Not this white woman, Love trumps hate
When your anti-racism efforts are about absolving yourself of blame instead of fixing the problem, then #YESThisWhiteWoman

I have done racist things while teaching.

It sucks to admit that (and it sucks worse that I was racist), but I have to be clear and honest about that for two reasons. One, if I am going to be part of this liberation movement, then I have to be reflective and honest about whether I’ve lived according to my principals. Two, I feel the need to assure you readers (all 30 of you) that I’m not just playing “which white feminist is more woke?”

I want to talk about this because it turns out that a lot of things I was doing to be “firm” with students, or to commiserate with my coworkers, or to try to win approval from wealthy donors, were rooted in white supremacy – not to mention ignorance, as my undergraduate problem basically acted as though minority students did not exist (and if they did, they insisted on being ‘color blind’ and ignored differences in how minority students learn). Fellow (white) teachers: we can do better. Our students deserve better.

Now, I realize that there a lot of blog posts about racism in the classroom, but it is my hope to make this list valuable by…

  • Only listing things I have personally done, not things I have witnessed or heard about in the media (if I did that, this would just be another “I’m a GOOD white person because I didn’t call a student a racial slur today” blog post),
  • Using research and the direct testimony of minority students to back up my claims, and
  • Listing behaviors for which there is a corresponding liberatory behavior to replace it so we can all do better.

All right, enough navel-gazing. Let’s get to the useful part of this blog!

  1. Correcting students’ grammar outside of a grammar lesson
    • I used to correct my African American students’ grammar, even if it was unrelated to the content I was teaching. This is hella racist. African American Vernacular English (AAVE, also called Ebonics by some) is a rich dialect, complete with its own vocabulary and grammatical structures. Your students who speak AAVE are using correct grammar – we just don’t understand it because we’re not bi-dialectical.
      And even if it weren’t racist, stopping a student to correct their grammar is totally unproductive! It derails the lesson, interrupts the kid’s train of thought, and sends the message that you aren’t invested in the student’s contribution to the discussion. *NOTE: I am not informed enough about bilingual/ELL education, but I’m pretty sure that correcting an English Language Learner’s grammar when they’re talking is just as damaging.* So don’t do it.
    • The Liberation Option: Encourage code-switching. Teach students that academic grammar is expected when writing papers and giving presentations, and encourage them to speak naturally the rest of the time. Allow English learners to speak their native language with their peers during independent work time. Anything else is colonialism.
  2. Saying that the kids misbehave because they’re not disciplined at home
    • Almost every time I have talked to a coworker at an inner city school about why a student has been acting out in class, their explanation has been some
      meme_carefully_carelessly
      It’s called the Unhelpful Teacher Meme for a reason.

      variation on “there’s no discipline at home so they don’t know how to act at school.” And for my first year of teaching in the South, I agreed with them.  But I’m gonna tell y’all: my working class and black students living in “the projects” had much stricter parents than my students living in affluent Vermont suburbs. The parents living in high-poverty urban neighborhoods felt they had to be extra strict because they were doing everything they knew how to do to ensure that their child was safe.
      Regardless of whether we agree with how parents handle discipline, it is not our place to blame students’ maladaptive behaviors on their parents. I sure as hell don’t get to blame someone else for my inability to teach my students appropriate behaviors.

    • The Liberation Option: My behavior management philosophy comes from Dr. Ross Greene: Kids behave if they can. As an educator, it is my job to teach students the skills they need to do well in school and in their future workplaces. That includes teaching them adaptive behaviors so that when they feel frustrated, angry, embarassed, confused, or overstimulated, they can respond appropriately. Instead of assuming that students should already know how to behave when they arrive in our classes, let’s assume that we have to teach them classroom behavior — just like we have to teach them long division or how to write a 5-paragraph essay.
      Most of all, let’s stop blaming parents. Parents are not experts in behavioral psychology, and they don’t have to be. Parents, including poor and Black parents, are doing the best they can for their children with the tools they have. Let’s do the same for their kids with the tools we have.
  3. Teaching Black History in February
    • Yes, February is Black History Month, and yes, we should be celebrating the lives of people from the African diaspora in our classrooms. But I add this to the list because when we only teach Black history one month out of the year, we tokenize an entire ethnic identity and contribute to the ideology that History is White History, and everyone else’s history is “extra.”
      A lot of you are probably already aware that this is problematic behavior. I am too, and since moving to Tennessee I have always been mindful of including stories by and about ethnic minorities throughout the school year. The problem is that I didn’t start doing this until I worked in a majority-minority school. White kids need year-round Black (and Latinx, and Asian, and Middle Eastern…) history too. It is important that we affirm the intelligence, tenacity, bravery, and talents of outstanding Black people even when there are no visible minorities around. It’s that much harder for a white child to grow up believing in White Supremacy if they’re regularly taught about the accomplishments of all ethnic groups.

