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With Larry Ferlazzo

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Teaching Opinion

‘Advice for the Newly Woke White Teachers on Teaching Black Children’

By Larry Ferlazzo — June 03, 2020 13 min read
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(This is Part Three in a multipart series on this topic. You can see Part One here and Part Two here.)

The question is:

What should teachers learn from the killing of George Floyd?

In Part One, Antoine Germany and Lorie Barber shared their thoughts.

In Part Two, Dr. Tracey A. Benson and Holly Spinelli contributed their commentaries.

Today, Joe Truss and Janice Wyatt-Ross make their recommendations.

Several more posts in this series will appear throughout the week.

You might also be interested in numerous past posts appearing here on race and racism in schools and how to combat it: Race & Gender Challenges

Advice for the newly ‘woke’ white teachers on teaching black children

Joe Truss is committed to dismantling white-supremacy culture in schools. He grew up in San Francisco’s Tenderloin neighborhood and taught high school Spanish in Oakland, Calif. He has been the principal of Visitacion Valley Middle School in San Francisco for five years. There, he has worked to grow project-based learning, restorative practices, and reading intervention. In 2018, he started his blog CulturallyResponsiveLeadership.com, where he writes about school leadership and anti-racism. He also offers leadership coaching and workshops on racial equity. He is offering an upcoming workshop on Dismantling White Supremacy Culture in Schools, on June 27-28:

I am reflecting on the recent racist events of thousands of brown bodies dying due to COVID-19, the wave of police murders, and all the entitled people violating shelter-in-place orders, trying to create another Emmett Till. As a result, I wanted to share my reflections and advice for teachers. There is one version for teachers of color and one for White teachers.

Teacher of Color Version: I love you. We are in this together. Keep fighting for our babies. You already possess everything you need. You are priceless and part of the global majority. There is nothing minor about you. I am here with you. I love you. We will get through this. We always do. Survival, resistance, and empowerment is in our DNA, in our spirit. I love you.

White Teacher Version: You’ve got work to do. Today, you’re posting about social justice, buying anti-racist books, following brown folks, and temporarily changing your profile pictures. Cool. Here’s what I need you to do tomorrow and to keep doing in the future:

Don’t look away from the images. Ahmaud Arbery was shot in cold blood. George Floyd was slain in broad daylight. Breonna Taylor was killed in her home. When you find yourself getting overwhelmed, feeling guilty, and wanting to burden a brown person, stop. Find a few White folks to talk to about Whiteness and anti-Blackness. Read about White fragility and push through it. Push others through it and engage in White affinity anti-racist conversations. Continue reading about Black history and exploring narratives of Black people but please make sure they are written by Black people.

On Systemic Racism and Learning

When you are ready to zoom out from thinking about individual events, the racist nature of the system will start to come into clearer view. We are already getting a better picture of institutional racism in health care, employment policy, worker compensation, and the education system as a result of COVID-19. All of these institutions have a profound impact on students’ lives. Make an inventory of your previous voting records, including propositions, measures, and elected officials. Look at the results of your voting and determine to what extent your votes supported an agenda of White privilege and anti-Blackness. Apply a critical-race-theory lens to politics and the impact of political decisions on the Black community, and by extension, on Black students. The same can be done with the policies in your school. Vote differently and stop compromising your morals.

At this point, you might have become tired of talking about, thinking about—and if you have been trying harder, working on—racism. If you feel tired, multiply that by a lifetime and you will start to get a picture of what it is to be a Black, Indigenous, or Person of Color. You shouldn’t feel so tired. You should get back to work. Refrain from asking People of Color how to continue fighting racism. That’s offensive. We have to fight. Instead, get some help from White folks. Not just any White folks. You should look to people who are further along in their conscious development, more humble about their wokeness, and more willing to break White solidarity. Look to them, read their work, and listen to them speak. Go back and discuss these issues with White folks working toward anti-racism.

If you feel like you need to go to a Person of Color to tell them you support them, don’t; just support them. If you feel like you need to go to a Person of Color to ask them where to start, don’t; go and find a White person who is further along in their consciousness development. Not every book is equal, especially for you. Here’s an anti-racist book list to get you started. When you’ve finished reading books written by White people for White people, read books written by Black people for White people, and finally, read books written by Black people for Black people. There’s a difference. Notice the subtleties. You should be able to hear the message in all forms, but if you can’t, explore why you can’t. When you aren’t emotionally triggered or playing devil’s advocate, and your White fragility isn’t acting up as much as before, you will know you are making progress.

On Interrupting Racism in Schools

There are conversations happening right now in your home, your classroom, and your school that need to be disrupted. Listen in White spaces and in mixed-race spaces for racist remarks, microaggressions, racial-equity myths, White rage, and white-supremacy culture. Pay attention to what other White folks say in staff meetings, small breakouts, and, even more importantly, informal conversations in the staff lounge, the parking lot, or the copy room. But it’s not enough to just listen. If you see something, say something and do something. Be ready to go to war with racists and even harder with the “I’m not racist” folks, at a moment’s notice. You are going to feel tired. But you aren’t. We’re tired. Consider what it would take for folks not to feel comfortable around you anymore with their racist and nonracist comments.

On Relationships and Classroom Management

Stop trying to manage us, control us, or trick us into being like you with school bucks and trinkets. The rate of punishment of Black bodies is disproportionately high, so learn more about restorative justice and restorative practices. Stop kicking so many damn kids out of class.

