A 2017-18 National Center of Education Statistics (NCES) report shows that 79 percent of elementary and secondary educators are white; 7 percent are Black. Further, 76 percent of elementary and secondary educators are female. Given white women make up the vast majority of the public education workforce, what are our critical responsibilities when teaching a majority of Black and Brown children?
When at my most intentional, I am able to reflect on my own role as a white female educator through the lens of my privilege. I know that being a white woman in this country is inextricably linked to elements of power and privilege. And in the last few weeks specifically, I’ve been thinking about the opportunities I’ve missed as a teacher and leader, and the opportunities I have in front of me as an associate who now supports both. I’ve been examining my critical role in the fight against the systemic oppression of Black and Brown communities, and about how my whiteness must be owned and acknowledged to engage in that fight fully and unapologetically on behalf of the students, families, and communities we serve.
Antiracism in the Classroom
As white women, when we stand in front of children who don’t look like us, we must first understand what they potentially see. Before our classroom, their interactions with and understanding of white women may be limited to those that are not a part of their community, or those who have never taken time to know and understand them. These prior interactions may well have left them feeling marginalized, unseen, or unheard. As a critical counter to this, it is our urgent responsibility to occupy our space as white female teachers with the conviction of equity and high expectations for all students. This isn’t a wish or a hope; it’s an imperative to ensure all students have access to power through meaningful and rigorous teaching and learning. Our journey in meeting this outcome consistently starts with awareness and ownership of how our whiteness shows up.
Simply put, we cannot stand in front of our Black and Brown children as their trusted educators without doing the work on ourselves first. The calls to reflection offer some critical questions for us to deeply consider and analyze as white teachers, to ensure we are providing the highest quality education for our children of color.
Calls to Reflection:
- How and when do I provide space for myself to learn and understand what my students value? What do I need to know about my students to most effectively educate them?
- Where might I be projecting any of my own cultural norms and values onto my students? If so, what is the impact of that?
- How am I representing my students’ values, perspectives, and histories in my teaching? How am I ensuring my students’ voices take center stage in my classroom?
- How do I plan and prepare for conversations with my students about the systemic oppression and injustice that they may experience? How am I prepared to talk about my own race, power, and privilege with them, and how I view its impact on my role as their teacher?
- What assumptions am I making about the families I serve? If I don’t hear from families, what am I assuming? What is the impact of those assumptions on the way I may be communicating or reaching out to parents or guardians?
- What messages am I sending to my students – overtly and covertly – in my accountability systems? Do my students know why I give consequences and what they mean? And when I give them, am I giving them consistently, across racial lines and any other differences?
- Who am I responding unfairly to and why? Who causes me to escalate and why? Who don’t I notice and why? What message is that sending those students and their peers about their value and worth?
- What is my default when I am stressed? Do I withdraw or appease, or try to micromanage or exert control? How are students impacted by that?
- When and how do I spend time in my school community outside of my teaching day? When and how do I create opportunities to hear and experience different perspectives when I’m not at school?
- How do I talk about my students to my networks outside of school? How do I talk about the community I serve? When I’m doing so, am I perpetuating any stereotypes of race, power, and privilege?
Action grounded in this level of honest and transparent reflection ensures teaching practices are centered in empowering mindsets and beliefs about our students and our role as their teacher. Now that you’ve reflected, the calls to action below provide an opportunity to close the gaps you noticed and owned as you looked in the mirror. And on the horizon of a new school year, virtual or otherwise, there’s a critical opportunity to leverage this learning to close those gaps and make a plan.
Calls to Action:
- Grow your understanding of your own power and privilege. If you found yourself considering and confronting your biases as you reflected on questions above, you must first take time to further unpack what your biases are, where they come from, and what you can and must do to eradicate them. Biases reflect beliefs and mindsets that can and will manifest in actions. In the classroom, those actions can be fatal to our students of color. Educate yourself so you can do the deep and personal work of understanding your power and privilege as a white woman, and how that plays out in your interactions with your students and community. By doing so, you will be positioned to re-align your teaching practices to ensure you are operating in high expectations for all students, as opposed to your biases and defaults. There are countless books, articles and podcasts to support this, and the list below are just a few to get started. Note: doing your own research is also a part of the work.
- Understand your implicit bias: Test Yourself for Hidden Bias
- Educate yourself: Read Anti-racism Resources and/or Order Summer WORKbook
- Read these books:
- White Fragility: Why It’s So Hard for White People to Talk About Racism – DiAngelo, Robin
- How to Be an Antiracist – Ibram X. Kendi
- The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness – Michelle Alexander
- Culturally Responsive Teaching and the Brain – Zaretta Hammond
- For White Folks that Teach in the Hood and the Rest of Y’all Too – Christopher Emdin
- Reach out to your kids from this past year to gain perspective and feedback. Creating space for students’ voices is a powerful practice, especially in the reflection of your impact. In your reflection, if you uncovered a gap in honoring students’ voices, take time to first reach out to your former students to see how they are doing. Ask for their feedback on what worked for them and what didn’t. Ask them how you made them feel. Ask them what felt fair and what didn’t. Ask them what you did that made them feel motivated and excited about their learning and what didn’t. Their perspectives will be invaluable to you to make the changes for the upcoming year that empower your next class of students. Beyond this summer, engage in these conversations with your students throughout the year; it is critical that students’ voices exist at the center of your instructional and relationship work as a teacher.
