With the death of yet another black man at the hands of the police, my thoughts and feelings have been all over the place. Why does this keep happening? Why does this keep happening? WHY DOES THIS KEEP HAPPENING?
As I scrolled through social media, I kept seeing posts about how the “good cops” should be speaking out. They should be making statements and standing against their colleagues, but for justice. I also saw many posts that stated if you, a teacher, who is not a person of color, aren’t addressing the injustices that are occuring, then you are a part of the problem. While I agree with these statements 100%, why aren’t we as educators holding ourselves to those same standards in our regular day to day?
As a teacher, who is responsible for the safety, physical and mental wellbeing of my students, I feel it is my job to stand up for my students. If I see someone mistreating them, it is my duty to speak out and find resolve on behalf of my students who can’t always speak up for themselves. However, I have noticed in my years of teaching that many teachers don’t have this same sentiment. Many times teachers see injustices in their own buildings and say nothing. Why is that? Whether it be with students, parents, colleagues, or administration, why aren’t we having these difficult conversations? Why aren’t we calling out inappropriate and implicit micro-aggressions in our school buildings?
I believe the first reason is discomfort. One year I experienced a teacher’s interaction with a student that made me overwhelmingly uncomfortable. My classroom somehow always becomes the hangout spot during my students’ lunch period. This particular day there were about 5-7 students hanging out in my room, as well as another teacher having a small group session with two students. There were a total of about 11 people in the room, adults and students. Another teacher came in and asked if their student, who was serving detention, could sit in my room while they went to get lunch.
A few minutes later, the student who just finished eating his lunch asked if he could go wash his hands. While the student was in the bathroom, the teacher returned, asking where he was. I informed them that he was in the bathroom and the response was “He better come back.” WHAT? Looking back I wonder if that was a threat to me or him? But at that moment I thought sarcastically ,’Where else would he go?’ Either way, the student came back into the room and the teacher informed him that his detention assignment was to copy a specific page from a textbook. I thought to myself ’Who does that?’ but decided to mind my business.
As the bell was about to ring, the student finished and the teacher said, “Where’s the rest?” The student responded, “You said copy this page, I copied the page.” The teacher then began to go OFF on the student. The student just sat there, remaining silent. While I can’t recall the teachers exact words, I vividly remember the look on the student’s face as he looked over to me. His eyes said, “You’re just going to let this white lady talk to me like this?” The teacher stood there and ranted on and on, literally arguing with herself because the student had not responded or reacted. As the bell rang, the teacher told the student that he needed to serve detention the next day because he didn’t finish the assignment and walked out. I was speechless.
The other teacher who was holding a small group session with her students, who I forgot was even there, looked at me when the students left and said “I feel bad for him.” All I could think about was how inappropriate it was, not only in the way she spoke down to him, but the fact that she felt comfortable enough doing so in front of two teachers of color, as well as a group of students. I was conflicted. I knew it wasn’t right and I knew I had to say something. But because I didn’t have a relationship with the teacher, I felt uncomfortable.
I shared the story with two work friends, one who told me to tread with caution, as the teacher can be very defensive. The other, telling me to pray about it. Later that night I had a conversation with my mother, who is usually my guiding light, and shared that I really felt the need to address the teacher. My mother told me to stay out of it but to also pray about it. By the morning, I had decided to just mind my business and stay out of it. Funny thing is the teacher came up to me to talk about it. I literally looked up at the ceiling thinking, “God, you think you’re funny?” I knew I had a responsibility to stand up for my students (even though he wasn’t my student specifically, they are all our students.) At the time I thought the teacher tried to make light of what happened. But now that I replay the situation in my mind, she wasn’t trying to make light of it, she didn’t see anything wrong with it. She asked if she could use my room again and then made a statement about the student’s behavior. THE NERVE!!
I shared with her that I actually wanted to talk to her about the student and was glad she found me. She began to say “Oh I know about him,” characterizing the student and his home life. I explained to her that I didn’t know the student nor his home life, however I was clear that the way she talked to the student made me uncomfortable. She quickly responded defensively, saying that she didn’t see anything wrong with what happened. I used that as an opportunity to point out things I saw. “You badgered him. He wasn’t responding to your attacks and you kept going. You kept poking and poking, and when he didn’t respond, you lied about what the assignment was. I was paying attention, as was everyone else in the class. It was hurtful to see you talk to him that way, but also in front of a group of students.” Of course she was not trying to hear it, and I was now getting really frustrated and decided to take a different approach. “Listen, as a parent, I didn’t like nor appreciate how you spoke to that student. If Zoey were to come home and tell me a teacher spoke to her how you spoke to him, IT WOULD BE A PROBLEM. I would be coming for your job. So be mindful how you talk to students because these are people’s children, not yours.”
