Jul 07

For White Teachers in the Time of #BlackLivesMatter

This is a post for white teachers – it doesn’t matter if you teach at predominantly white schools or schools with a majority of students of color. I don’t pretend to have big “A” Answers, but what I hope this post does is help you make sense of the role you play as our nation grapples with one of the most challenging issues of our time – police violence and how that is magnified against African-Americans.

In the past two days, we’ve seen two videos of Black men dying after having been shot by police officers. The videos are almost impossibly hard to watch. We’ve seen the partners and children of these men react to their death – and those videos are nearly as hard to watch as the deaths themselves. These killings are the most recent example of how many people die at the hands of police officers in America — and importantly — how there is deep racial inequity about who dies at the hands of the police. In 2015, 7.27 African-Americans per million were killed by police while 2.93 white Americans per million were killed by police. (http://theguardian.com/thecounted) American police officers kill more people per capita than most other places in the world. And American police kill African-Americans more than they kill anyone else.

And while this racial inequity in US policing is not new at all, the probability that our students have experienced watching the video of seeing people die — possibly not by choice if they have auto-play turned on on Facebook — is a modern phenomenon.

These issues come into our classrooms, whether we acknowledge them or not. And as Pia Martin (among others) reminds us, there is no such thing as passive anti-racism. We, as white teachers, do not have the luxury of pretending the world doesn’t impact our classroom and our students. Whether we choose to directly deal with the issue in our classrooms or not, we have a moral obligation to be caring and thoughtful in our classrooms – especially to those who may be experiencing trauma due to these events. With that, some thoughts on how to be a caring white teacher in these times:

  • I was lucky enough to be a part of a group of amazing educators who came together to write about teaching about issues of state-sanctioned violence after the trial for Jordan Davis’ murder. While some of what we wrote was specific to that case, there is still a great deal there that would be applicable now.
  • Educate yourself. You can look at the hard data — and the stories behind the data — at The Counted – where the Guardian is cataloguing all of the people killed by US police. You can look at a comprehensive proposal for police reform at Campaign Zero. Those are but two of the many sites out there.
  • This is a moment where remembering that we teach students before we teach subjects is incredibly important. If we had school today, you might have students in your class who watched two people die yesterday, who had to have another version of “The Talk” or who had to be reminded of their own experiences with racial profiling and racial violence by police. Be aware of this and be understanding that your lesson on Hamlet, the quadratic equation, Ancient Rome or the past perfect tense of -ar verbs may not be where students are focusing.
  • We don’t have to “be the expert.” In fact, we can’t be. If there was ever a moment to not to be didactic, it’s now. This is a time to listen far more than lecture.
  • Let students know you care about this issue — and that you care about them. Silence really does imply consent in moments like this. You may be at a loss at what to say – many of us are – but saying nothing can be even more chilling.
  • Don’t put the burden of dealing with this on the African-American teachers in your school. All over America today, African-Americans are struggling with these two killings. Asking Black teachers to then also carry this burden in our schools is not only unreasonable, but it’s cruel.
  • Don’t make this only about Black students. This is an American problem that affects all of us. The onus is on all of us to make a better world. In the same way that we should not put the burden on Black teachers, be very aware of any burden we might inadvertently place on Black students.
  • Do not make this about us. It’s not about us. Do not center this issue on how you feel. Use empathy. Share thoughts. Make common cause, but listen deeply and be thoughtful in your responses. There is deep pain here. We must honor that first and foremost.
  • And to that end — Respect boundaries. No one has to talk about these issues. No one has to mine their pain as a classroom experience. If someone trusts us enough to talk about these issues, we must respect that trust, and realize that for many of our students, this is not a dispassionate academic issue. This is something that cuts far too close to home for many students, and we have to respect that and understand how painful this issue can be.
  • And finally, do not say “All Lives Matter” or “Black on Black Crime.” I’ve linked articles explaining why  those words are toxic to this conversation. Please, if this doesn’t automatically ring true, take time to read both.

