Three years ago, the day after white nationalists clashed with counterprotesters over the removal of a statue of Confederate General Robert E. Lee in Virginia, a third-grade teacher approached me at a professional learning meeting. "I want to say something to my students about Charlottesville, but I really don’t know what to say, so I probably won’t say anything about it unless one of them brings it up," the teacher told me.
At the time, those protests—and the tragic death of counterprotester Heather Heyer—raised important yet stubborn questions about how educators should grapple with and address the issue of race in the classroom. And with the recent deaths of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and Ahmaud Arbery—and the racial justice protests that have taken place worldwide in the aftermath—these questions have again arisen in recent weeks.
But it is the type of inability demonstrated by this teacher that is part of the problem.
As an African American university professor who works with teachers locally and nationally, most of whom are white, I have seen firsthand that race is an ever-elusive topic in many discussions. One thing is clear, though: Not talking about race and race-related events leaves students misinformed and curious and contributes to the ongoing tensions that exist in our country. By now, most students have seen the recent events on social media or have heard their parents and peers discussing them. As the school year comes to a close, some may wonder: Why aren’t we talking about this?
The uncertainty that many educators have about discussing race is nothing new. However, when contentious race-related events occur, many classroom teachers respond with ambiguity, avoidance, and outright fear. This has to cease. Teachers need to be bold, courageous, and willing to engage students honestly about race, no matter their age.
There are differences along racial lines for teachers and their willingness to discuss race. Many white teachers do not see race as important, adopt colorblind approaches, and are unable or unwilling to engage race-related topics and discussions. White teachers must develop the capability to engage with race-related issues in the classroom. For teachers of color, there may be more of an inclination to have race-related discussions, because of firsthand accounts of racism or discrimination. To be clear, though, even some teachers of color are uncomfortable discussing race. Thus, the goal must be for all teachers to develop the competencies to engage their students in race-related discussions.
To be fair, such dialogues are rarely easy. In my work with educators, I have heard countless numbers of teachers (mostly white) claim that they feel woefully ill-equipped to discuss issues related to race, even though they work in majority nonwhite schools. For many white teachers, this is in part because these discussions fly in the face of timeless mantras and core values that are ingrained in American schools. Meritocracy, fairness, equality, justice, and egalitarianism are all core concepts that educators teach and preach both implicitly and explicitly to students of all ages. However, when race enters the conversation, issues around meritocracy are called into question because of the salience of white privilege and the disadvantages faced by communities of color. We also face a justice system that in the eyes of many does not seem to administer equitable outcomes to people of color.
If concepts such as fairness, merit, hard work, and equality are staples in our discussions with students, then the realities of hate, racism, anti-Semitism, violence, and fear also must be part of our discussions informally and formally within school curricula.
How Should Teachers Respond?
- Be informed with honest, age-appropriate answers.
First and foremost, teachers must equip themselves with sound knowledge on the history of slavery, racism, and xenophobia, as well as the constant quest for equality that many nonwhite groups in this country faced historically and still struggle for today. These topics can be adjusted and modified for age appropriateness, but students need to be given honest accounts about some of the ugly histories of this country and learn about how the United States has not always lived up to its lofty ideals. We are a work in progress.
- Be prepared to guide difficult discussions.
Educators must prepare for the fact that these conversations and lessons will be uncomfortable and do not always end smoothly—not even with children. To that end, teachers must be willing to stand in the gap and facilitate topics; teach students to query sources of information; and realize that there are often no “kumbaya” moments.
- Present diverse perspectives and acknowledge your own biases.
Teachers must be able to help students understand that there is no room for hate in a civil society. When a series of events is reminiscent of an earlier and uglier time in our nation’s history, they must be discussed, understood, and condemned. Though not easy, it is what we owe students, the field of education, and our nation if we are to become an ideal democracy. Teachers must be prepared to understand the messy, complex, emotional, cruel, shameful, and often contradictory messages that go along with these subjects. To do this, teachers must seek multiple perspectives, talk to a diverse group of people about race-related topics, and also speak their truth, while acknowledging their own biases.
- Project the message from school leadership that student well-being and safety come first.
Finally, school leaders must play a pivotal role in providing guidance for how teachers might address these topics. The dean of the University of Wisconsin-Madison’s school of education, Diana Hess, who has studied teachers’ avoidance of controversial topics in the classroom, says many educators worry about students’ feelings, parents’ reactions, and administrators’ responses. When racial animus is prevalent anywhere in our nation, and if students’ feelings and safety are priority No. 1 for schools, avoiding the topic compromises student safety and well-being.
Nonwhite students have been the majority in many U.S. public schools for several years. Fear and uncertainty cannot disrupt our country’s changing makeup. As painful and difficult as the death of George Floyd and other recent events may be, the quest for racial justice that has followed have provided us with yet another teachable moment to grow, learn, and educate our future leaders about the importance of living in a racially pluralistic, inclusive, and civil society. We cannot afford to lose the importance of this moment.
The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of HMH.
This blog post was updated in June 2020.