When Educators Understand Race and Racism

What is the fundamental outcome of educators growing their racial competence? Learning.

New teachers enter the classroom with many skills: planning, classroom management, differentiated learning, technology. But how many walk into their class on the first day with skills in their toolbox to navigate race and racism? Not many. And how many teachers receive professional development in this area over the course of their careers? Fewer still.

This school year, for the first time, the majority of students in public schools are nonwhite. Yet the diversity of the student population isn’t reflected in the teachers standing in front of classrooms: Eight out of 10 public school teachers are white. Simple arithmetic reveals why white teachers stand to gain from enhancing their skills in addressing race, ethnicity and culture.

The landmines are often invisible to educators who don’t share their students’ cultural backgrounds, but painfully obvious to students, parents and colleagues. Repeatedly calling a black student by another black student’s name. Seating students of color together by race. Discouraging students of color from pursuing college or advanced courses. Consider these experiences reported by African-American students in the Philadelphia area:

  • A student goes home and cries when he’s the only black child in his fifth-grade class and the white teacher reads “n*gger” and “coon” aloud from The Great Gilly Hopkins.
  • A student disengages from a history curriculum where black Americans are only viewed through the prism of victimhood, slavery and Jim Crow.
  • A student in an honors class works hard on an assignment, only to have her teacher question whether she did the research herself because it’s so thorough.

Each of these students entered the classroom eager to learn. Yet each left feeling wounded and confused because their teachers lacked the skills and awareness to foster positive racial identities in their students of color.

What becomes possible when educators understand race and racism? This question guided an expert panel of public and private school teachers and administrators assembled recently by the University of Pennsylvania’s Center for the Study of Race and Equity in Education. The panel was part of a day-long summit to build racial and cultural competency among educators. Panelists offered valuable insights and reflections.

Teacher Expectations

Teacher expectation level is one area where racial proficiency can have real impact. Chris Avery, a recipient of the 2014 Teaching Tolerance Award for Excellence in Teaching and director of a college access program in Philadelphia, points out the subtle difference between the statements, “You only have a B?” (conveying to a student of color, “I know you can do much better”) and “I’m so proud of you; you got a B!” (conveying that the student can’t do much better).

Felix Chen, a teacher at Abington Friends School in Jenkintown, Pennsylvania, reinforced how a teacher’s limited perspective of behavioral norms can skew the student-teacher interaction: “I had a black student who was very loud and boisterous. It took a colleague to help me see how this young lady being loud could be viewed as a strength—to use her as a leader in the class. In my culture [Chinese], this is a negative.” Chen credited this “a-ha” moment for helping him better engage with the student and her family. “I turned what I first saw as a deficit into an asset.”

Climate for Racial / Cultural Competency

“There is a fear among white teachers to talk about race with white teachers and teachers of color,” said Tamarah Rash, a black teacher at Meredith School in Philadelphia. “But we have to move past that [fear]. To talk about race with students, we have to be able to have honest conversations ourselves.” Rash is building receptiveness in her school through shared readings, open discussions and peer-to-peer learning.

Like students, teachers need “windows” into the lives of others and “mirrors” that reflect their own realities. Windows are opportunities to observe and learn new teaching practices from others. Mirrors are critical friends who can challenge you as well as offer helpful feedback and guidance.

Rich Nourie, head of school at Abington Friends, offered an instructive approach for setting the stage. “When a white teacher is called ‘racist’ the default is, ‘No, I’m not.’ But what if you asked, ‘Why would you say that?’ The degree to which we can move from defense to offense and go deeper is a seminal moment. It’s the dynamic of known to unknown … where we can acknowledge assumptions and blind spots and connect with students, parents and fellow educators.”

And what is the fundamental outcome of educators growing in their racial competence? “Learning,” says Chris Lehmann, founding principal of the Science Leadership Academy in Philadelphia.

“The notion of care is the root of racial proficiency. I want to know who you are. You’re not fully caring for kids if you don’t know them. So race is something that we talk about. Culture is something that we talk about. Understanding that difference is an amazing, powerful plus that, if we nurture it, makes us all smarter than we can be separately.”

Editor's note: For more resources on similar topics, visit our Web package Teaching About Ferguson: Race and Racism in the United States.

Anderson is an education writer and activist for educational equity. Follow her on Twitter @mdawriter.

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