Here's One Way to Talk With Teachers About Race in Schools

Mar 6, 2020 12:00:00 AM

by Andrew Knips

I’m five hours into facilitating a professional development on race for a group of teachers. 

Overall, the morning was positive: everyone has remained engaged in the activities and readings, and it’s clear my co-facilitators and I are pushing teachers outside of their comfort zone. And yet most of the conversation has remained at the surface level, in part because the White teachers in the room are staying particularly quiet. 

As a former teacher and a current leadership coach in schools, I’ve noticed that [pullquote]White teachers of students of color don’t often talk about race.[/pullquote] Yet in every state in the U.S., White students graduate high school at higher rates than Black students. Schools suspend and expel Black students three times more than White students. By Kindergarten, there are significant readiness gaps between White students and Black and Hispanic students. 

There are also plenty of examples of how simply starting intentional conversations about race transforms student outcomes. 

Overcoming White Silence

In an effort to upend the White silence we’d seen over the previous two years, my colleagues and I created a professional development session on race and equity, hoping to push teachers to explore the role race plays in their profession. 

As we transition to breakout rooms, I’m both nervous and excited to question my group about the morning sessions. Then, everything happens quickly. 

A teacher shares that she “finally feels safe" to talk now that “they” aren’t in the room. She’s referring to the Black teachers who went to an optional affinity breakout group. Another teacher adds, "Yeah. I felt attacked out there, which is why I was so quiet." Several heads nod. Before I can say anything, a teacher jumps in to describe how she's been afraid of Black people ever since she moved here, recounting a single negative experience. Then a teacher turns to me and questions, "Wait. I just don't get this privilege thing. How have you recently benefited from being White?"

My words, when they finally arrive, are defensive, frustrated and scattered. I’m still thinking about all of the things that have just been said. I try to point out the ubiquity of privilege in White peoples’ lives by describing my vacation on Cape Cod two weeks prior, where I stayed in a White friend’s family home for the weekend for free. It’s a weak example, but I hadn’t prepared adequately and can’t come up with a better one. Before I finish, another teacher tries to support me, but her response is colorblind and misses my point. She looks to me for approval.

I want to hit the rewind button. I want to dissect the words "safe, "they" and "attacked." I want to better understand and contextualize the one teacher’s negative experience. I want to ask the other teacher what she thought of “Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack” when we read it as a group just an hour earlier. I want to talk about colorblindness with the teacher who just tried to save me. 

And to add another layer of complexity, everyone who spoke is someone I coach. My job is to support, advocate for, and develop this group of teachers. [pullquote]My relationship is the reason I can challenge them and the reason I’m hesitant to push too hard.[/pullquote]

I’ve felt nearly every emotion since the session: shame for not speaking up and anger that I didn’t say the “right” thing, frustration with teachers for not being better equipped to talk about race, and cautious optimism that the schools I support are now talking about race more openly.

We Can't Shy Away From Conversations About Race

We can’t shy away from these conversations. If my experience as a privileged White man has taught me one thing, it’s that many of us can spend years working with people of color and never have to talk about race. [pullquote position="right"]If we don’t confront our identity and reflect on how we contribute to and benefit from systems of oppression, we won’t take steps towards addressing inequity.[/pullquote] Not sure where to start? Check out Christine Saxman’s incredible resource guide

If you are planning to facilitate a conversation about race, here are the biggest lessons from my experience:

  1. Reflect. Write your racial autobiography and inventory your own life experiences through the lens of race. Recognize that there’s no such thing as “ready” or “woke.” 
  2. Prepare. Anticipate challenging comments and mindsets. Plan possible responses and practice tricky facilitation moments that you’ll inevitably encounter.
  3. Pause. As the facilitator, it’s okay for you to interrupt the group. We must disrupt problematic comments or racially unaware sentiments, even if we don’t have the perfect response. 
  4. Model. You don’t need to have the right answers every time, but you can share your experience and story, as well as your feelings. You can’t control what others say, but you can always model what it sounds like to talk about race. 
  5. Forgive. Forgive others for the things they say—not in a permissive way, but with the understanding that not everyone is at the same place in their racial identity development. And forgive yourself for the mistakes you’ll make.

If we live in our guilt, we’ll never act. There’s no time to feel guilt or shame—only to get better and do better next time.

Andrew Knips

Andrew Knips is a leadership coach for Teach Plus. He has over a decade of experience teaching students, coaching teachers and supporting leaders in Philadelphia schools.

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