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

What Teachers Should Learn From the Death of George Floyd

By Larry Ferlazzo — June 01, 2020 10 min read
  • Save to favorites
  • Print

UPDATED

(This the first post in a multipart series on this topic.)

The question is:

What should teachers learn from the death of George Floyd?

The death of George Floyd, the community response to it, and the subsequent police violence are shedding some light on racism and its effects—in our country, our communities, and in our institutions—including in schools.

Today, Antoine Germany and Lorie Barber share their thoughts. 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

The importance of being anti-racist

Antoine Germany is a teacher at Luther Burbank High School in Sacramento, Calif., and chair of its English department:

The tragic passing of George Floyd, a black man who died after a white police officer in Minneapolis kneeled on his neck, has obviously struck a nerve in American society. The subsequent protests nationwide are a testament to how individuals in minority communities have been abused, distrusted, marginalized, and dehumanized for many years. The call for justice for the perpetrators of this senseless killing is only one aspect of why so many Americans have taken to the streets and expressed their outrage and frustration to a society that has seen these injuries to black and brown bodies far too often. The issues involved are many; however, what should educators take away from this particular episode in an ongoing saga of the killing of black men by the people sworn to protect them? What hard truths do teachers, administrators, and policymakers have to confront to remedy issues that George Floyd’s death highlight?

Systemic racism is not unique to the criminal-justice system. It is far too easy to point out the martyrs of police killings: Eric Garner, Tamir Rice, Walter Scott, Alton Sterling, and Freddie Gray just to name a few. It is also easy to point out the racial disparities in incarceration rates, bail determinations by judges, and felony disenfranchisement to see that the criminal-justice system works differently for different races. Many have pointed out that the criminal-justice system isn’t dysfunctional at all but does exactly what it was designed to do. After the bloody Civil War and the end of slavery, the 13th Amendment freed the slaves but offered the caveat of “involuntary servitude” for duly convicted criminals; shortly thereafter, black men began to be incarcerated at alarming rates for minor offenses such as loitering. The “War on Drugs” which succeeded the “Law and Order” platforms of the ‘70s began the age of mass incarceration where millions of black and brown people were imprisoned and millions more were relegated to second-class citizens for being a felon. Many would argue that the criminal-justice system offers a window into the American psyche, and what it reveals is a criminalization and fear of black and brown people and a dehumanization of said people.

But what about education? Is it dysfunctional or does it succeed in accomplishing what it was designed to do? The data are clear that black and brown students are suspended more regularly, test more poorly, and drop out more regularly than their white counterparts. The famed “school to prison pipeline” offers a window into the American psyche as well. Public schools in America began as a segregated enterprise, funding for schools was never designed to be equal, and expectations or outcomes were never the same for black students historically.

So if systemic racism is not unique to the penal system and is actually true of the educational system as well, what can we do? What should be done to correct a system that appears colorblind but in fact is anything but?

As Ibram Kendi writes, it is not enough to not be racist, we must be anti-racist. Many individuals, whether they are teachers, administrators, or teacher aides point to their own efforts working with minority communities and ask themselves what can I do to be part of the solution for their students. There are many things that can be done, from valuing diversity in the workforce, particularly in leadership, to teachers actually living in the community in which they teach. However, the greatest catalyst for change is to realize that we as individuals make up the system.

Teachers, coaches, support staff are the educational system. Each individual might not have personal animus toward any race, but that’s not enough. Neutrality is what gives us the system we have today. Silence in the face of systemic racism and oppression is no different from the police officers who stood idly by while Mr. Floyd pleaded for his life. We must be anti-racist, we must confront, name, and actively dismantle a system that benefits some but marginalizes others. That means we don’t teach history as a dry collection of facts but as a living, moving, drama that affects our students today. That means we select a curriculum that is not only from diverse editors but also raises issues of oppression. It means schools try to intervene when a student is chronically absent or in the behavior office regularly. It means we actively talk about race and racism in faculty meetings and department meetings instead of assuming “colorblindness.”

