Too often, teachers, a majority of whom are white, are coming into classrooms without being fully prepared to teach students of color.
Research shows that teachers are just as likely to have racial biases as nonteachers. Those biases can manifest in everything from curriculum choices to discipline disparities and who gets called on in class. And in this moment, giving teachers a crash course on diversity is no longer enough.
Instead, scholars of race and racial-justice advocates say, teachers must learn from the start of their professional education what it means to be anti-racist in the classroom. They need to understand how students of color are treated in schools now and take proactive measures to make their own classrooms a more just place.
“We need to free ourselves from the mindsets that exist in schools—the policing of [Black students’] bodies, what they’re wearing, how loud they are in the hallway, how they’re sitting in class,” said Yolanda Sealey-Ruiz, an associate professor at Teachers College, Columbia University. Otherwise, teachers are “not really free to see the excellence of the children before them.”
Yet white teachers in particular, who make up about 80 percent of the teaching force, often don’t have the help they need in understanding their own racial identities and the privilege it confers or the way race shapes just about every aspect of American society.
“If [teachers] do not have a level of consciousness, they’re not going to talk about race because they don’t think it belongs” in the classroom, Sealey-Ruiz said. “Deciding we’re not talking about issues that impact millions of children . . . it’s unfair to the teachers and to the students who they’re teaching.”
Teachers say they want to do better for their students of color. A nationally representative EdWeek Research Center survey of 415 teachers found that most teachers said they’d be comfortable running an anti-racist classroom. Eighty-two percent of white teachers would consider themselves to be anti-racist educators, compared with 95 percent of teachers of color. (The survey sample size of teachers of color was by too small to break down race and ethnicity.)
Still, only 16 percent of teachers said their preparation program offered them anti-racist training, and 30 percent said they received that training from their districts or schools. Often, experts say, teacher education programs offer just a single course on diversity that merely scratches the surface. The gap between who identifies as an anti-racist teacher and who got any training to be one shows a need for more explicit education in this sensitive work.
I’ve talked to dozens of teachers of different races and ethnicities over the years who say they make sure they’re empowering their students of color and are teaching with an anti-racist mindset and curriculum. With preparation and resources so slim, many have resorted to finding their own materials and cobbling together support networks on Twitter and through professional organizations. Even for teachers of color, who usually start with greater understanding and knowledge, the way forward is fraught with the potential for burnout.
Keziah Ridgeway is a Black high school teacher in Philadelphia who has been teaching for eight years, African American history for three. She has worked to decolonize the curriculum in her classroom, moving beyond the Eurocentric focus of her own education, to make sure she is reaching and engaging all her students.
Realizing that other teachers were coming into the classroom without a strong foundation in anti-racism, Ridgeway and a group of other like-minded educators in Philadelphia created a 20-hour anti-racist and bias training for classroom teachers, school administrators, and other community leaders. They have provided the training for educators across the city and the broader region, including the Baltimore Teachers Union.
There’s an appetite for this kind of training, Ridgeway told me. But in order to make lasting change, we need more than isolated efforts from individual teachers. We need a systemic overhaul of how diversity, equity, and inclusion is taught in teacher preparation and in-school professional development.
What would that look like? I asked Ridgeway to share some of her thoughts on her own career and what teacher-preparation programs can do to better train teachers to work with all students but especially students of color.
For this article, Education Week also spoke to Darrell Hucks, the education department chair at Keene State College.
A version of this article appeared in the September 23, 2020 edition of Education Week as Teachers Can Take on Anti-Racist Teaching. But Not Alone