To all my educators:
We hold a great responsibility to be actively fighting for the rights, lives, and stories of our students. The things I have to say might not be totally correct, but I would much rather advocate for, educate, and support my students and admit to mistakes than stay silent when it matters.
So, on that note, here are 10 ways to help provide equal representation in your classroom!
1. TALK ABOUT IT!
TALK ABOUT RACE and rights right now–acknowledge how your students of color feel and affirm their feelings! “Race” is not a cuss word, but when it’s treated as one, many of the kiddos in our classes are left feeling less than and unwanted. If our greatest goal as educators is to make sure our students feel loved and seen, we have to be willing to have conversations that maybe we aren’t totally comfortable with. But, if you’re not totally comfortable talking about racism and social oppression, check your privilege and get over yourself. There are way more important things happening around us than our comfort as educators. And, honestly, at what point in your teaching career have you ever thought that this was supposed to be an easy, comfortable job? Be willing to have the important conversations take the place of comfortable ones–students are craving the important conversations and tuning out for the fluff ones. So talk about race, and let your students talk about it too.
2. MAKE THE PHYSICAL CLASSROOM SPACE A PLACE THAT SHOWS POSITIVE VISUAL REPRESENTATION OF DIVERSITY
It is literally one of the LEAST difficult things to make sure that when students look around your classroom, they see people who look and live like them. Put up a poster that features a successful Hispanic actor or an accomplished black author. So often, students of color are subjected to the way the media portrays people with their same skin tone, and it’s not positively or successfully, so do the work to make sure your students know their value is not decreased by their skin color–contrast that narrative and celebrate their skin because it is beautiful and absolutely worthy, and not enough people are telling their students that. I remember one of my education professors sharing with me about when she had students go through the local paper to find a story they found interesting or identified with, two of her Latino students told her the only Hispanic representation present in the paper were mugshots and criminal reports. This is from an area where roughly 40% of the population is Hispanic. We absolutely must do better for our students–everyone needs to know how valuable they are, and one of the absolute easiest ways you can make sure your students know is by having a consistent reminder just in the physical space of your classroom.
3. INTEGRATE CONVERSATIONS ABOUT RACE AND DIVERSITY INTO THE SOFT CURRICULUM
Being an English teacher, this may come easier for me, but I’m confident that math and science teachers could figure out a way to include race and social conversations in their instruction. Soft curriculum goes beyond textbook instruction and into our student-teacher relationships. When students strike up a conversation with you, ask your opinion, try to get you to waste time by sharing personal anecdotes, how will you use that to shape the environment of your classroom for the students in your class that have experienced marginalization, victimization, and oppression at the hands of the cruel and unjust systems that have persisted it?
4. DON’T ENCOURAGE THE PERSISTENCE OF A FALSE HISTORICAL NARRATIVE
When I read Heart of Darkness last semester, we talked about just how racist Joseph Conrad really was in his writing–how absolutely dehumanizing and horrific. I remember reading that book in high school, but I don’t really recall discussing the systemic and individualistic racism that permeated the whole novel. If you have required texts that are as racially insensitive as this one, they NEED to be taught alongside materials that support and positively share about the cultures and persons being dehumanized in the writing. It needs to not be a conversation of “What can we learn from this racist text?” but of “Why is this text inherently dehumanizing and what can we do to correct our reading and understanding of it?”
5. HAVE STUDENTS READ, WRITE, AND ENGAGE WITH TEXTS FROM AUTHORS AND ARTISTS OF COLOR
BIPOC authors, artists, and academics are regularly VERY underrepresented and suppressed by the system of oppression we call our society. Students need to not just see representation but read, write about, engage with, listen to, watch, and advocate for equality across the board. The more interaction there is between students and BIPOC authors, artists, and academics, the better. As educators, we MUST be diligent about showing students voices they most closely identify with and voices that they don’t.
6. WHEN LOOKING FOR SUPPLEMENTAL AND SUPPORTING MATERIALS FOR LESSONS, LOOK FOR RESOURCES FROM MEN AND WOMEN OF COLOR.
The field of academia and the resources we use in schools are wildly misrepresentative of men and women of color in academia. Go out of your way to find the melanated resources and voices. This promotes diversity in academia and a dismantling of systemic racism among white students who often haven’t ever engaged in resources outside of their own racial experience. Academics of color BELONG in your classroom, and it they aren’t present, take some time to revisit your own biases and move your assignments and resources around.
7. USE EASILY BRUSHED OFF SITUATIONS AS OPPORTUNITIES TO EDUCATE
I recently read about a teacher who, when the n-word was used by a Black student, instead of punishing the student who said it or having a huge reaction, took time to talk with the class about the origin and history of the n-word. She responded to the situation in a way that forced a shift in her own perspective instead of reacting and closing off a potentially important opportunity for a relationship with that student. Instead of ignoring the use of the word or rolling her eyes, she used it to talk about race and remove the stigmatism of its discussion through a word most students hear every day.
Confront, contextualize, reframe. Now, you won’t always be able to stop and give a mini lesson on the history of a word, but you always need to make time for instances when certain words and ideas are conveyed relative to race. And, at the end of the day, reading one more scene from a Shakespeare play can wait, but making sure your students of color feel seen, known, understood, and loved, that cannot wait another second.
8. WHEN YOU SEE IT, CONFRONT IT
I’m usually not a supporter of zero tolerance policies, but in the instances of racism, I am a full supporter. The systems oppressing every student of color are present in our education system, and if we know that, we need to do everything in our power to make sure our classrooms are not one of those places. When white students treat issues of race casually or with jokes, they need to learn that their place in a position of privilege that benefits from the oppression of their Black and Brown peers is persisted and causing further oppression when jokes that dehumanize those around them are made.
9. UNDERSTAND THAT CHOOSING COMFORT NOW MEANS CHOOSING COMPLACENCY
I’ve seen a lot of people reposting the quote, “If you’re tired of hearing about racism, imagine how tired people are of experiencing it,” and that’s what you need to say to yourself every time you’re tempted to shy away from what may be a tense or uncomfortable conversation about the realities of how the structures and people of our society are treating our BIPOC brothers and sisters. To be quiet and stand idly by while your students and community are hurting is to become compliant with the racist structures hurting them. A common thing teachers talk about when it comes to bullying is how bystanders are persisters of the bullying problem and hold blame for the bullying—the situation of racial inequality is no different in your duty as an educator to step in and speak out.
10. ALLOW YOURSELF TO BE CORRECTED
Talking about race is a very grey area for a lot of people. Specifically to the white educators out there: you are not always going to say exactly what you should, but do not let the fear of tripping up in what you say stop you from speaking about what is really important.
Let your students, fellow teachers, and your self-educating on the issues and actions surrounding race to correct and redirect you if you say something that might not be quite right. We are all learning and growing, but only where we choose to. If you want your classroom to really be a safe place that fosters a truly equal and engaging environment for learning, your students need to know that you see what matters to them most.