Getting Uncomfortable — Let’s Talk About Race In The Classroom

During breakfast, on the final morning of leadership camp, I noticed a chaperone from another group standing near our tables. After a few moments, she walked over and said something to several of my students. By their reactions, I could clearly tell that the conversation was disciplinary in nature.

My first response was to be defensive. My students know how to behave when we’re out of the building. I hadn’t observed any misbehavior. Why was she redirecting them?

Camp Kern runs multiple school programs simultaneously – a leadership program for middle school students and an environmental program for upper elementary students. As is the case every year, there was a second group at camp while we were there. Invariably the other group is always much larger than ours, comprised of younger children, and made up of predominately white students.

My students are adolescents and predominately students of color.

I am always very aware of this contrast during our time at camp. Perhaps this hyper-sensitivity is just me, but I don’t think so.

I have heard many teachers express concern that when they take groups of students of color out of the building, they feel an uncomfortable shift. Docents or other organization representatives are a little more on edge. They are a little more wary, a little less open, and a little quicker to correct.

So that morning, when this white chaperone spoke to my students, my first reaction was to jump to their defense. I was concerned that they had been unfairly judged, and I wanted to protect them from this.

I went over and asked my students what she had said. They first told me, “Nothing.” When I probed a little further, they indicated that she had corrected them for making fun of one of their students with disabilities.

My heart sank. If there is anything that I take pride in, it is the cultivation of a feeling of belonging and inclusion among my students. The thought of them making fun of a student with disabilities was deeply upsetting.

They readily assured me, however, that she had misunderstood their words and actions, and that they had not done this.

I walked away contemplating my next steps. This just didn’t sound like my students.

I sought out the chaperone who had redirected them, introduced myself, and asked her what had happened. She told me that several of the parents with her group had expressed concerns, so she decided to observe my students’ behavior. She said she saw them whispering and laughing as one of their students with Down Syndrome walked by our tables. She indicated that she didn’t feel it was that serious, and that she didn’t see a need for any further action.

I shared with her that I couldn’t imagine my students behaving that way, but that I would address it with them regardless because I did think it was pretty serious.

As I returned to the group, Carissa, a student who had been sitting at the same table approached me and said, “I have to tell you something, Ms. Taylor. They told you that they weren’t making fun of those kids, but I’m not going to lie to you. They did do that. They were pointing at them and saying things like, ‘That kid’s your brother,’ or ‘That kid’s your cousin,’ and laughing.”

Ugh. It was true. Okay, it wasn’t as bad as it could have been, but it wasn’t good.

My teaching partners and I had an impromptu problem-solving discussion, and came up with a disciplinary plan. I would meet with the three students involved and share with them the many reasons why their behavior was a problem. They would each individually apologize to the chaperone who had corrected them, and instead of participating in the morning’s activities, they would provide restitution by cleaning up the cafeteria space that both groups shared.

I spoke to the other chaperone a second time, and prepared her for the apology that each of my students would be offering her. She graciously noted that she didn’t believe that was necessary, but I told her that I did think it was necessary as this was an important learning moment.

After speaking to my students in no uncertain terms about their behavior, they each apologized. I watched them from afar and was pleased that each introduced themselves with a professional handshake, as directed, and then provided what seemed a sincere apology.

They then got to work straightening up the cafeteria bathrooms and sweeping the floor.

But the issue of race kept bothering me. I didn’t know whether or not to share with them my concerns about judgment being passed not just because of their behavior but because of their race as well.

I knew why this concern was in the forefront of my mind.

For much of this school year, a group of my colleagues and I had engaged in monthly seminar discussions about issues of racial bias, institutional racism, and what this means for our students, and for us as teachers.

We hadn’t planned to do this work as much as we fell into it. The second quarter novel we assigned to our students touched on some issues of race, and this led us to assign a seminar reading about implicit racial bias. The students were so engaged by this topic that we assigned another one, and then another. And before we knew it, we had embarked on what rapidly became an entire unit about racial bias.

Several weeks into the unit though, I was feeling over my head. The topic was sensitive, students were engaging in difficult conversations, and asking hard questions. I didn’t want to inadvertently screw things up. I, and most of my colleagues, am white. Most, but not all, of my students are black. The topic of race in America is important and highly charged. As teachers, our words carry great weight and power for students. I worried that we might inadvertently say the wrong thing or send the wrong message, and that this could have lasting consequences.

