Opinion Blog

Classroom Q&A

With Larry Ferlazzo

In this EdWeek blog, an experiment in knowledge-gathering, Ferlazzo will address readers’ questions on classroom management, ELL instruction, lesson planning, and other issues facing teachers. Send your questions to lferlazzo@epe.org. Read more from this blog.

Teaching Opinion

‘Educators Must Realize That There Is No Neutral Position on Issues of Racial Justice’

By Larry Ferlazzo — June 04, 2020 14 min read
  • Save to favorites
  • Print

(This is Part Four in a multipart series on this topic. You can see Part One here, Part Two here, and Part Three 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.

In Part Three, Joe Truss and Janice Wyatt-Ross made their recommendations.

Today, Jeffrey Garrett, Keisha Rembert, and Erika Niles write their responses.

Several more posts in this series will appear over the next few days.

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

“There is only racist, and anti-racist”

Jeffrey Garrett is the senior director of leadership development at the Partnership for Los Angeles Schools, a nonprofit, in-district partner with LAUSD, which supports school transformation in three of L.A.'s most historically underserved communities. In this role, he supports principals, assistant principals, teacher leaders, and instructional-leadership teams across the Partnership’s 18 schools. Jeffrey spent most of his career working in New York City, most recently as the principal of a public secondary school serving grades 6-12 in the South Bronx. He has also served as an Assistant Principal, instructional-leadership coach, and a high school social studies teacher in East Harlem and the Bronx. He began his career as a college-admissions officer at his alma mater Dartmouth College and earned his master’s degree from the Harvard Graduate School of Education:

America’s schools are failing, just not in the way you think. I grew up in St. Paul, Minn., that city you’ve seen on the news burning in response to the killing of George Floyd while in the custody of Minneapolis police. I spent a decade as an educator in Bloomberg’s stop-and-frisk New York City, wondering why I was so frequently “randomly” stopped at the train station to have my bag searched. And for the last six years, I’ve worked in the schools of Los Angeles, a city where the police chief blames protesters for the deaths that police officers cause, where families live in fear of ICE. I know well the ways in which our nation’s violent commitment to white supremacy plays out in life and in schools. So it is with a heavy heart and profound earnestness that I say that what educators need to learn during this time is simple:

1) What we are seeing now is not new. It has been going on since before there was an America.

2) What we are seeing now is not how things have to be.

3) We have a moral obligation to support our students—especially our white students—to challenge the racial hierarchy that governs their lives so that we may collectively free ourselves from it.

The dominant paradigm about American education goes something like this. The schools are in crisis! But really, they’re just failing all the black, brown, and indigenous kids. If we could only find the right formula of accountability, we could fix this. Just make all the poor black- and brown-serving schools like the more affluent, white-serving ones. Now, to be sure, there is a grain of truth there. The byproduct of genocide, slavery, a century of de jure segregation and racialized terror, and more than a half century of de facto segregation and racialized terror is, if nothing else, likely to produce an achievement gap. Our school systems have also let students, communities, and educators down in a range of ways. From low expectations, to systematic underfunding, to the cutting of extracurricular programs, we have a powerful legacy of failure. But what if there were an even greater story of failure in America’s schools that goes nearly entirely unnoticed?

The new paradigm of American education I propose goes something like this. The schools serving white America’s middle-class and affluent children, largely in segregated contexts, are on average, the most well-resourced and well-staffed institutions of public life we have in our society. And yet, they have for well over a century, churned out generation after generation of graduates who propagate a system of racial hierarchy, racialized violence and terror over the people of this nation that is, by any measure, morally reprehensible. They have failed every generation of white Americans who have come through their hallowed halls by not only failing to adequately address racism and white supremacy but by educating new generations of architects of this system who find ever more insidious ways of continuing it.

The fact of the matter is Derek Chauvin went to school, Amy Cooper went to school, so did Gregory and Travis McMichael, and William Bryan. Their schools failed them, as they have done to much of white America, for all of history. And by extension, they have failed the rest of us, with deadly consequences.

If the killing of George Floyd, and the resulting unrest we are seeing in the streets of this nation, is teaching us anything, it is that we must think differently about the story we tell ourselves about our profession and about the role school plays in addressing racial injustice. To do that, we must first rethink what we consider important in our work. Standards and testing are important, but few would argue they are more important than educating good people. What gets measured gets taught, so perhaps it is time to start rethinking the criteria by which we measure success, particularly in our most persistently failing schools, those educating our white students and communities who’ve persistently failed to address racism and white supremacy.