      Black lives matter, black kids learning, black self-love
      Ready to take it even further? Celebrate Black Futures Month! http://art.blacklivesmatter.com/blackfuturesmonth/
    • The Liberation Option: When you teach about historical figures in any class, make sure that you’re including many diverse backgrounds. Wikipedia may not be a great academic source, but if you need a list of African-American Inventors, Hispanic and Latino Americans, or even Notable Hyderabadi Muslim Poets, Wikipedia’s got you covered, and it’s a great spring-board for teachers wanting to increase the cultural inclusiveness of their classrooms. You can also teach history from minority perspectives. Teach about the Islamic Empire during your Middle Ages Unit. Discuss the everyday lives of people living in historical periods, and compare the experiences of different racial or ethnic groups. Talk about resistance: for example, when you talk about the Trail of Tears, follow up with the story of the Northern Cheyenne Exodus.
  4. “Simplifying” students’ names or giving them nicknames
    • Learning new names is hard. I get it. During the 2014-15 school year, I met and had to remember the names of more than THREE HUNDRED kids. And it’s definitely easier to pronounce or remember a name when you’ve seen it a hundred times before. But it is time to get over it, and say your students’ names right. My first year in TN, several kids told me, “It’s fine, just call me _____” after I mispronounced their names for the fifth time. And I just gave a sigh of relief, happily calling Zaeriah “Zay” (and so on), not stopping to think that I was sending the message that MY convenience was more important than respecting my students’ identities. And I should know better! I have an uncommon name that is frequently mispronounced — and I always correct people, because my name is part of who I am. Why wouldn’t I give this respect to my students?
      And let’s be real – a lot of the time, these names are not hard to learn. Our family’s sitter is named Zainob. She told me that her teachers usually give up on pronouncing her name after one try, and everyone at school calls her “Z.” One teacher even said to her, “Doesn’t your mom know a kid is supposed to be able to spell their name by kindergarten?” Uhhhh, dude, her name has six letters and two syllables and y’all are gonna tell me you can’t figure it out? Meanwhile you’re able to roll with it when a white kid named Isabellynne walks in? Just… stop. 
    • The Liberation Option: Ask your students for their full names, what they want to be called, and learn to say it right.
  5. Only including Mom or Dad’s name on invitations to class events and notes
    • If there’s a band concert, open house, or teacher conference at my daughter’s school, I’m not going to bother inviting her grandparents or my favorite cousin to come. Only my mom, dad, and sister came to any of my graduations. Well, turns out, that’s pretty much a white thing. Hispanic and African American extended families are more tight-knit than white extended families. By not explicitly inviting the whole family to come to an event, you dissuade them from being involved in their child’s education. And that does a disservice to your students, who do better in school when their families are engaged in their education and have positive relationships with school staff.
    • The Liberation Option: Research on parental involvement in school finds that specific invitations from the child and teacher are the most effective at increasing parents’ level of engagement. Instead of saying, “ask your parents to come,” try, “your whole family is invited.” Write personalized invitations that encourage any important adults in the child’s life to attend, not just “Mom and Dad.” Doing so is not only more inclusive of Hispanic and African-American families, but also blended families, same-sex couples, and students in foster care.
  6. Requiring that students look us in the eye during conversations
    • Most of us who grew up in America have been told our whole lives that looking a person in the eye when they speak shows respect. When I talk to Bean and she appears distracted, I tell her, “Look at Mommy’s eyes” to direct her attention. But the idea that eye contact shows respect is not universal across cultures. In some Middle Eastern cultures, eye contact is used only to convey deep sincerity and trust. In some East Asian and Native American cultures, looking away is a sign of respect to authority figures. Because of this, we should be careful about asking students to look us in the eye, especially during one-on-one conversations.
    • The Liberation Option: Instead of asking students to look at you while you teach, direct their attention to visual aides, hands-on models, or a graphic organizer so that they are focused on content without having to stare at you. If you are concerned that a student isn’t listening because they aren’t looking at you, call on them to answer a question, or do a quick check for understanding. After all, it’s not a teacher’s job to make sure her students are watching her closely – it’s a teacher’s job to make sure her students understand the material. And that happens regardless of how much eye contact is made.
  7. Complaining about students’ slang
    • “Maaaaaan, bruh!!!”  “I finna get some water.” “Her hair is ratchet.” All of these are examples of phrases my coworkers or I have groaned at, corrected, or even banned from the classroom. Our stated intention was to encourage better speaking skills and to limit the amount of complaining and negativity in our classroom – but in the end, what we really did was tell students that their way of communicating was wrong and unwelcome.
    • The Liberation Option: This is quite similar to my explanation in #1. Allow students to use their usual language during informal conversations and class discussions, and teach them academic English for academic purposes. Compare different slang terms or figures of speech, study their origins, and discuss them as part of a vocabulary lesson. This can both confirm for students the legitimacy of their dialect and provide valuable vocab instruction.
      But more importantly, if we’re going to claim that we’re banning slang because we want to create a more positive learning environment, then maybe we’ll be better off actually making class more enjoyable so the kids don’t feel like complaining in the first place?
  8. Complaining about how much RTI (Response to Intervention) disrupts your teaching
    • Oh man, the year that RTI was rolled out, I complained a LOT about how all the testing and intervention sessions were messing up my schedule and my student roster. “Why are they taking all the kids out of related arts for RTI? I have grant requirements! I need those kids in my class!”
      core principles of RTI
      Yeah, that’s some good stuff right there!

