafeteria is the place on campus where dividing lines are most clearly drawn.
Because of that, a group at one table can easily fall into biased remarks about some other group across the room. These remarks are overheard by passersby—other students, teachers, administrators, cafeteria workers.
It’s a ripe landscape for speaking up.
Advice from teachers who have spoken up in cafeteria settings indicates that sitting down is a key strategy.
As with so many things, it’s about relationships. If you sit down on a regular basis—not just to scold but to get to know students better—you become more relevant and can have more impact with these groups. A teacher who just walks by and says, “Don’t say that” is more likely to get eye-rolling and whispered sneers than improved behaviors.
If you sit down and use some of the strategies in this guidebook (“Why do you say that?” “Tell me more.”), you have a better chance of building a relationship, deepening your own understanding of the prejudices at work, and tailoring your comments accordingly. If any of the students are in your classes, you can continue the guidance there as well.
If you have existing relationships with any students at a table where slurs are being casually tossed around, speaking individually to that student also can be a tactic. “Why do you listen to that? You know it’s wrong to say those kinds of things.” Planting the seed that encourages the student to someday speak up is a good strategy to employ. Again, these are lessons you can offer in your classroom, with an eye toward improving behaviors in the cafeteria.