Maria Montessori wrote profoundly about the importance of preparation of the teacher, “The real preparation for education is a study of one’s self. The training of the teacher who is to help life is something far more than the learning of ideas. It includes the training of character, it is a preparation of the spirit.” (The Absorbent Mind) My colleagues and I had missed a critical step. We had failed to prepare ourselves for this topic.

I took my apprehensions to Josh Vogt, Gamble’s 11th and 12th grade social studies teacher, and our resident expert on issues of social justice. Josh has done a lot of research, reflection, and discussion about race, culture, and class in America.  (Here’s a link to Josh’s published writing on this same topic.)  As I anticipated, he had excellent insight for me.

When we met I explained what we were working on with our students, and my concerns about the need for teacher preparation regarding these issues.

Josh confirmed several things. He first indicated how impressed he was that we were engaging in these conversations with our junior high students – noting that it is deeply important work. He also affirmed my belief in the need for teacher preparation, and he suggested that my team engage in a seminar about these issues in order to help us deconstruct our personal philosophies, challenge our assumptions, and explore how to guide students through the process.

He recommended that we begin with Bryan Stevenson’s video on Confronting Injustice. So, we did.

Stevenson’s lecture is powerful and provocative. None of us was able to watch the video without being impacted by his words. In it he identifies four critical factors to addressing the racist and classist injustice that is pervasive in America.

  • Get proximate
  • Change the narrative
  • Stay hopeful
  • Be willing to be uncomfortable

I believe that it was this call to action that inspired us to agree to commit to meeting monthly for the remainder of the school year to continue our dialogue on this topic.

Together we read (or viewed) and discussed:

Perhaps, more importantly, we listened to each other, challenged each other, and understood one another a little better each time we gathered in this way.

My team is made up of eight people – six of us are white and two of us are black, and we all come from different backgrounds and have had different experiences.

Each of our discussions was rich and heart-felt and honest, but there were three moments that resonated deeply with me. These moments were each examples of getting proximate and risking discomfort.

The first happened at the very start of our work together. We had just discussed Confronting Injustice, and I thought the dialogue had gone incredibly well. I wanted to continue the work. When I asked if others were on board with this, I received seven resounding yesses, including my own. Krista Mertens, however, responded more hesitantly.

She noted, “I am in-between. I wasn’t totally comfortable with some parts of the conversation. I’m wondering if we can do some pre-work before really diving into these hard issues to create a more trusting, knowledgeable, and strong community where everyone’s views and experiences are heard and honored.”

She and I met to discuss her concerns further, and I realized that I had, yet again, missed an important step. While, as a team, we already had meeting norms, these discussions on race were different. They required a different level of engagement, commitment, and trust. We needed to create a special set of meeting norms for these conversations. We spent our next meeting time doing just that, and came up with these; we read them aloud at the beginning of each of our seminars.

The second really powerful moment for me came when we spent some time exploring the personal history and experiences that had led us to our current understanding of issues of race. I learned things about my colleagues that I didn’t know before, and deepened my understanding of things that had impacted each of them.

Everyone had unique and interesting experiences, but Roz’s story ripped at my heart. Roz had been the only black student in a classroom for students deemed academically talented. She shared that, despite having the highest IQ score in the class, one day her teacher told her “Rosalyn, you will just be another statistic. I’d be surprised if you graduate from high school.”

Roz subsequently made it her life’s work to prove her teacher wrong, sending back notice of every achievement she earned — membership in the National Honors Society, Who’s Who in American High School Students, and Interact, as well as a Bachelor of Science and Master of Business Administration degree.

I, of course, had heard of stories like this before, but never about people I knew personally.   It was hard to stomach.

During a discussion about white privilege, I noted that I never even think about my race, and that I believed that this was a form of privilege. I was asked whether I think about my gender. The answer here, of course, is yes, all the time. Again, I believe this is related to privilege, or more accurately in this case, a lack of privilege. The discussion then turned to our students. What does an awareness, or lack of awareness, of their race mean for them?

Again, it was Roz whose comment felt the most powerful. She talked about how she speaks to her students of color. Unlike her own teacher, she insists that they will make it, that they will be successful, but along with this optimism, she tells them some hard truths. She tells them that they will be judged unfairly, that they will have to prove themselves more relentlessly than others, and that they will have to be more mindful of their behavior than others because of how they might be perceived as a result of race.

