By Susan Charles, Don Cox, and Becki Cohn-Vargas
At George Floyd’s Minneapolis memorial, Reverend Al Sharpton said, “There is a difference between those calling for peace and those calling for quiet. Some of y’all don’t want peace, you just want quiet. You just want us to shut up and suffer in silence.” The focus on looting and damage to brick and mortar buildings is like worrying about a ripped dress when you have fallen over a cliff and broken your back. To heal, let’s not return to “business as usual.” We must acknowledge the huge disparities that perpetuate white supremacy across all systems, face the truth and address root causes. We must address racism and bigotry and change the culture of not only our justice system, but also our education system.
Renowned Stanford Professor, Linda Darling Hammond asked this question in her article entitled:“How Will Each of Us Contribute to Racial Justice and Educational Equity Now?” When Susan, Don, and Becki, three longtime colleagues and equity-focused educators, read the article, we decided to further the conversation and propose five guiding principles for educators who share our will and ongoing commitment to make fundamental changes in the educational system.
1. Acknowledge reality. Admit to ourselves that school systems are not safe places for students of color and speak out when we see injustices.
Recently, a six-year-old Orlando girl was handcuffed and arrested, sparking outrage. Yet, countless incidents exemplify the inequitable treatment of Black and Brown students who are suspended and expelled at much higher rates than white students for the same infractions. The “pipeline to prison” starts with schools that feel like prisons with metal detectors, security cameras and locked gates. A 2019 study revealed that over 75% of schools in the US are segregated in racially concentrated districts. Unequal conditions impact achievement for students of color through lower funding, less qualified teachers, and a lack of resources including counseling, mental health support, and access to high level coursework.
Timothy Jenkins of Teaching for Change told the Washington Post, “Our youth must be exposed to the facts about America instead of the myths. They need to put law enforcement in context and understand that police are doing nothing more than following the dictates of society — which is to protect privilege and property, not individual rights. You have to know what you’re dealing with before you can change it.” Educators also need to become cognizant of these facts.
Just this week, while Don was teaching his graduate level Social Justice class, several students sought his advice on what they could and should do about teacher colleagues who they believe exhibit implicit bias toward students of color and treat them unfairly. Confronting colleagues, and having hard conversations about perceived bias, is never risk-free but always the right thing to do. For too long, far too many of us have looked the other way when injustices were apparent. We must directly confront that which we know or perceive to be wrong. Don advised his students (all teachers), “Do not ignore your moral compass!”
Staying quiet is not acceptable! Open conversations about the realities of racism and bigotry with staff and students.
2. Examine our own identities and our mindsets, reflecting on implicit and explicit biases.
Understanding our beliefs and behaviors opens pathways to compassion for our students. Ask questions like these that Susan uses in her teacher preparation course to self-examine deeply held beliefs about identity:
- How do you identify yourself and what does that mean to you and to others?
- Why is this identity so important to you?
- What privilege or lack thereof comes with this labeling of oneself?
- How does that identity enhance or hinder how we navigate the world?
- Is identity a belief system and where does that come from?
- How far will we go to defend that sense of self?
- How open or closed are we to others, who are different from us?
- Can we expand those beliefs?
- What is prejudice?
- As a teacher, how can that sense of identity enhance or hinder how we deal with our students?
- Work to address implicit bias. Researcher Patricia Devine demonstrated interventions that effectively reduce implicit bias. Strategies in her 12-week prejudice habit-breaking sessions included countering stereotypes, empathetic perspective-taking and positive intergroup contact. California State Superintendent of Instruction Tony Thurmond is launching a statewide initiative to stop systemic racism starting with efforts to reduce implicit bias across the State Department of Education. For this to be effective, it must involve the top leadership.
- Teach an empathetic mindset. Stanford professor Jason Okonofua researches empathetic discipline and ways to combat implicit bias. One study included two groups of teachers and 1,682 of their students. One group read about an empathetic mindset. The second group read about a punitive mindset. The empathetic mindset group suspended half as many students as those in the punitive mindset group. Okonofua explained, “By having just one teacher who is more empathic towards them, students are less likely to be suspended by any teacher in any part of the school.”
