Commentary about racism and education

Commentary about racism and education by Lisa Smith-Horn
Posted on 06/29/2020
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Teacher preparation programs should require an anti-racism course.

As the nation reels after the latest horrific act of racism, many people are seeking actions to counter the insidious, racist stronghold in this country. When teachers learn the history of the creation of racism, identify their own biases and learn about the research identifying how teachers’ unconscious actions impede equitable learning, there is an opportunity to make a real shift toward equity in education.

As a veteran classroom teacher with two graduate degrees, I am just beginning to internalize the true history of African Americans, including over 400 years of unpaid labor that literally built this country and policies that deemed people of color inferior. Despite being a person who values the inherent worth and dignity of every person, it wasn’t until three years ago that I truly began to understand the continued systemic racism that permeates our country, the daily struggle that people of color face and the implicit racism that guides our actions, much of it unconsciously.

Inequities between students of color and white students are built into student-teacher relationships, behavior management and curriculum design and assessment. For example, a 2016 Yale study used sophisticated eye-tracking technology and found that preschool teachers “show a tendency to more closely observe black boys when challenging behaviors are expected.” The societal negative stereotype of black men and boys leads to more reprimands, punishments and suspensions. Black girls are also punished at much higher rates and harsher terms than white girls. As Lisa Delpit states in her book, “Multiplication is for White People: Raising Expectations for Other People’s Children,” “We must learn who the children are and not focus on what we assume them to be — at risk, learning disabled, unmotivated, defiant, etc.” We need to stop making assumptions based on race, ethnicity and socio-economic status. Assumptions unfairly and detrimentally impede the learning process, perpetuate negative stereotypes, create low expectations and contribute to the student’s lack of self-worth. I’m fortunate that I have been a participant in two separate anti-racism courses, sponsored by the Alliance for Bloomfield’s Children. I’ve learned about white privilege and systems that have evolved throughout our history that keep people of color at a disadvantage. I learned how implicit bias directly impacts children of color in the classroom and widens the achievement gap. The reasons for achievement gaps are complex, but one contributing factor is teacher expectations. Research shows that teachers’ expectations of students directly affect learning outcomes. Jon Saphier writes,

“Students are profoundly influenced by the messages they get from the significant people in their lives about their ability.” Therefore, it is imperative that teachers continually check the subtle ways their biases may come up and be communicated to their students regarding ability.

In Connecticut public schools, 91% of teachers are white; only 52% of students are white. White teachers need to establish genuine and trusting relationships with all students but particularly with students that are different in race, ethnicity and culture from themselves. Really knowing students allows for engagement in activities and materials that reflect the students’ interests, background knowledge and experiences and lay the foundation for meaningful learning. Students feel a connection to school when the classroom reflects who they are. Teachers must build bridges between cultures by taking time to understand, appreciate and welcome differences.

I learned from intimate conversations with black people about the acts of racism imposed on them every day and the fear they feel for their children, particularly their sons. These courses woke me up. I am in the process of building my awareness of social and racial justice. I will continue to have the difficult but courageous discussions about race. This isn’t about blame or shame. It’s about awareness and empathy. It’s about being aware of one’s biases and changing unconscious behavior to ensure that students’ rights to an equitable education are realized. Teachers have a deep and lasting impact on their students, so they have an obligation to make it a positive and enlightened one.

All teachers need to become anti-racist in order to truly serve all children and to support the movement toward dismantling racism. Let them start that process before students are in their classrooms.

Lisa Smith-Horn is a teacher in Bloomfield Public Schools.

Lisa Smith Horn

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