This isn’t a comprehensive list. This can’t be a step-by-step guide. There is no way to just lesson plan our way through this. But we have to be part of the solution. We cannot assume that others will deal with this, or think that this isn’t an issue that affects our schools. And we cannot leave this issue for African-Americans to try to survive their way through. White teachers, it is time for us to carry our weight and do our part to make sure that all our students understand how important this issue is — and that our Black students feel from us that one societal institution – our schools – are for them, even as the images they’ve seen in these past few days have made many feel that another societal institution – the police – is not.

Oct 31

Why Care Matters #SpringValleyAssault

I’ve been thinking a lot about the Spring Valley assault. Lots of people have written about it in important ways. What that video showed in the context of racial injustice and the Black Lives Matter movement is of paramount importance. The larger socio-political ramifications of that video – of what happened to that young woman – are a devastating example of how our schools fall far short of the promise of equity and justice that so many of us who are teachers aspire to. 

And, as others have written, this clearly was not a one-time event. The reaction of the students showed they had seen behavior like this before. There was no reaction of shock, as there should have been, when seeing a classmate thrown to the floor violently. 

But beyond whether or not the administration knew they had a police officer known as “Officer Slam” in their building… or even what it means to have police officers in schools… there’s a question that needs to be asked — would this have happened if there was a system in place so that every student in that school was powerfully cared for?

Because, as horrible as the actions of the officer were, the school failed that young woman before the officer ever put his hands on her. They failed her because the adults cared more that she left the classroom than they did about what was causing her to shut down in that way. 

This event is why it is of the utmost importance that we as educators understand the difference between “care about” and “care for,” why it is important that we say “We teach students,” rather than “We teach subjects.” Because when we acknowledge, understand and truly believe that no subject we teach is more important than the child in front of us, then there’s no way that the teacher or the administrator makes the wrong-headed decision that getting her out of the room was far more important than finding out what was wrong. And there was no way that the teacher and the administrator would not have known that the young woman had just lost her mother. 

This is why it is essential that we create systems in our schools where every child is known and every child is cared for. In our schools, every child should know who their advocate is, and that advocate should ensure that students in crisis are known and cared for by all. At SLA, that is our Advisory program. At other schools, they call it family group. In some middle schools, it’s a looping program so that students and teachers stay together. But in every school, there should be a structure in the school day so that the adults— all of the adults, not just the counselors — have the time to care for the children.

And this is most important for students who have been underserved by our schools, because oftentimes, those students who have been underserved feel that no one cares about them at school. And too often, those students are the same students who are sent a message every day that our society doesn’t care enough about them either. We need to couple the structures like Advisory with professional development toward cultural competency so that all teachers understand what it means to truly know and respect students, no matter the differences (or honestly, sometimes similarities) between teacher and student. We can build systems and structures that cross racial, gender, socio-economic boundaries and allow everyone in our schools to be seen for all that they are in powerful, positive, humanistic ways.

Because every child deserves to be known in school. Every child deserves an advocate. It cannot happen by luck or fiat. We can’t just hope it happens. We can’t just tell the stories of the teacher who has some of the kids eat lunch in her classroom every day… or the coach who drives her players home from practice. To do that and to not systematize it so that every child is known is to all but guarantee that some children will go through school isolated and uncared for. And, in the world we live in, we can be sure that that will disproportionately happen to children of color and children of poverty. 

We can do better. We can do it now. In all our schools. We owe it to every child we teach. We owe it to her. 

Dec 27

The Larger Problem

In all probability, approximately 300 African-Americans will be killed by the police in 2015. If recent events tell us anything, these deaths will be polarizing, revealing a deep divide in this country about trust in the police in our country. There will be those who will look to explain away each shooting, but to do so is to miss the larger picture of the experience that many people of color – specifically African-Americans – have with the police.

Two weeks ago, an African-American SLA alum had a really scary experience with the police. Not that it should matter, but the young man in question is roughly my height and build, and he is about as un-threatening looking as anyone I know. He’s also a senior in college majoring in pre-med. In short, for anyone who might try to look for a reason to dismiss the following words, there is none save a willingness to see a black face and make ugly assumptions.

