3 ways to start building an anti-racist teaching practice

Although we’ve only been living with coronavirus for what seems like a short time, it has exposed even more starkly the inequities present in the United States. Already researchers have documented the extreme disparities in online learning between different types of schools: Public schools have fewer resources and less flexibility than private schools. Urban and rural schools have fewer resources and less flexibility than suburban schools. And unsurprisingly—and as usual—schools serving predominantly low-income students of color (read: public urban schools) suffer the worst outcomes.

In addition, it is impossible to ignore the horrific racial violence occurring across our nation as a new school year begins. Though the current pervasive lack of justice for and continued danger to Black people is not new, this moment, like many moments before it, is an opportunity. It is an opportunity to work toward changing long-held beliefs and practices, especially those that stem from colonialist, capitalist, white supremacist culture. We know this is all around us. The evidence, the data, is as widespread as it is compelling; a literature review by Kirsten Weir at the American Psychological Association illustrates a network of educational inequities based on race.

Supporting you

Rather than belabor the point that racism impacts education (because it does, and the proof is abundant), this post is designed as an entry point for all teachers into taking distinct anti-racist actions this school year. As Weir notes, “Research points to ways to start chipping away at bias in schools. Most of those methods have one important thing in common: More support for teachers.” My goal is to offer that support to you, a fellow teacher.

This post is based on my personal development as an educator as well as my larger thinking about what shifts might be most possible for other teachers who are wrestling with how to be more actively anti-racist. (If you’ve read Ibram X. Kendi’s How to Be an Antiracist, you’ll recall his clarification that anything and anyone can be racist or anti-racist at any time. He writes: “A racist is someone who is supporting a racist policy by their actions or inaction or expressing a racist idea. An antiracist is someone who is supporting an antiracist policy by their actions or expressing an antiracist idea.”)

I’m speaking specifically from my own position as a white-identified practitioner in a high school English classroom. I work in Boston Public Schools, a large urban district; like many schools in the district, my school serves predominantly Black and Brown students. In addition, I’m entering my ninth year of teaching, which means that some of the things I’m working on might seem difficult for a first-year teacher or simplistic for a more veteran educator. But the suggestions and strategies contained here are intended to be applicable in any school in the United States (white students need to have anti-racist teachers, too!).

Where to begin

Over the course of a few posts, I’ll dig deep into some strategies I’m focusing on this school year. But first, let me suggest starting with some things that you have probably heard in other articles, videos, and social media posts. Often I find that people shy away from completing the most basic steps required for this work and want to move directly into actions they perceive as bigger or more significant. But the truth is that before you can start doing the complex, nuanced work of anti-racist teaching, you need to have a framework and core understanding of both the problem and potential solutions. Here are a few strategies that I’ve engaged with—and continue to engage with (this work is never done)—that are the simplest ways to get going:

1. Read

Maybe you’ve read one book, maybe you’ve read many, but reading remains one of the easiest, lowest-stakes ways to expand your thinking without taking up anyone else’s time, energy, or space. Some books you might have heard of that I highly recommend:

2. Attend trainings

This pandemic has made it so that many excellent offerings are now available virtually and, often, asynchronously. Here are just a few to get you started:

3. Do this work with your people

Do you have trusted friends or family members you could explore anti-racist teaching with? These are people you know and love, but how much do you actually understand about what they think about race and racism? How much do they know about your views? If you’re already successfully having conversations, how could you deepen them? This work could take the form of informal conversations, a book group, or structured dialogue.

Ready for more?

Okay, so those are some small things. And small is a good place to start. But just reading or professional learning or talking to loved ones is not going to be enough to undo white supremacy. Those are first steps. Your second steps will require some big changes to your practice.

In my next few posts, I’ll explore four major shifts I’m working on implementing over this school year:

  1. Redesign my curriculum to be all online, user-friendly, clear, transparent, and flexible
  2. Review my curriculum for evidence of white supremacy culture
  3. Create space for humanity in the classroom (whether virtual, hybrid, or in person)
  4. Participate in or financially support organizations creating new pathways to anti-racist change

As an educator, it’s critical for me to constantly reexamine my practice and make meaningful revisions to what I do in the classroom. In particular, as a white teacher, if I am not being actively anti-racist in my planning and practice, I will perpetrate harm and violence to all students in my classroom. (The Hechinger Report has a great column on this.) This requires constant reflection and hard work. My hope is that sharing my strategies will give you ideas for how you can revisit your own classroom and practice.

This is the first in a five-part series on anti-racist teaching. Read part 2, part 3, part 4, and part five.

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