- Plan for how you’ll engage students in conversations about racial injustice. We cannot afford to stay silent on issues of power, privilege and race in our country, and especially not as our students’ teachers. In your reflection, if you found yourself feeling unprepared to have these conversations or incorporate them into daily practice, take time to research articles, resources and activities to engage your students in planned, meaningful and structured discussion (See A Teaching Tolerance Guide: Discussing Race, Racism and Other Difficult Topics with Students). Consider how you’ll engage students in the experience to hear their perspectives, and consider what you will share as a white woman who experiences privilege. When you are planned, intentional and open about these conversations, your students are more likely to feel safe; this safety is paramount to investment in learning from you. It will also allow insight into their critically important thoughts and feelings about race, power and privilege that will make you a stronger teacher for them. Remember, this work isn’t an extra responsibility outside of your planning and pedagogy; it should be integrated into your daily teaching practice for the benefit of all of your students.
- Plan for your relationships. As No Nonsense Nurturers, we know deep and meaningful relationships are foundational to high levels of learning, and that students need and deserve to feel invested in you. We also know these relationships are More Important Now than Ever. For the upcoming year and with a brand new classroom of students, plan for the creative ways you’ll build meaningful connections and create powerful moments to engage kids deeply and quickly. Research activities and methods to relationship-build in a virtual space, which includes ideas for how you’ll let students get to know you to begin building rapport. Remember that student relationships are strengthened by our relationships with families; take time to plan for meaningful connections with parents or guardians to deepen your understanding of your student and build trust with your students’ families. Ensure the current virtual reality doesn’t keep you from getting creative and reaching out via phone call, text, social media or Zoom meeting.
- Plan for what accountability looks like and feels like. Outside of our schools, our students of color are faced with unpredictability and injustice when it comes to broader systems of accountability. We cannot ensure their safety in interactions with law enforcement and we cannot ensure their equitable treatment in future workplaces and other institutions. Yet, when we abuse our control and power in our classrooms as white women – by escalating or marginalizing certain children – we are perpetuating that systemic oppression we are working to fight. If your reflection showed inconsistency or unfairness in accountability, there are critical replacement messages and systems that must be executed instead. As educators, we must always start by modeling critical care in our classroom accountability. We must take time to share why our procedures, directions, and lessons matter to our students’ learning. We must teach replacement behaviors instead of simply telling our students what to stop doing. We must create hierarchies that provide predictability in how we hold students accountable, that operate in fairness for every student and include a fresh start each moment and each day. And we must ensure we model the belief and use of restorative practices when students make mistakes – in our classrooms and across our school. By executing on fair, consistent, and care-centered accountability systems, we are equipping our students with the tools they need and deserve to be successful inside and outside of our classroom. We are also ensuring our learning space is held sacred, and that all messages and systems are grounded in ensuring high levels of academic achievement for every student in the classroom.
Lastly, plan for how you’ll talk about your work and your students outside of your school – at the grocery store, at a restaurant, or in your Uber. White educators perpetuate a narrative of the white savior mentality when they let others believe their work with Black and Brown children is noble. As white educators, we are not saving children of color. We are providing a fundamental right. Every child deserves the best education possible. This requires unparalleled urgency to fight the systemic and oppressive structures that harm our students of color, but it does not require or call for saving. So notice when people call you “special” or “brave” when you tell them what you do.
Then tell them who your families and students are, highlight your students’ many assets, and tell them why education matters. Tell them about the unit you’re teaching in science and how excited your kids are about becoming better environmental advocates. Tell them about the positive way your kids are responding to virtual learning and annotating their own screens to teach the class. Tell them what they can do to support your kids and community. And it must be said that if you can’t do this – if you cannot easily communicate the assets of the children you serve and why their education matters – you should reevaluate serving as their teacher. Our children cannot suffer at the hands of teachers who do not believe in them. They require and deserve teachers – white, female, or otherwise – who see their strengths, believe in their potential, and are willing to do whatever it takes to help them realize it.
After all, you are not just advocates for children inside of your classroom; you are a representation and extension of your students and school community, always. You will make an immeasurable and vitally necessary difference when you reflect and act with an awareness of self and an empowered mindset about the kids you serve. That difference ensures all students can meet and exceed the rigorous learning expectations that provide them access to power in this world. Simply put, you are teaching our future, and there is no excuse for less.
By Meaghan Loftus, Associate, CT3