Clarification: A previous version of the author’s bio misstated the name of the Center for Teaching Quality.
Lately, when I open my phone to read the day’s news, I’m reading not just with curiosity, but with fear. Our newsfeeds are filled with horrible stories of mass shootings and hate crimes that make many Americans feel unsafe and out of control.
Many of the recent shootings—including in El Paso, Texas; Pittsburgh; potentially Gilroy, Calif.—are linked to white supremacist hatred. And hate crimes have been on the rise nationwide for three consecutive years, according to FBI data released last year.
This growing hatred seeps into our classrooms. Like many teachers, I read these stories and statistics and wonder: What can I do to help my students feel safe and ensure that the next generation no longer operates from a place of hatred and fear?
These mass shooters were once students sitting in our classrooms. It’s an unsettling thought, and I don’t raise it to scare teachers about the students they have. Rather, it serves as a reminder that we as teachers have a role to play in combatting hate. More than just making our students aware of racism, we can do anti-racist work.
It’s easy to decry the shooters as “crazy.” In the wake of the recent shootings, some educators have called for increased support around mental health and social-emotional learning. While this is critical work, research suggests that the majority of mass shootings are not attributable to mental illness. In fact, roughly 65 percent of the more than 350 mass killers counted by Columbia University forensic psychiatrist Michael Stone showed no evidence of a severe mental disorder.
Even the best SEL programs on the market don’t address the deeper roots of hatred we’re seeing in our nation. Until we provide focused education about the history and current iterations of racist beliefs at the root of this hatred, we cannot claim we are actively working to solve the problem in our classrooms.
As educators, we don’t just teach content; we teach life lessons. Here are changes we can make to ensure we are breaking down racist beliefs and systems of white supremacy in our own classrooms:
1. Educate ourselves about anti-racism work.
We can’t do this work well with students if we don’t understand it ourselves. We must acknowledge that we have all been shaped by a system built on inequality and racism—one that consistently bombards us with stereotypical images of certain cultures and excludes voices from different backgrounds.
Understanding racism and its roots, questioning our own privilege and biases, and slowly dismantling those systems and beliefs internally and in our schools is a life-long process. Online communities like #ClearTheAir and #EduColor that host Twitter chats with important discussions and resources can provide insight into how other educators are grappling with these issues (as well as great ideas for bringing that work to the classroom).
Rethinking Schools provides multiple resources and readings about using schools to break down racial biases in our country. Christopher Emdin’s For White Folks Who Teach in the Hood, bell hooks’ Teaching to Transgress, and Cornelius Minor’s We Got This are a few books that address how to create more equitable education in our classrooms, as well as the internal work teachers must begin to do to get there.
It’s also essential to understand racism outside our classrooms. Reading books like Robin DiAngelo’s White Fragility (with an excellent educator guide), How to Be an Antiracist by Ibram X. Kendi, and Beverly Tatum’s seminal text Why Are All the Black Kids Sitting Together in the Cafeteria is another way to take ownership of our own journeys toward becoming aware and active against racism.
2. Reflect on the voices we’re sharing.
We can build empathy by listening to and studying other people’s stories. Unfortunately, there is very little diversity and inclusion in the stories many of us share in our classrooms. We need to reflect on whose voices we give power to and how we create a more inclusive space with the texts we use.
Online organizations like #DisruptTexts and We Need Diverse Books provide resources and materials about the importance of diversifying the texts in our classrooms. Reflecting on whose viewpoints are given power—in all subjects, including math and science—is an essential way to start breaking down biases and harmful perceptions.
3. Don’t be afraid to discuss current events—and ask for help, too.
Our classrooms cannot cocoon our students from the real world. We can begin talking through not only the recent violence in our country, but broader instances of systemic oppression related to white supremacy, anti-immigration sentiment, racism, and LGBTQ discrimination. Organizations like Teaching Tolerance and Facing History and Ourselves provide resources for discussing current events and their historical roots.
It is a sad truth that some of us may face resistance from our communities for doing this work. This pushback is often rooted in a fear of disrupting the status quo. By sharing plans and ideas with colleagues in our personal learning network who have more experience teaching these issues, we can navigate these pitfalls together. We should communicate with parents and other teachers to help garner support. We can rely on data and resources to explain the importance of this work to skeptics. These conversations are hard and nuanced, and we can help foster growth in each other by reaching out and asking for help.
The work we do in our classrooms may feel like a small drop in the ocean, but we know that what we teach our students can help turn the societal tide. Teaching anti-racism may not directly stop a mass shooting, but it can support a cultural shift that helps dismantle racist beliefs in ourselves and each other. If we teach our students to work against white supremacy and racism, we can help create a world that no longer nurtures hatred, but actively challenges the hateful beliefs that lead to targeted violence.
A version of this article appeared in the August 21, 2019 edition of Education Week as The Urgent Need for Anti-Racist Education