By Orinthia Harris, PhD, CEI Educator and STEM/STEAM Consultant
I am heartbroken by the conditions in our nation that have led to injustice, inequality, sadness, and pain. It is important to say the children’s names on our minds—Aiyana Stanley Jones, Trayvon Martin, Jamee Johnson, Tamir Rice, and Antwon Rose, Jr.—and speak out against the police brutality that resulted in their deaths and the deaths of so many other Black people in this country. As I grieve over the many lives unjustly lost by racism, I am also encouraged by the outpouring of statements of solidarity and caring conversations happening amongst educators. New equitable visions are being discussed where all stakeholders are empowered to value diversity, nurture positive relationships, and achieve individualized success in order to contribute to our global community.
Schools and districts have pledged a strong commitment to teaching practices that break down barriers to equity and that celebrate diversity. The goal is for these teaching practices to be the new normal in this equitable paradigm we envision. In order to reach this goal, educators must first be willing to engage in confrontation, conversation, compassion, and change. Bypassing any of these steps will only yield superficial changes and empty rhetoric.
Starting in Schools
It begins with confronting the issue of racism in our institutions head on. Racism in the public school is evidenced in prevailing attitudes, behaviors, policy, and cultures that are maintained to support the unequal distribution of resources and application of justice. Students as young as preschool experience bias and racial microaggression inside the classroom. An example of such micro-aggressions is when teachers compliment their non-White students on their use of “good English,” while at the same time failing to learn to pronounce or continuing to mispronounce the names of these same students even after they have been corrected.
Culturally responsive teaching cannot occur if educators are not willing to confront bias when exposed. White teachers, in particular, have to be aware of their privilege and the things they are doing or not doing to perpetuate systemic racism in education. They also must acknowledge the fact that they and their White students are beneficiaries of these racist systems. It is a simple fact of American history, and although it may be uncomfortable to admit, real sustainable change cannot happen unless we all confront truth. Authentic conversations can happen when good intentions laced with bias are revealed and we are receptive. Frameworks like Courageous Conversations can be powerful tools to help facilitate these conversations with respect.
Action After the Confrontation
Once we are willing to confront it, we can address the impact of structural racism and inequality from a place of truth. Although public schools do not have a bright past, a new brighter future will emerge as we engage in these courageous conversations. Conversation is critical to problem solving. In this new equitable paradigm, educators must value meaningful dialogue. This will cause discomfort; however, leaning into the discomfort and taking the necessary actions to address it begins the process of dismantling the thoughts that perpetuate these racist systems. Educators enter these conversations not with the right answers, but with an understanding that unanswered questions are a valuable opportunity to learn something new about themselves and their students. Questions without definitive answers leave room for reflection and growth. Conversations create an opportunity to be seen and heard. As the gatekeepers of information, it is the duty of educators to create a safe space where we can expose ourselves and our students to other people’s stories.
Compassion and Change
When these experiences expose areas where we are perpetuating inequity, our response should be compassion and change. Moving forward with educational “business as usual” after acknowledging the lived experience of Black and other marginalized students contributes to inequity, and our vision for this new paradigm cannot be sustained. We are responsible for what we empower. Compassion happens when educators fully commit to combating and dismantling racism and implicit bias in themselves and the system. Lasting change occurs when helping students, families, and staff more fully appreciate diversity and its impact within the school setting becomes a priority. Pedagogy in an equitable paradigm requires a lifelong commitment to introspection, discomfort, and accountability. Engaging in confrontation, conversation, compassion, and change is imperative to achieving an educational system where equity and access are more than scaffolding for a new curriculum.