Second, we must do our own identity work. Educators, particularly (but not exclusively) white educators, will not be able to engage students meaningfully in critical discourse around race, power, and privilege without having done their own work around their identity and where it situates them in society. On the show I co-host, All of the Above, we had on a guest recently, Minjung Pai, who beautifully captured the importance of doing just this kind of work. The important, if painful, journey of confronting the truth of America’s racialized history cannot be done while placing oneself outside of it. We each exist in relation to that history and must confront it with brutal honesty if we are to find hope in creating a new future.

Lastly, educators must realize that there is no neutral position on issues of racial justice. As the saying goes, you are either part of the solution or part of the problem. As Dr. Ibram X. Kendi would say, there is no “not racist.” There is only racist and anti-racist. Your silence favors the status quo and the violently oppressive harm it does to black and brown folk everywhere. And perversely, that silence also harms the humanity of both the oppressor and the oppressed. Now is the time to take a clear moral stance on these issues and make clear to our students, the communities, and families that we serve where we stand and how it will inform our shared work in school.

“This is about how we work to change an entire system”

Keisha Rembert is an 8th grade English and U.S. history teacher at Clifford Crone Middle School in Naperville, Ill. Keisha feeds her love of learning by continually refining her craft and has been the recipient of several grants affording her the opportunity to take courses at some of the world’s most renowned universities. She was named Illinois’ History Teacher of the Year for 2019:

In the time it takes to walk students to their specials and return to your classroom or to grade a few papers, George Floyd died on asphalt with a knee in his neck by someone sworn to serve and protect him while others under the same oath stood casually by and watched.

As teachers, we are also called to serve and protect students. The repeated images of black corpses are trauma-inducing. It is numbing. And yet, we expect our students, especially our Black students, to persist—to persist in the face of death. We owe it to them to address the trauma they face, to be activists on their behalf, to see that the educational system is just as violent to Black children as the police and judicial system.

It’s time to examine our own house. To ask the questions: In what ways has anti-Blackness manifested itself in our schools? Are Black students always the ones lined up outside the principal’s office? Are Black students overrepresented in special education and underrepresented in gifted programs? What is the language used by the educators in our school buildings when speaking about Black children, families, and communities?

It is time to fight against the systemic educational issues impacting our students of color, and especially our Black students who have historically bore and presently bear the brunt of racial bias, prejudice, and inequity. We can no longer ignore history.

As educators, we must be aware of how we hold space in our classrooms and who we empower and esteem. We must examine our bias and root it out. We must not be causal bystanders to a system that fails children, especially our Black children, with a knee in their necks.

We must ask ourselves:

  • How have we acted as a protector and servant to white supremacy in our classrooms?
  • Does our instruction purposely attack the narrative of the elite and powerful few?
  • Have we been intentional about making Black students feel safe, respected, and prized in all things we do?

Black children have recently and repeatedly seen death disproportionately impact them through various forms of racism including COVID-19 and at the hands and knees of the police. This is bigger than the posters on our walls or our equity checklist. This is about examining our positionality in a system that perpetuates racism. This is about how we work to change an entire system and ideology stacked against Black students. We can learn a lot by asking the right questions and listening to the answers, and by taking actionable steps toward re-creating a broken system when the answers to our questions are shown to loot the promise of Black children.

“What should white teachers learn from the death of George Floyd?”

Erika Niles is an instructional coordinator in the St. Louis area. She is passionate about ALL students. Twitter: @flyingmonkey13:

When I first read the question, I wondered if I was the right person to respond. As a White educator, I don’t have all the answers. However, all too often, I have seen my Black friends and colleagues asked to do the heavy lifting when it comes to answering questions on racism, and equity. While I know I don’t have the same level of expertise and understanding, I also know that we have to stop asking the people experiencing the harm to do to the teaching. It’s on White educators to know better, to do better.

So, what should White teachers learn from the killing of George Floyd?

Decenter Yourself

As hard as it may be, and as much as you may want to, don’t look away. History is unfolding before our eyes, and racial injustice is once again in the center. Take whatever sadness you may feel as a White educator and multiply that by a lifetime of pain and injustice; that is the experience of our fellow Black educators. White people, this is not about you.

