Helping Teachers to Become More Anti-Racist

Across the United States, educators are trying to make independent schools more welcoming to students of color. Their school cultures, however, are often steeped in traditions that have been used to maintain exclusivity. Although no longer explicitly denying entry to people of color, schools can be subtly racist. As Beverly Daniel Tatum wrote in Why Are All the Black Kids Sitting Together in the Cafeteria: And Other Conversations About Race, racism “can be seen in the collusion of laughing when a racist joke is told, or letting exclusionary hiring practices go unchallenged, of accepting as appropriate the omissions of people of color from the curriculum, and of avoiding difficult race-related issues.”

As a researcher and consultant, I have seen that what is needed for change is consistent, authentic, thoughtful, specific, and respectful guidance. In addition to addressing larger policy issues, leaders must provide opportunities and support for teachers as they work to understand how racism operates, examine their own practices, and actively engage in anti-racist pedagogy.

In my experience in several schools, one of the most effective ways to help teachers shift the culture in their classes is through a combination of meetings, classroom observations, and informal conversations. This approach allows educators to put theory into practice. Together, we can brainstorm curricular choices and reflect on disciplinary decisions. We can try out language that teachers might use with students and parents. I continually nudge teachers to keep the topic of race on the front burner, to be urgent about ensuring the success of students of color, and to address the role of whites in perpetuating or tackling racism.

Teachers Can Be Fearful and Unprepared

Teachers don’t want to say the wrong thing or offend someone. They are anxious about being age-appropriate. And they are worried about being asked a question they do not know how to answer. Teachers describe being scared, struggling with their words, or going blank when the topic of race or racism comes up.   

Kindergarten teachers Hannah and Vicki, for example, were hesitant to talk about race with parents. What if they said the wrong thing, or didn’t know how to answer a question? Similarly, third-grade teacher Beth was “terrified” when we decided that she should identify herself as a white woman in a lesson.

I find it very useful for everyone in the community to examine our unconsciously held prejudices. Taking and debriefing the Implicit Associations Test can enable the school community to talk about how to counter those implicit biases.

Giving Teachers Language

As with any initiative, we begin by building trust and answering questions. Teachers can be hesitant, for example, because they don’t know what language to use. It is helpful to provide definitions, research data, and anecdotes. Exploring topics such as stereotype threat and analyzing assessments using social justice standards provides information and examples.  

One day, for example, the third-graders in a school were to take “creepy,” mysterious photographs for an assignment about a book by Chris Van Allsburg. Sam, one of the white students, had staged a picture of a black boy strangling a white boy. The teacher, Jill, knew something was wrong and was hoping to dissuade Sam from posting his photo with a caption about strangling. She tried to get him to say that the black boy was doing the Heimlich maneuver. Sam was confused.  

Jill and I talked about the exchange. She hadn’t known how to talk to Sam. We brainstormed what she might say. Later in the day, she went back to Sam. Afterwards she felt much better about her response. “I was able to say, ‘In society today, African-American males are often portrayed as criminals. So, we actually can’t have a photo like that. It would really reinforce that [stereotype] if we were to hang a photo like that up.’ ” Sam understood and seemed relieved to have an explanation that made sense.

Practicing Increases Teachers’ Confidence

Although teachers can appreciate that they need to see students as individuals and that it is not helpful to be “colorblind,” they still often need a great deal of practice to be able to talk about race. I give teachers homework: Talk about race outside of school. “Talk about race to everybody you know. Call yourself white if that’s how you identify.” I give them examples; instead of “Did you see that woman in the blue sweater?” I tell them to say, “Oh, did you see that white woman in the blue sweater?’"  Practicing using the actual words is helpful.

There is never enough time in the day to address everything teachers need to do, so sometimes practicing conversations takes place informally. Taking a moment in the hallway, for instance, to role-play a conversation helped Vicky. I coached her, modeling words she could use. I would suggest a phrasing, and she would try it out herself.  

Laying the Groundwork

As they begin to overcome their trepidation, teachers became clearer and stronger in their anti-racist positions. Four years after we began working together, Hannah, the kindergarten teacher who had not been able to bring up the topic of race with parents, explained how she now talks about her anti-bias work at the school’s curriculum night in the fall and again in parent teacher conferences. That preparation makes it much easier to have subsequent discussions that once would have felt too risky.

Similarly, Lily moved from shutting down conversations about race—“That’s a great question. Let me think about it”—to being able to respond to questions when her second-graders raised them. Having had conversations earlier in the year about the history of racism, she was confident that her students could handle talking about current racism. When a student brought up a story in the news about two black men arrested in a Starbucks coffee shop, Lily did not hesitate.

Talking About Whiteness

Teachers should understand how race, including their own racial identities, impacts their classrooms. The goal is not just to support students of color, but to recognize the role of white people in perpetuating racism.

Gradually, teachers can learn to notice for themselves when whiteness is being privileged or needs to be talked about. Jude, for example, put different books up in her windows to display for students every month. After conversations about how the curriculum often marginalizes people of color, Jude realized that she needed to be more attentive to the diversity of the authors of the books she displayed.  

Support and Encouragement

Talking about race and racism and engaging in anti-racist pedagogy is messy work. Teachers make themselves vulnerable when they reflect on their actions and the impact of their choices. Often teachers shy away from the task, downplay the severity of a problem, or want to focus on how well they are doing rather than on next steps.

It is critical, therefore, to support teachers, pointing out what they are doing well, and reassuring them that it is OK to make mistakes. At the same time, I am careful not to make it seem as if tackling racism is extraordinary. As an administrator said to teachers who were doing anti-racist work, “This is exactly the type of work I expect you all to engage in to be better educators, better colleagues, and better human beings … There is more work to be done, always, and a better world at the end of all of it.”

Starting where teachers are, intellectually and emotionally, providing theory and language, and working with teachers in their daily routines, all helps teachers to make strides in becoming anti-racist educators.  Although never a linear success story, with persistence many things can change.

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Jane Bolgatz

Jane Bolgatz is an associate professor of social studies education in the Division of Curriculum and Teaching at Fordham University Graduate School of Education.