Many of us good white teachers have been in the profession for a long, long time. We’ve stayed in it because we love teaching and feel we are good at it. Our identities are wrapped tightly up in this. And now we are having to rethink who we are professionally as we navigate difficult and necessary conversations and situations in our classrooms involving race. While we veteran white teachers may have successfully resolved conflicts, dealt with festering situations of non-race-based social aggression, and led sound social emotional learning activities with our classes, these experiences may very well not be models for us as we engage in work with our classes on race.
While I have been teaching about Sierra Leone, about the Transatlantic Slave Trade, about Civil Rights, and more for a very long time I have not done nearly enough of direct and frank work with my 4th graders and race. But I have to and I will even though it feels challenging and –hardest of all — one that I’m not going to do well. Something I will probably fail at and have to try to do better the next time. And that last is probably the toughest of all for me, a teacher in her fourth decade as a classroom teacher. To fail in this sort of thing is difficult and disturbing. And I say this because I suspect that is the case for many of my older white teacher colleagues. We are so proud of our work as teachers, our reputations as smart and caring, and we are doing the work to be better when considering race. But in our own classrooms? Changing what we do there is probably way harder.
We tell our students that taking risks is good. That they need to be ready to fail and try again. But are we veteran good white teachers doing that when it comes to race conversations? We need to be prepared for that. We are not experienced in this at all, at all. We are no better and probably worse than those just entering the profession. We need to do all the learning we can, we need to take advantage of POCs around us who are interested in helping us, do a whole lot of listening, read, go to workshops and the like, and we need to try, understand where things went poorly, and try again.
We veteran white teachers still dominate our country’s classrooms even though the children in them are more and more POCs. Considering how to acknowledge this and have necessary conversations from kindergarten to twelfth grade is something we must do. But we also have to be aware of ourselves and that we need to not assume we know how to do this as well as we do so much else.
Avoidance is not an option. Failing and picking yourself up, thinking about what went wrong, doing more listening and learning, and trying again is.