Education Opinion

What’s Important to Keep In Mind: Strategies for Navigating Race in Classrooms

By Josh Parker — August 18, 2018 6 min read
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Editor’s Note: Today’s author is Hannah Hollins. Ms. Hollins is a second year ELA teacher at the historic Paul Laurence Dunbar High School in Washington, D.C. In the words that follow, she takes you into the learning that happened during her first year as a full-time teacher. I hope you are inspired by her honest and deep reflections on how she shows up as a white teacher in her school and why our orientation to race must change.

What’s Important to Keep in Mind

-Hannah Hollins, 11th Grade ELA/AP - Paul Laurence Dunbar Senior High School, Washington, D.C.

At the beginning of last school year, I was admittedly nervous about the differences between me and my students: we had ten years between us, we were raised on opposite coasts, we would inevitably have different cultures and interests and worldviews... oh, and they were all black and brown students, and I was a translucent shade of white. Indeed, I had white skin and all the whiteness that came with it, from the harmless unhip tastes in fashion and music to the glaring, more pernicious association with the bitter part of American history brought on by white supremacist ideology. I was curious about how to teach, interact with, and have authentic relationships with my students despite my lack of cross-cultural teaching or living experience. I was nervous that my efforts to be “me” in a space that was so out of my cultural comfort zone wouldn’t translate, and that my students would write me off as just another ‘well-meaning white lady’ in their academic timeline. So, in a few points, here’s what worked to till the soils of a learning environment that encouraged compassionate, messy, and interesting personal/emotional/intellectual growth for my students and myself:

  1. Developing relationships with your black and brown students is essentially the same process as developing a relationship with any adolescent, but be mindful of underlying cultural or socioeconomic factors. Be aware that your students’ home lives are different than yours. I had a WonderBread suburban middle-class upbringing, whereas the majority of my black and brown students lived closer to the poverty line in a very expensive, very noisy, and very violent urban environment. Some of my students received emotional, academic, and familial support at home, but many of my students also had responsibilities I never had, like working for the family or caring for their younger siblings. Do not feel alienated or guilty about your differences. You must focus on what you can do-- you can forge a meaningful bond with your students to facilitate their learning about the world. My students required more explicit and consistent demonstrations of trust, acceptance, and love before I saw true buy-in or resilience during rigorous class lessons. Once you have established the norms of respect and rules in your classroom, demonstrate your trust in the student by showing them a little of your own vulnerability, like revealing when you’re upset or a negative thing that happened to you yesterday. Demonstrate your acceptance of the student by telling them, “I appreciate you” when they help you with a task or favor. Learn about their lives outside of school by asking questions that probe deeper than “Did you have a nice weekend?” On a lighter note, compliment their shoes. If you’re feeling adventurous, buy a pair that they think are hip and wear them. It may score you a few points, or at least a few laughs.

  1. Establish a common language for openly and respectfully speaking about race, or the news, or social and cultural differences. You will talk about race. It will come up, and everyone will survive. Once you’re beginning to build strong relationships, establishing a respectful common language will lower the risk of damaged emotions or pride for everyone involved in the conversation. Go over this explicitly and remind students of it each time when the conversation starts to happen. Everyone’s protocol should look different depending on the backgrounds and needs of their students, but mine included, “no generalizing language,” “no accusations or accusatory tone,” and “listen actively to see the other side.” Here is a resource from Teaching Tolerance that provides more in-depth guidance on talking about race. It’s acceptable to check students who are straying from the common language you established, but remember to also check yourself-- more on that in number 3.

  1. The only way to become conscious of your students’ realities is to listen to your students’ experiences, cultural perceptions, and thoughts about our world. Before responding, reflect on their statements. This may take time to do, and their statements might have to be unpacked again on your commute home. If a student drops a heavy truth on you and you don’t know how to respond, be honest with them. Literally say, “I hadn’t thought about it that way before” and tell them you’ll need to think about it or would like to pick up the conversation another time. Remember that being vulnerable will show your students that they can be vulnerable, too. LeAlan Jones and Lloyd Newman, two teens living on Chicago’s South-side in the nineties, hosted a radio documentary called “Ghetto Life 101,” which led listeners through their daily lives. They said that the kids living in their inner city neighborhood are like M&Ms, “all hard on the outside and sweet on the inside.” I have found that is true for my students as well. It is important to maintain a high sense of empathy, but not to let that empathy drag you into a place of negativity or helplessness if you are having trouble reconciling the differences in privilege, class, race, or worldview that may exist between you and your students. If your students are honest with you, remember to be honest with them: tell them explicitly that you are still learning how to talk about social injustice, or maybe you’re still learning to pronounce their names (that was me, week 1 of last year!). Also, be honest with yourself-- if your feelings are hurt from a conversation with a student, reflect on them later and figure out why. With mutual trust, respect, and honesty, the necessary work of sharing perspectives becomes less nerve-wracking and real learning, understanding, and action can occur.

  1. Be patient. Be flexible. Be cognizant of grouping. Keep these principles in the forefront. Part of navigating cultural differences is encountering frustration. If you don’t immediately understand your students’ actions or responses to something that happened in class, or your lesson that worked perfectly at your old school doesn’t work at your new school, don’t chalk it up to cultural differences and stop trying. I keep these principles in mind at all times to prevent myself from being a victim of even minor implicit bias. (This tool also helps). I refuse to form generalizations in mind about groups of students, such as my English as a Second Language students or my black and brown students. Remember that generalizations are damaging because they create a slippery slope in your logic, and remember to correct yourself into addressing the person first-- not the person as a member of a group. After all, if your students grouped you, they’d be lumping you in with ‘All White Teachers’ at the school or ‘All Adults,’ and if you’re like me, you’re desperately trying to be seen as an individual. At the same time, it is key to understand that as a white teacher, you do represent whiteness and that has an impact on the teaching and learning dynamic that happens within your classroom.

At the end of the school day, I hope you find, as I have found, that your students are not so different from you. As this next school year is rolling in, let’s continue this work of education, and cultural bridging, for the betterment of all humans. I hope you do see color, and that you establish an environment where nobody has to tiptoe around racial or difficult topics, and that you can work with the students and adults you see every day to bring equity and understanding to every individual in your school.

The opinions expressed in Everyday Equity in the Classroom are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.