This will give you a different relationship with your Black students. When someone asks, “Why are we doing this again?” remind them of the racial bias Whites have toward people with dark skin. If they need an example, remind them of the killing of Trayvon Martin, Sandra Bland, and Oscar Grant. Turn on the news and realize that ain’t nothing changed simply because you woke up a little bit more and acknowledged more of what’s in your invisible knapsack of privilege. When you are ready, you will find that there’s more. Returning to restorative practices, accept that there is a lot more you need to do before taking on any restorative actions—things that have nothing to do with classroom management. Even before the content and pedagogy, it has to begin with you.

On Teaching and Learning

When you return to the classroom, think about how you can elevate and center the Black experience in your curricula, year-round, not just in February. Be careful not to tell only stories of oppression and struggle. In addition, shine light on stories and examples of resistance, affirmation, and empowerment. Take half—if not all—of the adopted textbook and throw it out. Create what will engage and interest your most marginalized and oppressed students. Think about what will empower them. Stop talking so much in class and monopolizing the time. Trust me, the students don’t want to hear it. If your kids want to talk, let them learn through talking like we all do. Give them something to talk about that is interesting, challenging, and meaningful to them. Not you. Them. Get your kids moving, active, out of those individual desks, and out of the four walls of confinement. There’s a whole world out there to explore—and, spoiler alert—learning can happen there, too. If you do it right, you can even be a part of it.

Continual Learning and Reflection

Pick up another book to read, join another discussion group, sign up for another seminar about your content and pedagogy but, primarily, continue to unpack your privilege. Digging through the cobwebs of colonialism is more powerful in White affinity groups. Now that you have done some reflection and taken some action, I am sure that another atrocity of racism, another incident of anti-Blackness will have happened. You will be more prepared and better versed in the process of awakening and reckoning with anti-racism. You might even be able to bring this into your classroom. You should. You will need help. But because you are more aware, don’t excuse yourself from the work. We are all recovering white supremacists, perpetrators of white-supremacy culture (even me, as a Black man). Since you are further along, help other White folks on their path but don’t stop moving. Stagnation facilitates the status quo, and your students need you to be working toward transformation and liberation. You might even have some Brown folks to be in solidarity with. Don’t ask them. When it’s time, they will let you know. It might take your whole life to have an authentic partnership. That’s OK. Keep working.

“Stop placing yourselves as their savior”

Janice Wyatt-Ross is the program director for a dropout-prevention/re-engagement center in Lexington, Ky. She and her husband of 23 years are the parents of two daughters:

I read a post this past week wherein someone has been praying about what they can do help the Black community in the wake of the death of George Floyd. This person finally settled on the idea that mentoring “at risk” youths or children in foster care is the answer. “There are so many kids who need someone to put them on the right path and lead by example.” That person’s epiphany did not rest well with me, and I pondered on it for a few days. I was not disturbed by the desire to help. I was unsettled that the person chose to help those in which she felt were underprivileged. She did not choose to advocate for her peers or colleagues but rather she felt the tug to go “down in the trenches” and give of her time to “at risk” youths. Please don’t get me wrong, there is a need to support children in the foster-care system but how, better yet who, is considered at risk?

As an educator, I am always thinking like a teacher. As a Black educator, I am intentional to always view the world through the lens of the oppressed. As a parent, I am always trying to gain insight that I will share with my children. First, as an educator, it is very presumptuous of this person to automatically assume that children who they deem “at risk” need to be led. Youths need guidance. They need to be shown various lifestyle choices. As a parent, my own children have been viewed or could be viewed as “at risk” by those who view them out of the context of their home environment. Who is doing the leading, and where are you leading them? How am I to know that you are leading them in the right direction for them?

Second, it is very presumptuous of this person to think that children surrounded by barriers are inevitably destined for failure if they are not led. It is not you who needs to save “these kids.” As an educator, my role is to prepare them for the future. My role is to make sure that they have access to opportunities and access to resources. I do not force my ways of being on to them. I create the environment for them to be free to be whomever they want to be. I cannot force them to do things my way. I can only provide them with the tools they will need for the future. It is up to the student to accept what I have to offer.

What can teachers do to stop the cycle of racism? Stop assuming that you are the only one who has the students’ best interests at heart. Stop penalizing them because they express themselves in ways that are not pleasing to you. Stop being afraid of them because of their skin color. Stop placing yourselves as their savior. Stop making assumptions that their parents do not care. Stop making assumptions that they misbehave in school because they have not been taught. Consider why they/we act out. What is your role in this behavior? Consider that they may be acting out because you emit vibrations of dislike that they can detect. Instead of pointing a finger at them, examine the three that are pointing back at you.

What we need you to do is advocate for us. We need you to use your power of influence to make sure you and your friends don’t fire us when we call you/them on your biases. Stop dismissing the consequences of your actions and replacing them with your intentions. Stop making it about you and your opinion and LISTEN when we tell you the impact of your words, rules, and actions. We need you to LISTEN and understand why we responded the way we responded. Stop thinking you have all the answers. ASK us how you can help. You can make sure that you are not being a barrier to closing the racial divide. Indigenous, Black, Persons of Color (IBPOC) children need opportunities. They need the same resources as other children; such as internet, computers, transportation, business attire, after-school tutors in higher-level classes, after-school jobs. Give them the resources and many of them will take care of the rest. Give them your time. Get to know them. Don’t come with predetermined lists of what you think they need. Give them the opportunity to demonstrate their intelligence and creativity. Don’t tell them how to be smart. Let them be smart in their own right. These are the things that you can do. This is not an exhaustive list, but it is a start.

Thanks to Joe and Janice for their contributions!

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Correction: A previous version of this essay included an incorrect spelling of Emmett Till’s name.

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