I shared this story to say, certain conversations are just uncomfortable. But as educators and part time parents to our students, it is our responsibility to advocate for them! It’s our job to step outside our comfort zone and have uncomfortable conversations. If we don’t, who will?
The second reason many teachers steer away from the difficult conversations is privilege. Privilege allows people to ignore topics and situations that don’t affect them. However, the reality is, if it affects your students, it should affect you. How can we say we care about our students and not address their everyday issues? A huge problem with schools in urban communities is that teachers aren’t of the same ethnicity as the students they service. This is a problem because many of these teachers have had the privilege of never experiencing some of the issues their students deal with. Many times this results in these issues being ignored and left unaddressed. This privilege oftentimes results in teachers who are not culturally responsive nor empathetic.
The third reason teachers steer away from the difficult conversation is fear of the response or resulting effects from administration. Since I have only worked in the charter school system, I know first hand that there is no job security. However, in a Department of Education school, there is a union. If for some reason a school wants to fire a teacher, the teacher has the support and backing of the union that prevents schools from just doing whatever they want. In a charter school, it doesn’t work that way. Ultimately they can let you go for any reason at any time, as most contracts are at will. This forces teachers to feel the need to be very careful about what they say and to walk on eggshells not to offend or ruffle any feathers.
This past Monday I brought Angelo Pinto, a lawyer and social justice activist, on my Instagram Live session to talk about the “Importance of Cultural Competency in Education.” He had been in Minneapolis the previous week on the front lines protesting police brutality due to the recent murder of George Floyd by a police officer. As we were discussing last minute details Sunday morning, he shared that we should shift the conversation a little towards “Cultural Competency in Education in this Moment of Social Upheaval.” I immediately thought, ‘I have to be careful about what I say because of my job.’ I focused on questions I could ask him that I could also respond to in a safe manner.
As I kept thinking, I began to feel guilty. I should be able to speak my thoughts without fear of saying the wrong thing or fear of the effects of my views on my job. I shouldn’t fee like I’m so easily disposable. I shouldn’t feel that one statement could cost me my job.
A friend of mine shared that we as teachers(or people, in general) of color are conditioned to walk on eggshells. Because life as a person of color isn’t the same as that of a white person, we end up always afraid of what our actions could cause us to lose; or the possible effects of our actions, knowing the results wouldn’t be the same for a white person. She was absolutely right. Here I was, earlier in the week, thinking of how I, a black professional, could address police brutality with my students without ruffling feathers, only to find out that a white colleague simply did it without any thought of repercussions or response from administration. Even in preparing for my IG live, I was treading cautiously, when, had I been white, I would not have any of the same concerns. Why are we like this? I suppose there are 400 years of answers.
With that being said, “How do we begin to have these difficult conversations?”
I think the first step is acknowledging that although the truth can be uncomfortable, it is the reality. We aren’t talking about some fiction being read in a book. We are talking about real life issues that are happening and need to be discussed. The reality is, if it’s uncomfortable to talk about, it’s probably a conversation that is necessary to have.
The second step, if I can be straight forward, is to build a backbone. Stand tall and advocate for what you believe. Advocating doesn’t have to be aggressive or offensive, but it’s speaking your piece on the injustice, whatever it may be, that you have seen. When the teacher brought up the student with me, I could have just let her say her piece and kept it moving. But I was so uncomfortable about what I had experienced and saw with my own eyes that I had to grow a backbone and speak up. Her response to what I said didn’t matter, because I did what was right and spoke up for my student. So if you see something, SAY SOMETHING.
The third step, for white people, is to acknowledge your privilege. If you can’t see that there are injustices that you will never experience simply because of the color of your skin, then there is a problem. Once you can acknowledge your privilege, it allows a space for you to empathize with the implicit and explicit biases and injustices your students face on a day to day basis. It can also help you to see and acknowledge some of your own unconscious biases and begin to dismantle them.
Injustices happen every day, in many different areas of people’s lives. As educators, it is our responsibility to step up and CALL THEM OUT. Nobody can say that they care about their students and then ignore the injustices they see happening to them and the people that live in their communities. What’s happening today, the increasing amount of deaths of people of color at the hands of police officers, SHOULD MAKE YOU UNCOMFORTABLE. But it doesn’t mean we shouldn’t talk about it. Let’s stand together and have the uncomfortable conversations with each other and with our students.
STEP OUT OF YOUR COMFORT ZONE AND SHARE YOUR THOUGHTS, FEELINGS AND/OR SIMILAR EXPERIENCES YOU HAVE HAD.