by Leigh Ann Erickson
In a recent survey of educators conducted by Digital Promise, 94% of educators surveyed said they relied on personal experience and 89% said they also rely on instincts to inform their teaching practices.
Let’s take a moment to consider that data in the context of another statistic: According to the most recent survey from the U.S. Department of Education, 79.3% of educators are white. This is down from 82% in 2016. 7% of U.S. educators are Black, and this statistic has remained unchanged for the past several survey cycles.
So to break it down, a mostly white teaching population is relying mostly on personal experience and instinct to inform their practice.
Not surprisingly, then, while delivering Anti Racist Anti Bias (ABAR) training in schools, the most common defense that arises when I talk about racism with white teachers is a personalization of the situation. I often hear statements like, “That might not be about race because something similar happened to me, my friend, my neighbor, etc.” or “How do we really know what that person was thinking at the time of the incident?” or “He/She didn’t mean for it to be/sound racist.” or “I was able to overcome (insert problem) and so should (insert student).”
When we value our experiences over others, we do not seek to learn and listen to others, and empathy is not possible. When our instincts and experiences are the measure of what is good, then “good” is a very narrow and very culturally white lane for our students to walk in. When we can’t see our students outside of ourselves, we miss out on all of the dignity they hold and all of the value they add to the spaces they occupy.
Hear me. I have done this. I created classroom standards based wholly on my white experiences in a westside Chicago school where every student looking back at me was Black. Those who conformed to my standards succeeded in forming relationships with me and excelling in the classroom. Those who would not conform were sent to the margins, deemed defiant, disrespectful, or insubordinate. (Important side note: those are the three most common causes for suspension in school.) I am sorry for this failing, and have worked hard to repent, root out my biases that caused this, develop authentic partnerships with this same school, and commit to doing better for all students.
What I was doing, and what I see happening in classrooms today is that we, as white educators, tend to override our students' experiences with ours. We aren’t listening to them; we are listening to the narrative of our experience. We are, ultimately, telling students that what we know and feel to be true is superior to what they know and feel to be true. This is highly problematic when white teachers are teaching BIPOC students because the lived experiences of the teacher are vastly different than the lived experiences of the students.
Some action steps:
Listen and Believe Your Students: Listening must be coupled with belief. If your student tells you that something you said or someone else said in the classroom is about race, believe them and give them the space to process that. Then, figure out how to make your space safe again for that student. This leads to action step 2…
Research and Learn: Our instincts and experiences are not enough no matter what our classroom demographics are. Learn about your students; learn about their culture; build relationships with community and family members; read educational research to inform your practice; teach topics that you are uncomfortable with or that you did not learn about in school. I promise you that doing this will change your practice for the better.
Practice Saying “I’m Sorry” and “I Don’t Know”: When you are confronted with hurt you have caused, apologize. If your students ask about a term or a historical moment or person that you don’t know about, say “I don’t know” and then go find out. If they ask you to talk about current events, racial tension, police brutality, and you aren’t ready to do that, tell them “I don’t know how, but tell me how you are feeling” and then go figure out how, and then apologize again if you do it poorly.
Do not let the trust of your experiences and your instincts create an inflated sense of pride and self worth in your heart. Fumbling through teaching and learning is a much better road, and one that reveals our need for partnership with our students, for trust in valid educational research, and one that serves as a reminder that we have much work to do.