Read the introduction to this essay, “Teachers Can Take on Anti-Racist Teaching. But Not Alone,” by Education Week staff writer Madeline Will.
In college, I was a history major, yet I learned more about the Black experience from reading books than I ever did in school. Sadly, this is also the case for many students, and poor teacher-preparation programs steeped in anti-Blackness should shoulder a large part of the blame.
I teach African American history using a curriculum that has abolished the white supremacist, racist, and patriarchal lenses that are intrinsic within schools and are so harmful to all students. This is so different from my experience as a Black Muslim student growing up in Philadelphia: I never saw myself represented in the history curriculum unless I was learning about a sanitized version of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., a tired Rosa Parks, or a “militant” Malcolm X.
I learned to love history because I was surrounded by it outside of school. Though we lived in public-housing developments, my parents had a full set of encyclopedias, the Reference Library of Black America, and a subscription to National Geographic. My parents’ efforts helped me establish a strong connection with the Black experience and Black history that I did not get in school.
Still, I almost quit my teacher-preparation program midway through after observing a lesson in African American history taught by a young white educator in a Philadelphia high school. I sat horrified as the teacher asked, “Did Africa need to be colonized?” and almost everyone said yes. The students argued that if it wasn’t for European colonization, Africa wouldn’t have access to advanced technology or important institutions like universities and hospitals, and the teacher did not correct them. What about Timbuktu University in the 1500s and ancient Egyptian prowess in geometry?
Unfortunately, 33 students, who were mostly students of color, left that class seeing Africa through a colonial and anti-Black lens. I was angry—and inspired to become what Bettina Love, a professor at the University of Georgia, calls an “abolitionist teacher.”
Abolitionist teaching, Love says, is steeped in community organizing and informed by critical race theory—the understanding that race is a social construct used by white people for their own political and financial gain. Abolitionist teachers call out racism and discrimination both within the school and larger society. They teach from a place of love that centers Black resistance and Black joy.
As an abolitionist educator, I have spent time mentoring youths and cultivating their leadership skills as the sponsor for my school’s Muslim Students Association and Black Students Association. I also became a mentor for students within the Philly Black Students Alliance, which was formed this summer to support students publicly addressing systematic racism in Philadelphia schools.
As part of building an anti-racist education system, teacher-preparation programs have to completely abandon their current model and try something new.
For starters, leaders of these programs should meet with Black, Indigenous, and other educators of color and listen to their experiences as both students and teachers. From that, faculty should create new courses and syllabi representing the best of abolitionist teacher preparation.
Teachers need to be prepared to challenge the view that math, science, and literature are primarily European or white American enterprises and that history is the account of those groups. Science teachers, for example, can add the stories of Henrietta Lacks, Katherine Johnson, and the horrific gynecological experiments of James Marion Sims to their curriculum. And elementary teachers must learn to discuss the European “Age of Exploration” from the perspective of the Indigenous people who were decimated by it.
White teachers, who may have little exposure to communities of color, must feel comfortable discussing culture and race. Teachers would be encouraged to develop spaces and extracurricular clubs within schools that encourage student leadership, dissent, public speaking, and the beauty of celebrating all forms of Blackness.
This is revolutionary thinking that is, to say the least, overdue. The recent killings of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and Tony McDade are connected to a long history of brutality. If we don’t want another crisis in 30 years, the moment to build social structures that no longer oppress Black students and other students of color is now.
And it starts with education. Teacher-preparation programs, step up.
A version of this article appeared in the September 23, 2020 edition of Education Week as I Never Saw Myself Represented