How to be an anti-racist teacher: Focus on humanity

What was it that called you to teaching? Was it a dream of being overworked and underpaid? I didn’t think so. You came to this profession because you care about humanity, about the things that make each and every one of us different and the threads that connect us all.

When the going gets rough (as it certainly is right now), it can be easy to lose sight of each other’s humanity. But for learning to happen, students need to be seen. It’s not just about them, either; connecting to your students in genuine ways can fill your cup—that cup you knew was a part of you when you chose this career. Let’s talk about how to make that happen. Building humanity is the third of the four shifts I’m focused on making in my practice this school year.

Shift #3: Create space for humanity in the classroom (whether virtual, hybrid, or in person)

I’ve already seen a number of posts suggesting that it’s critical to create space for humanity in classrooms, yet relatively few offer practical suggestions on how to accomplish it. To make room for humanity can sometimes be a too-soft approach that doesn’t address systemic racism; but at its best, the work of “mattering to one another,” as scholar Bettina Love puts it in her book We Want to Do More Than Survive, is “the work of pursuing freedom.”

White supremacy makes it impossible to live in our full humanity unless we are consistently, actively fighting against our conditioning. Fighting for freedom requires, as bell hooks puts it in Teaching to Transgress, teaching “in a manner that respects and cares for the souls of our students […] if we are to provide the necessary conditions where learning can most deeply and intimately begin.” Since I know I, like all teachers in the United States, am working in a context that actively tries to keep me from respecting and caring for my own self (more on teacher burnout in this beautiful NEA interview with Doris Santoro), let alone my students, this work of teaching in the manner hooks describes is a lifelong and difficult task. And a virtual learning environment just piles more on an already hard situation.

I was recently assigned to read a useful post by Dave Stuart Jr. that details the ways educators can use video to give feedback and create classroom culture. But beyond Stuart’s post, I haven’t encountered much on how to make a virtual classroom into one that affirms students’ humanity in the ways that scholars like Love and hooks argue is critical to their survival. With this in mind—and understanding that I, too, don’t have all the answers—here are a few distinct, practical items I am building into my curriculum to make space for the human in each one of the members of my classroom community (myself included). They’re centered on activities that address both the head and heart. (I am indebted to the Southern Jamaica Plain Health Center’s Racial Reconciliation and Healing Project, where I trained as a faculty advisor under the wise Dennie Butler-MacKay and Abigail Ortiz and first encountered the lens of doing head/heart work as a way to move toward undoing racism.)

Design units and subsequent activities that demand critical thinking skills in combination with personal reflection

These assignments first ask students to think about the author or artist of a work. Why or how did they do something? That helps students see that individual’s humanity. Self-reflection after helps them then see themselves as human, too. Why or how do they do something?

Explicitly tell students that both their thinking and their feelings are important

Our first unit is focused on the self, for example, and I’ve redesigned it to be twice as long as it used to be, integrating more resources on psychology and more space for personal reflection and creative expression. As an English teacher it may be easier for me to integrate this kind of work, but I think it’s possible in any curriculum at any grade level. My colleague who is a math teacher, for example, assigns a series of personal-reflection finance journals in his senior-level class, and my friend who teaches pre-K leads students in a whole unit where they discuss and talk about what makes a community.

Intentionally use appropriate check-in and grounding methods

The right methods can make sure students can participate in the classroom space without feeling distracted or cut off from their outside lives. While check-in questions aren’t some kind of radical strategy, in the spring I found that using them both sparingly and with intention helped students enter into our virtual space with more ease than just jumping in. Just last week I included a Padlet virtual (and anonymous!) check-in space to start class. Some students wrote positive things, some needed to complain or vent about school, and some commiserated about how tired they were.

Overtly teach about how oppressive systems present in our society cut us off from our full humanity

I provide multiple opportunities and modes of expression for students to express their own thoughts, feelings, and presentations with this. Here’s an example to illustrate this point more clearly. A few years ago I taught a student who identified as nonbinary. This young person, whom I have a close relationship with, identified three things that were helpful to them in my classroom that allowed them to feel affirmed and safe: 1. I asked about preferred names and pronouns at the beginning of the year on my get-to-know-you survey (and checked before using with family members!). 2. I was explicit about using correct pronouns with all students as well as ensuring that students used correct pronouns with each other. 3. I included nonbinary and other LGBTQ+ authors frequently in the curriculum.

Design a teacher-student relationship that centers on individual needs, wants, and goals.

I teach anywhere from 90 to 100 students a year, so I tend to bristle at suggestions like these (like the time our school mandated that we have a 10-minute one-on-one conversation with each of our students by October), but during hybrid or virtual learning, I have to make an extra effort to build real relationships with each student. A lot of the more nuanced and natural interactions of face-to-face instruction have been lost. This year, I’m focusing on building relationships by:

  • Giving specific feedback (including via video, like Dave Stuart Jr. suggests) on assignments, especially when these assignments give me an opportunity to relate to a student’s individual thinking or feelings on a subject. This means picking and choosing which assignments I give feedback on, rather than exhausting myself giving feedback on everything.
  • Texting all the time! This was something I started in the spring and am going to be more intentional about this year. Being accessible via phone during set hours (for me, this is 7 am–5 pm) allows me to be in touch with students in the way that I’d be in touch if they could stop by my classroom on their way down the hall. Being comfortable with technology like texting can allow me to hold space for students virtually. But please let me reiterate the “set hours” piece; it’s still critical for me to have my own boundaries, work/life balance, and time to myself.
  • Being intentional with language. This is a larger project for me around using thoughtful language in lots of ways. But in aiming to make space for humanity in particular, I’ve been working on being more intentional with the ways I discuss students with colleagues. Especially during the pandemic, I’ve noticed an increase in a desire to use potentially coded or racist language—“our students,” “these kids,” “home situation”—to talk about what’s going on for the young people attending our school. It’s my goal to be both explicit and appropriate when discussing individual students, as well as supporting colleagues in not using harmful language to talk about students. (Here’s a nice, informal piece on calling people “in,” rather than calling them “out,” in an educational context by two professors at Carleton College).

But wait. There’s (just one) more.

We’ve covered a lot in the last few weeks: three not insignificant shifts I’m making to my teaching practice to foster an anti-racist teaching environment.

  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)

If you’re feeling a bit defeated, please don’t. Please give yourself time to process. Give yourself space to think and feel.

In my next post, I’ll wrap up this series by talking about my fourth, and final, shift:

  1. Participate in or financially support organizations creating new pathways to anti-racist change

This is the fourth in a five-part series on anti-racist teaching. Read the introductory post, part 2, part 3, and part 5.

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