April, the other person of color on our team, agreed with this statement, and went further, sharing that she says these same things to her students, her daughter, and especially to her young, male family members – noting that not just their success but also their safety could be at risk.

It was this conversation that weighed heavily on my mind during the incident at leadership camp. I had three black students who had made fun of a younger, disabled white student from another school. I knew that their behavior could have served to reinforce stereotypes. Does this matter? Yes. Is it fair? No. Should I address it? I had no idea.

A year ago, I would have ignored that part of it. But this year, I had greater insight and greater courage as a result of the seminar discussions we had engaged in. I knew it was a relevant issue, I just didn’t know the proper way to handle it.

If I addressed it, was I sending a message that my black students had to demonstrate more appropriate behavior than my white students? Was I over-emphasizing the importance of race in how they are seen by others? Was I inadvertently blaming them for something that is ultimately the fault and responsibility of white people?

If I didn’t address it, was I missing an important teachable moment? Was I doing them a disservice by not discussing with them the potential magnitude of the situation and the ramifications it could have? Was I not telling them the whole truth?

I was fairly certain that both Roz and April would have addressed it. And yet, I had no idea what I should do.

So I called April, and shared my dilemma. A year ago, I wouldn’t have felt comfortable doing this. But because of our previous discussions, I knew we could have this one, and I trusted her to help me find the right course of action.  I was hesitant to make her my “expert on black people,” but she was also my friend, and we shared this group of students.  Based on this, I knew she would have all of our best interests in mind and would help guide my footsteps.

If truth be told, what I really wanted her to say was, “No worries. I’ve got this. I’ll just jump in my car, make the hour-long drive up to camp, and I’ll talk to them!”

Or at least, “It’s okay. I’ll talk to them about it later on when you get back to school.”

Of course, that’s not what she said.

What she did say was, “There is a prevalent stereotype that black teenagers are disrespectful, disruptive, and disobedient. Your students’ behavior reinforced that stereotype today. They need to know that. It doesn’t matter if it’s fair; it’s true. You should definitely say something to them about it.”

I tried the cop-out strategy. “But, April,” I said, “I’m white.”

“Uh, yeah, I know,” she laughingly replied. “You should still say something.”

“But what if I say it wrong?”

“You won’t say it wrong.”

“I might. Can I say it to you first?”

“Of course.”

So April listened while I practiced saying those uncomfortable words. She “approved my message,” and told me I could call her back if I had more questions or needed more insight.

I had already directly addressed the misbehavior itself. My students had already apologized and completed restitution. This conversation was the final step before we all put the incident behind us. I gathered up my courage, sat down with the three students, and started by saying, “What I’m about to say to you is hard for me to talk about. It isn’t fair, but it’s true, so I need you to hear it.” I talked about the stereotype, and I described how their behavior could serve to reinforce it in general, and how they are likely to be more harshly judged individually. They listened, but had little to say in response.

I don’t know that I did it “right.” I only know that I gave it my best shot. Racial bias is a hard thing to confront. It’s hard to talk about. It’s hard to place responsibility on the right shoulders while still sharing the hard truths.

My words may or may not have been the right ones, but I am certain that engaging in conversations about race is a step in the right direction. It’s uncomfortable, and it’s hard, and we risk saying the wrong thing, but we simply must do it anyway.  We must break the chokehold of unspeakability that has kept us silent on this topic for decades.

We must break the chokehold of unspeakability that has kept us silent on this topic for decades.

What began as an intention to hold a single, isolated seminar discussion with my team on the subject of institutional racism has had far-reaching benefits. We understand each other better. We are more willing to have challenging conversations with one another. We are more forgiving of each other. And we are braver with our students. At the end of the year when I asked my team if they wanted to continue this work next school year, the response was 100% in favor. In fact, we are hoping to expand this practice to other teams, and perhaps, someday, to our entire faculty.

We certainly don’t have all the answers, but we are asking questions and seeking change. I like to think that we are following Bryan Stevenson’s recommendations. We are getting proximate, changing the narrative, staying hopeful, and being willing to be uncomfortable. Together we are working to effect change in our little corner of the world.

It is in each of our “little corners” where these conversations must begin.