      Yes, RTI has been a beast to roll out and implement in public schools. It can make the special education referral process longer for some students. But thanks to my grad program, I now realize RTI is a good thing. Special Education has a racism problem. We’re refusing to test some students for learning disabilities because we figure “well his parents never read to him,” and labeling other students with disabilities they don’t have because they’re new to sitting still for six hours. RTI mandates universal screening of all students and instruction based on research, not our own instincts. It holds school systems accountable for the progress of all students, not just those in the middle of the bell-curve.

    • The Liberation Option: Work with your school to make the RTI process less disruptive and more beneficial for all students and professionals. It is unfair to force students who struggle in reading to give up art class – that doesn’t mean those students shouldn’t get the Tier 2 Reading Intervention though! It may mean that schools need to reevaluate their daily schedules to find ways to provide everyone with academic or behavioral support and opportunities to explore non-core classes. We can also lobby at the state level for additional funds to hire paraprofessionals or support staff to do ongoing progress monitoring or teach prescribed intervention programs.
      And most of all, remember that just because something is a pain in the ass doesn’t mean it’s bad. Responsibilities are sometimes a bummer. That’s adulthood. Let’s put on our Big Teacher Panties and make it work as well as we can – our kids deserve that much.
  9. Telling students to “get right to work” and “stop dawdling.”
    • I didn’t even know that this was a thing until last week, but it turns out that after receiving an independent learning activity, many Black students do what’s called “stage setting”: they sharpen their pencil, take a minute to stretch in their seats, that kinda’ thing. To me, that looked like dawdling and task avoidance. But nope! That’s just a way that some minority kids get their brains and bodies to switch from one mode to another.
    • The Liberation Option: Let your kids take a minute! If you use interactive teaching strategies and proactive behavior management techniques, then your students are perfectly capable of getting to work without any nagging. Honestly, why the fuck was I so hung-up on whether it was the right time to sharpen a pencil? The right time to do that is whenever the pencil is dull. Like, get over it, 2014 Madeleine, and just worry about whether your students understand the content.
  10. Assuming that we’re not racist.
    • No matter how ride-or-die I am with CCJ and Black Lives Matter, I am still White, and I still have problematic behaviors to unlearn. We all do.
    • The Liberation Option: Reflect on your teaching. Listen to your students. Talk with your coworkers. Read books about inequality in education, intersectional feminism, and liberation. Be a learner. Love and respect your kids unconditionally.

Let’s get free, y’all.

Hey! What do you do to make your class culturally responsive? Are there any projects or books you’ve assigned to improve the cultural climate in your classroom? How do you respond to the needs of minority families? Let’s talk!

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2 thoughts on “10 Racist Things Teachers Do and 10 Liberating Things to do Instead

    1. Good question! I was a bad scholar and didn’t give citations in this post like I should have. I learned about Stage Setting in one of my textbooks, Practical Classroom Management by Vern Jones, which pulled from Dr. Crystal Kuykendall’s 2004 book “From Rage to Hope: Strategies for Reclaiming Black and Hispanic Students.” In my text, Jones adds that stage setting activities can also help kids with ADHD or language-processing difficulties transition to a new activity.

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