- Learn about microaggressions and act to stop them. People of color are regularly subjected to negative stereotypes, biased comments and indignities of being disrespected and/or ignored. Researcher David Williams studies the effect of microaggressions on health. Teens who experienced higher levels of discrimination were found by age 20 to have increased stress, higher blood pressure, and a greater incidence of obesity and mental health issues. Williams explains that “at every level of income and education, there is still an effect of race.” According to Williams, “Even wealthy Black Americans are statistically less healthy than affluent white people. . . . About 220 African Americans die every day in the United States who would not die if their death rates were similar to those of white people.”
- Examine your beliefs and how you communicate your mindset about intelligence. Researcher Mary Murphy and colleagues studied university professors and students in STEM courses and found that professors who believed in a growth mindset — that intelligence grows with effort — improved the achievement of all students with the greatest effects among students of color.
Staying quiet is not acceptable! We can unearth and address implicit and explicit bias and learn about and increase acceptance of our own and each other’s social identities.
3. Keep the global wellbeing of students at the heart of schooling.
Shift the paradigm from students as vessels to be filled with knowledge to students as multifaceted people. Focus on educating the whole child. That means creating a positive climate that affirms all students; using effective instructional strategies; providing individual support based on how each student learns; and attending to social and emotional needs, prosocial development, interpersonal skills and their overall physical and mental wellbeing.
- Safety comes first. Students must feel safe before they can learn.
- Listen to students and find out what they feel and care about.
- Create identity safety where students feel valued and that their backgrounds and social identities are welcomed as assets to learning, where they feel accepted and a sense of belonging. While identity safe teaching is an approach rather than a program, Becki developed a spreadsheet with K-12 examples of identity safe strategies.
- Build rapport and strong relationships with students and among students.
- Ask, “What do we want them to learn and be able to do and how are we going to ensure it happens? When it doesn’t happen, how are we going to scaffold?”
- Provide counter-narratives to messaging that tells students that some races are more intelligent than others.
- Teach the growth mindset so students know that with effort and learning from mistakes they can continually grow and improve their performance.
Staying quiet is not acceptable! Take action for learning and belonging.
4. Counter societal stereotypes and use anti-racism resources and materials.
- Engage young children and older ones in conversations about race, help them understand the history.
- Teach them how to respond to microaggressions, bias-based bullying and discrimination. They can learn to be upstanders who speak up and stand up for themselves and others.
- Facilitate opportunities for students to influence their peers with student-led initiatives like the Los Angeles students who mounted a campaign, “No Human Being Was Born Illegal,” to stop the use of the term “illegal” to describe undocumented immigrants, and initiate dialogue.
Staying quiet is not acceptable! Take action to help students fight racism and be upstanders.
5. Examine your school. How are students of color being treated? What are their academic and social outcomes?
Protests have called for police departments to dismantle and completely restructure systems of policing. Across America, communities are starting to shift funding away from policing to human needs. Additional funding is critical to eliminate funding inequities especially in communities with many students of color. But that is insufficient. We need to restructure our entire educational system to eliminate opportunity gaps and meet every student’s needs.
- Set up a leadership group with teachers, staff, parents, students, and administrators to critically examine the system.
- Begin with a complete needs assessment: ask students if school is a place of learning for them, are they accepted, supported, and a sense of belonging; also obtain parent, faculty, and staff input.
- Gather and analyze data by ethnic group: achievement; attendance; suspension/expulsion rates; parent involvement; tracking, and participation in advanced placement courses.
- Develop an ongoing action plan. Monitor to discover what works. In most cases, this will also involve going beyond the schoolhouse to the district and the larger community for policy changes and additional funding.
- Take the time and give the time to ensure sustained change.
Start small and go big. One school examined their homework policy and found research showing it minimally affected achievement.They changed their policy. Another school reviewed data on the popular robotics program, discovering the majority were white because the feeder schools with mostly Black and Latino students did not offer necessary prerequisite coursework. They then instituted a summer course to prepare students for the program. In each case, these processes led to changes that positively impacted students of color.
Staying quiet is not acceptable! Start working to redress institutional inequities.
What will it take? We now ask each educator to return to the question: What will it take for us — no matter what role we play in education — to speak up, to contribute to educational equity and commit to ongoing work? We cannot stop because it is too uncomfortable, nor allow ourselves to think if we do not talk about it, it will go away. It will not go away. We cannot stop because we are overwhelmed by the enormity of the task. We cannot lose hope. Now is the time.
Staying quiet is not acceptable. Quiet is not peace!
This article was co-written by Susan Charles, Don Cox, and Becki Cohn-Vargas