As we reflect on our work and reevaluate how we can level-up our pursuit of justice in education, I would like to reflect on racism and bias through the lens of the design qualities and offer some action steps that you can implement immediately.
I often hear teachers make excuses and generalizations about the kinds of learners they're struggling to reach. When we consider that teachers are overwhelmingly white, female, and college educated (according to this article by the NCES), there are often legitimate cultural gaps between a teacher's life experience and that of many students. If we start most basically, we know that affirmation by significant others is a factor of engagement. If teachers don't build a relationship in which they become significant, or worse, if they allow themselves to fulfill the expectations students may have about how teachers represent dominant hegemonic norms, then pursuing work for the affirmation of the teacher becomes irrelevant. In homes where parents actively help students pursue academic success, then the affirmation of parents serves as a factor of engagement, but in its absence students will instead seek out work that does earn them affirmation.
Because the majority of teachers come from privilege, their education was probably focused on people like them. Teachers may not have been prepared by programs that asked how voices of color played a role in history, advancement, innovation, or achievement. Without seeking out those sources and conscientiously and systematically including them in daily instruction, the content and substance of our work lacks authenticity to the experience of our students. How can our standards be compelling when they never intersect with, or when they denigrate, the experience and history of students of color?
As a student myself, and as a sympathetic listener to my own students, I bear witness to a multitude of (micro-) aggressions from teachers and administrators- from comments on appearance to insensitive questions, from ill-informed assumptions to blatant mockery, from discriminatory policy to outright failure to recognize basic human needs like access to a bathroom without interrupting access to instruction. Data from the Institute of Education Science of the USDOE shows, for example, that black students were more than 4 times as likely to be suspended or expelled from school.
Not only that, but in a comparison of rates of disciplinary action to population by subgroup, white students were underrepresented by more than 30%, while black students were over-represented by more than 180%. The data plainly shows that black students can not work without fear of punishment. There is no protection from adverse consequences. Meanwhile, white students receive disproportionate levels of protection.
While you can't change your standards, you have control of the resources you use to teach them. Are your resources diverse? Do they include voices of color? Are the images you select representative of your students and community? Do you ask students to critically reflect on gaps in their study to ask which parts of stories have not been told and why? As a classroom teacher, you have direct control over both the affirmation you provide and the consequences you issue. If you're not sure where to start, start by building positive relationships regardless of your differences, and find alternatives to disciplinary consequences like Positive Behavior Intervention Systems. One of my mantras when a student is driving me crazy is to remind myself to love them through it. There is no way forward except through love. If you want to take a serious look at yourself, sort the referral and class average data of your own classroom by race. If you don't have balance, you don't have justice.
Lastly, we are all part of the same system. You have made and you will make choices from the perspective of white supremacy because we are all immersed in it. This is where your critical reflection, willingness to accept criticism and correction, and commitment to corrective action makes the difference. We have to be the change to see a change.