Equity & Diversity

Are Parents OK With Talking About Race in the Classroom? Teachers Are Unsure

By Sarah Schwartz — November 01, 2018 3 min read
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How are teachers deciding whether or not to discuss race in the classroom? New research suggests that their perception of parents’ opinions may play a role.

The study, coming out of the University of Pittsburgh’s Center for Urban Education, surveyed about 500 current and preservice teachers about discussing race and racial violence in the classroom. About 80 percent of the respondents were white, mirroring the national teaching population.

Of the teachers surveyed, 85 percent said race and racial discrimination were important topics to cover with their students. But only 30 percent said they felt their students’ families would support a decision to take those topics up in the classroom.

The majority of teachers—60 percent—said they weren’t sure how parents would react, while 10 percent said they thought parents would oppose any discussion of race in school.

Not all teachers who were uncertain about parents’ views feared that they would react negatively. In open-ended responses, some participants said they weren’t sure of families’ opinions because they were starting in a new school this year or hadn’t met parents yet (about half of the survey respondents were preservice teachers).

But many of these teachers anticipated conflict or backlash from families.

Community Context

In explaining why parents may or may not support conversations about race, teachers most commonly wrote about the context of their community, said Lori Delale-O’Connor, an assistant professor of education, and the lead author on the study.

Teachers who said their students’ parents would support conversations about race cited their community’s diversity or urban setting, while those who were less certain they could count on parents’ support said it was because their area was mostly white and conservative.

A few referenced the national political climate. “The recent presidential election has proven that a lot of people are not ‘on board’ with having these conversations,” said one white preservice teacher in the Midwest.

These responses convey that teachers feel constrained by what they see as the power dynamics in their communities, said Delale-O’Connor.

But the explanations also rely on broad generalizations, she said, like “rural equals racist and urban equals progressive and diverse,” and it’s very possible that individual parents have more nuanced views. If teachers don’t have strong relationships with their students’ families, they may be more likely to rely on this “shorthand,” she said. “What do I know, or what do I think I know, about this community?”

Some teachers acknowledged that race was important to cover—but said that they shouldn’t be the person to bring it up with their students.

Several white teachers said they thought the parents of students of color wouldn’t want them to be leading conversations about race. “To be honest, I’m not sure if my students’ parents, being primarily Hispanic, would think that a white male would be the best to discuss race, as my experiences in life are different, due to my race,” said one high school teacher in the Midwest.

And others said bringing up race wasn’t relevant or appropriate for their subject matter. “Not sure if [parents] would be comfortable with that topic in a math class,” said one teacher who identified as multiracial.

The survey didn’t ask how much parental support would factor into teachers’ decisions to discuss race or not, said Delale-O’Connor.

But overall, the results speak to the power that teachers’ perceptions of their students’ communities have in shaping instructional decisions, she said. “Parents’ presence can influence what’s going on in that classroom, even when they’re not there,” she said.

If teachers feel that they can’t address these topics due to parental pressure, the first step is for teachers and schools to communicate with families, said Delale-O’Connor. Are teachers’ concerns warranted?

If they are, adminstrators need to “support the removal of that barrier, the way we would with any other topic that we feel is critical,” she said. “Do caregivers have that same kind of influence on whether or not you should teach algebra?”

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A version of this news article first appeared in the Teaching Now blog.