His words:

Early this morning on the way home from a friend’s house I was racially profiled. As I was waiting for the bus I begin to see a police car riding pass me, as I continue to wait I notice that this one cop car becomes three cop cars then eventually seven. To avoid an encounter with these officers I begin to walk to the other bus stop. Three cops car then pull up on me with their guns drawn. As the officer approaches me I tell him I’m just waiting for the bus to get home, and he begins to ask me why I’m in this neighborhood and if I lived around there. They begin to ask me questions, and I ask if I am being detained. The officer says no and then proceeds to tell me that I fit the description of someone who committed a crime. When I asked him what the description was he could not answer and simply said that I had to wait because I seemed out of place and to make sure I didn’t commit the crime they suspected me of. As I told the officer that I knew my rights and that if I wasn’t being detained I would like to be on my way, I begin to walk away and he tries to grab me. I told the officer not to touch and he begin to say that I had to stay in front due to probable cause and then when I stated the statue of Pennsylvania which entitles me not to be detained without being charged of a crime I begin to walk away. Literally petrified I begin to record and called a friend to call my parents as more police begin to show up. I ask the police in the light of the recent events in our country that im afraid and on edge for my life. I told them that they should protect me not harass me as I only wanted to get home. The Sergeant is then called and then begins to laugh in my face and become very sarcastic as he says do you really even know the statues. After stating that I knew my rights yet again I walked away and the Sergeant then orders his officers to follow me as he says he just looks like he’s up to something. The police followed me for five blocks, harassing me and talking out there windows until the bus came, and because I do not come from a position of privilege I was subjugated to this type of treatment. What makes it worse is that although I did nothing I felt afraid for my life, I hear my friend’s voice on the phone and I hear that she is calling out my name as she is also scarred because she believed that they would hurt me. This hurts more than you could ever imagine but I refuse to take injustice standing down, I refuse to be treated differently because my skin color doesn’t fit that of the predominantly white neighborhood, while I refuse to succumb to increased force and fear tactics used because they label my appearance as thuggish.

Sadly, his story is nowhere near uncommon. I’ve heard versions of this stories from young men and women of color for years. And it is the stories like this that sit just beneath the surface of the #BlackLivesMatter and #ICantBreathe protests. If the fact that a young black man is 28 times more likely to die at the hands of a police officer is not enough to push this discussion, it is the frightening effects that experiences like the one above have on millions of black men and women. It is that an Ivy League educated, former professional athlete, now ESPN commentator, can be racially profiled in his own driveway, or that, years ago, when I was among a diverse group of friends, I had to have a friend explain to me what getting pulled over for DWB was… and that when it was explained to me, every non-white head nodded in agreement, or that the willingness by the mayor of New York City to suggest that there is a problem results in hundreds of police officers turning their backs when he speaks at a police funeral that should tell us that we must face this problem head on as a nation.

There are steps we must take to decrease the number of times police officers use lethal force, as the evidence suggests that lethal force is used more often when the suspect is a person of color. To me, that conversation must happen. However, there is another, perhaps even more important, conversation that has to happen around policing in our nation, and that is the unequal methods of policing that happens in this nation.

Much has been made of the difference between races in a recent Gallup poll about confidence in the police nationally, where 61% of whites and 34% of blacks expressed confidence in the police. And while that gap is significant and speaks to the very different realities that exist in America, to me the larger point of that poll is that, overall, only 57% of Americans have confidence in the police. That speaks to a growing problem that we, as a nation, no longer have faith in a fundamental institution of our society.

It is often said that America is a nation of laws. For our nation to thrive, there must be a common belief that the system by which those laws are enforced is, on the whole, fair, otherwise, we have a sickness as a nation that will slowly — if not quickly — poison our national identity. If we, as a nation, are to move to a place where we do have faith in our system of laws, we must address the problem that those laws are enforced unequally, and that there are those who are charged with enforcing those laws who do so in a way that springs from the worst of what we are and have been as a nation, not from the best of what we are and can be as a nation.

We must, as a nation, recognize that the anger and protests around #BlackLivesMatter are about the many African-American deaths at the hands of police that we have seen, but it is about more than that – it is, fundamentally, about whether or not America can – at long last – recognize that it has long been an unjust and racist nation, and that maybe, at long last, we are ready to face our history and our present, so that we can, in the future, be the nation we have long sought to be.

To miss this opportunity would mean we, as a nation, are unwilling to see the larger problem.