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Teaching Opinion

What Teachers Should Learn From the Death of George Floyd

By Larry Ferlazzo — June 01, 2020 9 min read
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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 on the question, “What should teachers learn from the death of George Floyd?”

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!

The question was:

What should teachers learn from the death of George Floyd?

This is part one in a multipart series on this topic. You can see part two here,part three here, part four here, and part five here, and part six here.

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

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.

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

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