Learn History

We claim to be lifelong learners; however, we tend to limit ourselves to learning about 21st-century education and pedagogy and fail to look at the hundreds of years that Black folx have suffered as a result of our actions (or inactions). We must make ourselves incredibly familiar with history that centers the perspectives and stories of Black folx. While understanding slavery and racism is important, there are also amazing accomplishments and achievements that go unmentioned or overlooked. We must learn about those, too. If we don’t take time to educate ourselves on Black history, we are going to have a tough time confronting the systems and institutions that have perpetuated inequities and racism.

Understand Equity

We need to deepen and extend our understanding of equity to include the dismantling of systems perpetuating these inequities. In this understanding, we must acknowledge that diversity and inclusion, in isolation, will not change outcomes for our students. The best place to gather knowledge is from Black authors and educators. Read the books, follow the threads, and listen to the podcasts. And, when you think you know everything there is to know, find another Black author or educator to read or follow. And listen, again.

Don’t Wait

Buying the books and reading the books aren’t action steps. They give us background information in order to better understand what steps we should take. The first step is talking about racism. For far too long, we’ve let the wrong people set the tone and pace for this work. We can’t pause and wait for people to catch up or feel comfortable. We have an ongoing crisis in our country where people have spent hundreds of years feeling uncomfortable as a result of our inability or unwillingness to act. Being anti-racist as a public educator should be the rule, not the exception.

Build Community

Have the right people at the table. I am not, nor will I ever be, an expert on racism. Experts are those who have, themselves, experienced racism. If we aren’t working in partnership with our Black families and community members, it’s time to start. We need to have open and honest conversations about how to hire and retain more Black educators and how to support our Black families and community members. And when these experts speak, we need to listen and be prepared to act.

Relationships With Kids

Building honest and trusting relationships with our students where we can talk about race, racism, and equity should be a top priority. We need to pay attention to whose story is being told in our class and how we amplify diverse perspectives. We must model anti-racism and equity in what we say, how we say it, and whom we say it to. We can’t say we love children unconditionally and then fail to talk to them about race, racism, and equity. In doing so, we are creating greater injustice for our Black students. And if kindergarten feels too young to talk about racism, remember that our Black students have had to learn about it firsthand from the time they entered this world.

Go Vote

Get out and vote. But don’t just vote. Educate yourself on how candidates voted in the past. What did they support? What did they not support? Our sphere of influence has the potential to extend to those that we elect. Choose wisely. Black Lives Matter.

Thank You

I am not an expert. I am constantly learning from the many Black authors and educators who continue to do the heavy lifting: Michelle Alexander, John Hope Franklin, Wesley Lowery, Ta-Nehisi Coates, Layla F. Saad, Ibram X. Kendi, and many more. We must continue to magnify and amplify the voices of people who have fought so hard and overcome so much to help us in our quest to love and honor all students.

Thanks to Jeffrey, Keisha, and Erika for their contributions!

Please feel free to leave a comment with your reactions to the topic or directly to anything that has been said in this post.

Consider contributing a question to be answered in a future post. You can send one to me at lferlazzo@epe.org. When you send it in, let me know if I can use your real name if it’s selected or if you’d prefer remaining anonymous and have a pseudonym in mind.

You can also contact me on Twitter at @Larryferlazzo.

Education Week has published a collection of posts from this blog, along with new material, in an e-book form. It’s titled Classroom Management Q&As: Expert Strategies for Teaching.

Just a reminder; you can subscribe and receive updates from this blog via email or RSS Reader. And if you missed any of the highlights from the first eight years of this blog, you can see a categorized list below. The list doesn’t include ones from this current year, but you can find those by clicking on the “answers” category found in the sidebar.

All Classroom Q&A Posts on the Coronavirus Crisis

This Year’s Most Popular Q&A Posts

Race & Gender Challenges

Classroom-Management Advice

Best Ways to Begin the School Year

Best Ways to End the School Year

Implementing the Common Core

Student Motivation & Social-Emotional Learning

Teaching Social Studies

Cooperative & Collaborative Learning

Using Tech in the Classroom

Parent Engagement in Schools

Teaching English-Language Learners

Reading Instruction

Writing Instruction

Education Policy Issues


Differentiating Instruction

Math Instruction

Science Instruction

Advice for New Teachers

Author Interviews

Entering the Teaching Profession

The Inclusive Classroom

Learning & the Brain

Administrator Leadership

Teacher Leadership

Relationships in Schools

Professional Development

Instructional Strategies

Best of Classroom Q&A

Professional Collaboration

Classroom Organization

Mistakes in Education

Project-Based Learning

I am also creating a Twitter list including all contributors to this column.

Related Tags:

The opinions expressed in Classroom Q&A With Larry Ferlazzo 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.