By Christine Mason, CEI Executive Director
All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights. They are endowed with reason and conscience and should act towards one another in a spirit of brotherhood. ~ (Article 1, Universal Declaration of Human Rights, 1948)
The symptoms of discrimination and prejudice exist in conversations, books, music, jokes, movies, blogs, tweets, sermons, politics, home, schools and in our institutions. Prejudice and discrimination are harmful, often lead to injustice, and create a divide among people, instead of solidarity. For decades numerous efforts have been made both on smaller and larger scales, individually and collectively, and nationally and globally, to further equality and positive relationships among people of different races, ethnicities, and cultures. However, more work is needed.
Recent events have pointed out how much work remains. The deaths of Mike Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, and Eric Garner in New York resulted in thousands of Americans demanding a change in police practices. Further, the non-indictments of police officers and the circumstances surrounding judicial decisions in these cases contributed to public outrage. The reaction in cities and town across the United States showed that race can no longer be considered as one of many things for someone else to address. The discriminatory and unjust justice system as well as the policy brutality experienced by several African American men has exposed the reality and caused deep shame, disappointment and pain for many people from diverse backgrounds’” for people who are White as well as those of other hues. As a teachable moment, teachers and school administrators can seize these kinds of opportunities to talk about race and discrimination, and the importance of tolerance with their students.
Similarly the weekend ambush of Wenjian Liu and Rafael Ramos, two New York City police officers who were killed by a lone gunman, has resulted in another call for change –another realization that race relations, and the relationship between police officers and many in the U.S., including individuals with mental illness, needs to improve.
How should schools respond? Teachers and school leaders are instruments of change, and they are ideal candidates to educate students about race, social justice issues, and tolerance. However, most don’t. According to (Darden, 2009) some of the reasons why there are limited discussions about race, social justice, and diversity among school teachers include:
The persisting racial and ethnic gap between teachers and their students that makes it difficult for majority white teachers to relate to, and to have discussion with, their racially, culturally and ethnically different students.
Teachers have their own personal biases and attitudes, and may not be aware of them.
Inadequate pre-service teacher training programs that don’t prepare teachers with the knowledge and tools to deal with sensitive issues such as race, diversity, and inequality.
Teachers are often silent because they don’t want be fired or labeled wrongfully
Teachers may not have the support for their administrators or school leaders
Additionally, we would add that many teachers and administrators tell us that the intense pressure to raise student academic achievement has resulted in many teachers veering away from discussions that are not directly tied to the curriculum at hand. Thus many ‘teachable moments’ are being overlooked.
In contrast to the void that exists in schools where teachers and administrators fail to address important societal issues, courageous teachers are stepping up and out to help create tolerant and inclusive classrooms.
Increasing Racial and Ethnic Sensitivity and Competence. Courageous teachers are aware of their own negative attitudes or biases, and are open to learning and changing through discussions and historical research on race, diversity, and intolerance. They are also open to learning from their colleagues and their students. Their courageous growth starts with being honest about their personal biases and their inadequacy. This helps individual teachers seek information and tools to become more racially competent or proficient, and show greater sensitivity and understanding towards students from diverse backgrounds.
Building bridges to better police-community relations. Better appreciation of the courage and judgment that is called for in dangerous situations where police make split-second decisions is needed. However, as society reexamines police practices, schools, students, and teachers can be part of the discussion to bring about better understanding and more positive practices.
Engaging Students in Discussion. Courageous teachers have honest conversation about race and diversity with students. Students don’t live in a vacuum and will get any information (negative or positive) about race, diversity and intolerance through media or from other people. It is important to help students understand that racism is not only a historical problem that was solved decades ago. It is also equally critical to teach students both about the significant progress achieved to stop racism and discrimination in the past few decades as well as about the ongoing problems and needs. Active listening is critical — for both teachers and students.
Creating a Tolerant and Inclusive Classroom. Courageous teachers create inclusive classrooms with mutual respect and tolerance that help students from different backgrounds feel safe, welcomed and included. They clearly articulate and display guidelines in their classroom for students to easily observe. They hang signs, posters, and pictures on their walls, and read books that promote and respect racial and cultural diversity. Courageous teachers model respectful manners and attitudes within their classrooms when they resolve disputes, engage in classroom discussions, and answer inquiries on sensitive issues such as race. They also take the initiative to design lessons that promote tolerance, compassion and respect. For further information on how to create a culturally and racially sensitive, inclusive classroom, check here
School Leaders – How can they Help?
They can lead by example and encourage discussions on race and diversity in their schools during staff development or staff meetings.
They can encourage teachers to lead discussions when world events create teachable moments.
They can support teachers by giving them autonomy to integrate race and social justice issues into their curriculum and lessons
They can provide resources, trainings, and development opportunities for teachers who would like to know more and need more tools to navigate sensitive issues such as race.
They can create an inclusive, respectful and tolerant school environment through their school policies and guidelines.
They can engage parents and surrounding community leaders to create consistency for students, and avoid discontinuity of what they are learning in schools and what they are learning at home or from their neighborhood.
Darden, J. (2009). Talking race. Teaching tolerance: a project of the Southern Poverty Law Center. Retrieved from http://www.tolerance.org/talking-race
United Nations (1948). Universal declaration of human rights Paris, France: United Nations… Retrieved from http://www.un.org/en/documents/udhr/index.shtml/