I now have 3 years under my belt of teaching new teachers about race, culture, community, and their role in creating a more just society. When my own kids were growing up, I couldn’t figure out why their schools never took on these issues. Even after a shooting in the playground adjacent to their elementary school, the faculty didn’t want to discuss the escalating violence. “It’s too big for us to take on. We’re not equipped to talk about it.” WHAT?
Slowly, I came to realize that these educators were never taught how to connect to families and the community. They were never taught how to address the ever-present barriers of racism and cultural illiteracy that underlie lack of engagement by so many students. And we can’t teach what we don’t know.
When I was offered the opportunity to teach these things to new teachers, I jumped on it.
Seven semesters and 137 students later, I’m hitting my stride. I now ask my students, at the end of the term, what has changed in their thinking from taking my course?
“We cannot disconnect teaching and learning from the community.”
“I never realized how much internalized bias I had.”
“Being an effective educator starts in the classroom, but it expands way beyond that.”
The graduate students in my course start out, like most groups, with a wide range of understanding about their own racial identity, about racism, about the role of culture in schools. When we start learning and talking about these things, some dive in, while others look like deer caught in the headlights. My role is to introduce facts, share examples of effective practices, stimulate discussion and reflection, support them to go deeper and not retreat from the hard truths. I can see it taking hold, most of the time. And there is no work that I find more fulfilling.
I carry the lessons I am learning from this experience into other training, and into my life. Here are just a few:
- Patient nurturing works better than shaming and blaming, particularly if we want white people to open up to new ways of thinking about race and their own unearned privileges;
- Some people need facts, others need talking and thinking, most need their own experiences and feelings validated. We need to make room for all of these;
- Holding the space, as a facilitator, is critical to keeping the group open and learning. For me, this means allowing strong feelings to surface and be released, modeling for those who are afraid that it’s okay, even healthy, to ask difficult questions and hold courageous conversations;
- Starting from the assumption that people care about equity and fairness, and want to make a difference. They just need the tools and support to step into their role in it;
- One of my roles is to help people connect the dots, to see how the deep legacy of racism lives on in our institutions, and in the things, large and small, that we do – and don’t do – every day.
I have no delusions that necessary institutional changes are just around the corner, although there are hints of progress scattered across the U.S. Yet I am more optimistic that teachers CAN make a difference, to the students in their classrooms, and to the educational systems that still are not serving all kids well. They can learn to be agents of change, and we need more of these.