Unfortunately, the story of George Floyd is an all too familiar one. We have seen this story before; the protests eventually fade, the crowds will soon disperse until the next victim. Let’s hope that the legacy of Mr. Floyd this time is to do what we can as individuals to right the wrongs that we see everyday and be the voice to so many students who are voiceless.


A change must come

Lorie Barber is a 5th grade teacher and book lover who lives and works in the westurn suburbs of Chicago:

George Floyd.

One in dozens of names that we know off the top of our heads, along with Ahmaud Arbery. Trayvon Martin. Sandra Bland. Philando Castille. Eric Garner. Tamir Rice. Laquan McDonald, Brionna Taylor. Racist actions resulting in the murders of Black people. Some by citizens, some by police. And countless others that have died at the hands of racism, whose names we forget. Why? Part of the reason is systemic racism in education. Seventhy-nine percent of educators are White. Yet 52 percent of our students identify as Black, Latinx, Asian/Pacific Islander, or Native American (National Center for Education Statistics).

I was asked to write a blog post answering the question, “What should teachers learn from the death of George Floyd?” Honestly, I vacillated as to whether I should comment. I’m not a racism expert, only having begun my anti-racist work two years ago. I’m not Black. I work hard to center and amplify Black voices, yet this seemed counterproductive to that. But, my Black colleagues are tired of their White colleagues asking what they should do in times like this. What they should read. What actions they should take. IT IS NOT ACCEPTABLE TO ASK YOUR BLACK FRIENDS OR COLLEAGUES TO DO THIS WORK FOR YOU. White people made this mess. It’s up to us to fix it. In fact, it’s way past time. We cannot continue to ignore the systemic racism that results in five times as many Black men than White men being incarcerated (NAACP.)

So, what SHOULD we learn from George Floyd’s death?

First, we must learn how to be anti-racist, not NOT racist. Dr. Ibram X. Kendi (author of How to Be an Antiracist) says, “I define an antiracist as someone who is expressing an antiracist idea or supporting an antiracist policy with their actions, and I define an antiracist idea as any idea that says the racial groups are equal.” To be anti-racist, we should learn about bias and do the lifelong internal work of uncovering, naming, sitting with, and talking about our biases. We ALL have biases. They’re part of our socialized brains. I have uncovered many of mine (and have many more) that have changed the way I interact with my Black students and students of color. The internal work is messy. It’s hard. You’ll get defensive. But keep asking yourself, “What will happen to my Black students if I don’t advocate for them?” DiAngelo’s White Fragility is PERFECT for this work.

Most important of all, we need to LISTEN to the Black community. We need to pull back the curtain on micro (and not-so-micro) aggressions toward students of color. There are infinite resources that will allow you to listen to the Black community and begin to understand why “reverse racism” and “all lives matter” are not things. Some are listed here, with the knowledge that my anti-racist journey is built on the shoulders of GIANTS, to whom I am immensely grateful.

Books I’ve used on anti-racism for teachers and students:


  • How to Be an Antiracist by Dr. Ibram Kendi
  • White Rage by Carol Anderson
  • Dying of Whiteness by Jonathan Metzl
  • Stamped by Kendi & Jason Reynolds (great for the younger set if you’re looking to do this work with your children at home or your middle or high school students)
  • This Book is Antiracist by Tiffany Jewell (great for middle grades and up in classrooms and at home)
  • We Got This: Equity, Access, and the Quest to Be Who Our Students Need Us to Be by Cornelius Minor
  • Being the Change: Lessons and Strategies to Teach Social Comprehension by Sara K. Ahmed. I use this as the base of my teaching bias and discrimination with my students.
  • An Indigenous People’s History of the United States for Young People, adapted by Jean Mendoza and Dr. Debbie Reese. This is the student version of the original written by Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz and is a vital component of my social studies curriculum.

There are MANY hashtags, organizations, and people on Twitter (please don’t ask them to do anti-racist research for you!). I am @barberchicago; rather than give you a list of a million educators of color, take a look at who I follow.

Finally, we must learn to teach this relevant and current topic to our students, no matter our discomfort. Our discomfort doesn’t matter. Again, sit with it. Say you are uncomfortable. Say you are new at being anti-racist. It’s OK to be vulnerable with students as you grapple with this work together.

