The Work of White Educators

In the next couple of weeks, teachers where you live will come back from the beach or the mountains or their gardens or their second jobs, and they will gather for “preplanning”: a time for training and preparation, soundtracked to the buzz of professionals talking about their summers and the work they love.

Where I live, a Black man named Jerry Williams was shot dead by a white police officer named Tyler Radford on July 2. This shooting somehow didn’t reach national consciousness―one among too many, I suppose. As I prepare to lead some of those back-to-school trainings for K-12 teachers, I find myself wondering about Tyler’s teachers, and those teachers’ teachers. I wonder what they believed, and said to each other, and sought to teach their students, about whose lives matter. That is not a veiled accusation; I truly wonder.

Students in grades K-12 spend half their waking hours in school, for 13 of the first 18 years of their lives, for a total of over 15,000 hours in classrooms.  At which point, they are old enough to enter a police academy. Who do we help them become during all those hours?

A classroom is its own moral world, with what is normal, preferred, and acceptable for discussion dependent on the teacher. We teach who we are, as Parker Palmer says. If Christmas is presented as the normal winter holiday (even though others are “fine too”), then anything not-Christmas is not-normal. If it is frequent but unaddressed that white students in our class avoid calling on students of color when given the choice, everyone in the room learns something about what matters, and about who matters.

Teachers create the moral worlds of their classrooms, school leaders guide the micro-cultures in which those classrooms sit, and national organizations and school models offer philosophical foundations and technical practices on which to base a school’s culture. All of us in K-12 education shape how students see the world, and that means we have incredible power to contribute to the struggle for racial justice in this country.

And: over 80% of teachers are white. I am white. White people, even when we think we’re personally “woke,” do not talk much about racism with each other. We feel impolite, indelicate, uncomfortable, and afraid to do it wrong.

It is, unquestionably, time for us to get over this. White teachers, administrators, and educational professionals are returning to school after a summer of terrible violence.  People are dying, in public, and students are talking. We need to be able to talk with them.

Social justice and equity competencies have become more and more part of teacher and leader formation programs, but those do not reach those of us who have been in the profession for some time. Certain schools and districts prioritize equity trainings, but money and time are short, everywhere. Most problematically, we defer to and depend on teachers of color to lead the work, to advocate for change, and to voice problems, but this is work we must do.

We know what the problems are―we know about the school-to-prison pipeline, we know about the early criminalization of children of color in our schools―but many of us truly do not think this is our problem. Perhaps we teach mostly white children. Perhaps our school has so few disciplinary incidents that no subgroup disparities can be seen.

Consider, though: Three-quarters of police officers are white. Ninety percent of elected officials are white. They were our students, once. What did we teach them?

White teachers of white children have as much if not more responsibility to get better at intentional, everyday antiracist practice in their schools and classrooms, and we will not get better unless we challenge, engage and support each other as professionals to do so. We can start just by asking ourselves and each other: what is the work, for us, in our school, in our town?

It is natural to fear that talking about racism with our colleagues, or with the adults at the schools our children attend, will lead to hurt feelings, misunderstandings, anger, and “sides.” But people are dying―and people are killing. Communities of color have been living with the pain we fear and much, much more, throughout the history of our country, and if we want to change this, we are the ones who need to change.