5 Steps Toward Building Racial Equity in the Classroom

It's time to talk about racial equity in the classroom. I get personal in this post, discuss my own shortcomings, and offer 5 ways to build racial equity in the classroom.

Equity is one of the most important issues in education–especially as we embark on a year of uncertainty. Many of us are going virtual or hybrid in the midst of a global pandemic and national unrest. Our students need us to be present even though we’re physically distant.

In light of that, the series Teaching in Uncertain Times continues with specific ways to build racial equity in the classroom… Last week, we discussed Culturally Responsive Teaching in Any Setting. This week, we’re digging into the biggest issues in the U.S. since, well, before it was the U.S.–Racism, Equity, and our responsibility as educators.

I’m going to get personal for a minute. This is hard for me because I’m a private person. I mean Ron Swanson Private. So this is hard. I’ll talk shop all day, but my story’s my own and I guard it. I also respect my son’s story as his, so I’m speaking with his permission.

When I was in my 20s, I had some some health issues, two major surgeries, and I lost my ability to have children. So my husband (Latino and Irish) and I (English and Scots-Irish) adopted our son. He’s Black.

I was too naive at the time to understand fully the issues we’d have to navigate. I marched to the tune of “All You Need Is Love” and “We Live in a Post-Racial Society.”

As our son began to grow, I began to realize how uninformed I was.

He was the only Black person at family events. He was suspended in kindergarten for a similar behavior that our blond-haired blue-eyed neighbor got “talked to” about. A classmate called him the “The N Word” in third grade (this has happened since in online video games and in the neighborhood).

His fifth-grade math teacher kicked him out of class nearly every day for putting his head down in frustration (I only heard about it from one of his classmates at the end of the year–the teacher never communicated this with me [my son’s just as private as I am]). White students always want to touch his hair and White teachers always want to talk about how articulate he is. Some students tell him he doesn’t sound Black. I could go on.

It's time to talk about racial equity in the classroom. I get personal in this post, discuss my own shortcomings, and offer 5 ways to build racial equity in the classroom.

Obama was president, but racism wasn’t over. Police killed Michael Moore and I woke up.

I’m afraid for my son. Flat out scared.

I teach at a majority Black school (last year, I taught 122 students–19 of them were White). I listened to TLC in the 90s and strove to be colorblind and not so shallow. That was wrong of me.

To be colorblind is to dismiss the struggles and “microaggressions” (I put that in quotes because they happen every day, they add up, and they’re painful–so in no way “micro”) that our Students of Color experience daily. We can’t indulge in colorblindness if we want to build racial equity in the classroom.

I joined a Facebook group for parents of transracial adoption and got schooled on several occasions. The most memorable for me was when I dismissed a racist act as “ignorant.”

I was wrong. It’s not ignorant because we all know better or have the capacity to. The act was just…racist.

I’m saying this to let you know that I’m not perfect. I struggle with myself and my biases on a daily basis. But I want to grow. I want to be an agent of change in our society.

I want to help create a better world for my son and his generation.

We can all do this by working together to create a more equitable world. A starting point can be right inside our classrooms.

I’m going to discuss 5 steps you can take toward racial equity in the classroom

1. Build Relationships

I talk about this all the time, but really, you have to get to know your students. If you don’t, you can be the best, smartest, most riveting teacher, but you won’t reach them.

Ask students how they feel. In his book, How To Be An Antiracist, Ibram X. Kendi tells a story about a teacher he had in third grade.

He went to a majority Black school. There were three White students in his class. They sat in the front, and the teacher called exclusively on them. One day, a shy Black girl raised her hand. The teacher paused for a moment, one of the White students raised her hand, and she called on her. The Black girl put her head down.

When the teacher dismissed the class, the young Kendi stayed back. The teacher told him to leave. He didn’t. The situation escalated, and he ended up in the principal’s office.

Good, right? He was being defiant….

Think about this. What would she have said to a White student who was obviously that upset?

“What’s wrong?”

Probably so. I’ve seen it happen.

That’s such an obvious question that we don’t always offer to all of our students–“Tell me what’s wrong.” It validates. It deescalates.

It builds relationships.

Students need to know you care about them to feel safe in your classroom. This will curtail misunderstandings and open the door for conversations. Candid conversation is a key step toward racial equity in the classroom.

2. Have Conversations

Now’s the time to have conversations about racism if we want to foment change in our nation, whether it’s in class or on Zoom or Google Meet.

Let me give you one piece of advice here–don’t expect your Students of Color to lead those conversations. Please don’t. They are exhausted. One person can’t reasonably be expected to represent an entire race. Yet we are constantly asking them to do it.

When you have these conversations, have clear guidelines. If things get out of hand, end it. But perhaps discuss why it got out of hand at a later date. We can’t achieve equity in education without talking openly to each other.

Here are helpful ideas for discussing racism and other difficult topics with students from Teaching Tolerance.

3. Examine Everything

Examine your curriculum. I teach four subjects in social studies currently. I taught ELA for six years. I’ve done a poor job of this in the past.

This became apparent to me just this past school year when I was teaching a lesson on African Kingdoms in the middle ages. It’s a short lesson. My students were shocked, amazed, and delighted to learn about the rich history and advancements of African Kingdoms.

Here’s a link to the lesson. Just be sure to make your own copy of everything in the folder so you can use it digitally.

Traditionally, history in the U.S. teaches that Africa was backwards prior to colonialism and is now better off because of it (though still struggling). This is inaccurate.

We need to look for these inaccuracies in the curriculum and actively seek to correct them if we’re going to achieve equity in education. There are so many.

4. Counter Racism

You can counter racism every day in small ways. It may not seem like much, but like “microaggressions,” it’ll add up to mean a lot.

Consider your topics each day. Bring in as many current issues and real conversations as possible. Don’t ignore the uncomfortable.

Do you have a classroom library? Be sure to include books that represent POC. Everyone needs to see themselves represented. I could visualize myself as the protagonist in every book I read as a child. I’m an avid reader to this day. Equitable racial representation in the classroom library can help build more readers.

Do you teach history? Most subjects incorporate it in some way. Eradicate inaccuracies. Many inaccuracies are subtle and culturally accepted, such as vilifying or infantilizing the “other” while purifying and elevating ourselves.

5. Keep Learning

Educating yourself on racial issues is nobody’s responsibility but your own. Please don’t expect People of Color to teach you. As White people, most of us have made this mistake, but it’s unfair. Just because you’re not experiencing the daily stressors (and often dangers) of being a POC in a White world doesn’t mean it’s not a reality.

Fortunately, there are many resources readily available to help White folks understand (at least intellectually–and that’ll lead to compassion in most of us) the issues POC must navigate every day of their lives. I’m going to list a few that have really helped me–videos, books, articles, in that order. I’m an Amazon affiliate for the book links, but I’ve read them all and definitely recommend them.

Videos

Books

Articles

How are you addressing racial equity in the classroom? Leave a comment and let me know.

And be sure to check back next week. We’re going to continue to discuss equity in the classroom and in education in general–this time with a focus on distance learning.

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