This lifelong work: Uncovering our biases, listening, and teaching anti-racism is the work of teachers, and it is past time that we act on behalf of our kids.

Thanks to Antoine and Lorie 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

Assessment

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.

This post has been updated to reflect the current legal situation surrounding the death of George Floyd.

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.


Commenting has been disabled on edweek.org effective Sept. 8. Please visit our FAQ section for more details. To get in touch with us visit our contact page, follow us on social media, or submit a Letter to the Editor.


Events

This content is provided by our sponsor. It is not written by and does not necessarily reflect the views of Education Week's editorial staff.
Sponsor
Teaching Webinar
6 Key Trends in Teaching and Learning
As we enter the third school year affected by the pandemic—and a return to the classroom for many—we come better prepared, but questions remain. How will the last year impact teaching and learning this school
Content provided by Instructure
This content is provided by our sponsor. It is not written by and does not necessarily reflect the views of Education Week's editorial staff.
Sponsor
Curriculum Webinar
How Data and Digital Curriculum Can Drive Personalized Instruction
As we return from an abnormal year, it’s an educator’s top priority to make sure the lessons learned under adversity positively impact students during the new school year. Digital curriculum has emerged from the pandemic
Content provided by Kiddom
This content is provided by our sponsor. It is not written by and does not necessarily reflect the views of Education Week's editorial staff.
Sponsor
Equity & Diversity Webinar
Leadership for Racial Equity in Schools and Beyond
While the COVID-19 pandemic continues to reveal systemic racial disparities in educational opportunity, there are revelations to which we can and must respond. Through conscientious efforts, using an intentional focus on race, school leaders can
Content provided by Corwin

EdWeek Top School Jobs

Teacher Jobs
Search over ten thousand teaching jobs nationwide — elementary, middle, high school and more.
View Jobs
Principal Jobs
Find hundreds of jobs for principals, assistant principals, and other school leadership roles.
View Jobs
Administrator Jobs
Over a thousand district-level jobs: superintendents, directors, more.
View Jobs
Support Staff Jobs
Search thousands of jobs, from paraprofessionals to counselors and more.
View Jobs

Read Next

Teaching Photos What School Looks Like When Learning Moves Outside
One class of 5th graders shows what's possible when teachers take their lessons outside.
1 min read
Teacher Angela Ninde, right, works with students in their garden at Centreville Elementary School in Centreville, Va., on Sept. 7, 2021.
Teacher Angela Ninde, right, works with students in their garden at Centreville Elementary School in Centreville, Va.
Jaclyn Borowski/Education Week
Teaching If Outdoor Learning Is Safer During COVID, Why Aren't More Schools Doing It?
Teachers and advocates tout the benefits of outdoor learning, but there are barriers for some schools, including the risk of gun violence.
9 min read
Angie Ninde leads her class through a math lesson outside at Centreville Elementary School in Virginia on Sept. 7, 2021.
Angie Ninde leads her class through a math lesson outside at Centreville Elementary School in Virginia Sept. 7. The risk of COVID-19 transmission is lower outdoors, so some schools are trying to take classes into the fresh air as much as possible.
Jaclyn Borowski/Education Week
Teaching Opinion Integrating SEL & Tech Into This New School Year
Technology opens up programs that allow students to drive their learning, while social-emotional learning influences lessons and teaching.
7 min read
Images shows colorful speech bubbles that say "Q," "&," and "A."
iStock/Getty
Teaching In Their Own Words 'Chaos in the Adult World': A New York Principal Tells Her Story of Being a Teacher on 9/11
Janet Huger-Johnson was a 5th grade teacher in New York City on Sept. 11, 2001. Here's her story.
5 min read
Principal Janet Huger-Johnson at East New York Elementary School of Excellence in Brooklyn, New York on Sept. 8. 2021.
Principal Janet Huger-Johnson at East New York Elementary School of Excellence in the Brooklyn borough of New York.
Jackie Molloy for Education Week