Dear White Teachers,

I spent my last day of 2015 with one of my nephews.  Nephew is 7 now and so Auntie Kara is not as exciting as Xbox or Netflix or the friend that lives across the street.  I know…shocking!  So, Nephew soon asked if he could go across the street to play with said friend.  After checking in with his mom to find out if it was ok, Nephew went on over to play.  After a bit, they came over to play at Nephew’s house.  Probably just because I allowed 4 Oreos instead of 2…Auntie’s rights, y’all.  Nephew has a million Nerf guns so he picked up one.  Friend didn’t have one and Nephew began aiming and shooting at Friend.  Friend is saying, “Don’t shoot!”  Soon, I intervened and told Nephew that it wasn’t fair to shoot Friend if he didn’t also have a gun to defend himself.  Such a simple everyday kid activity. Except…Friend is black.

They soon headed upstairs to play without bossy Auntie’s interference and then, I cried.  Friend is 8 years old.  In 4 years, he will be 12…just like Tamir Rice.  At 12, he should still be allowed to play with guns with his neighborhood friend if he wants to.  He will still be a child.  But I hope his parents don’t allow him to do so.  It obviously isn’t safe.

I have long struggled with how to speak up about how unarmed black people are being killed at the hands of those in power.  I get really angry about it and I want to lash out.  That doesn’t help.  People won’t listen to me that way.  Additionally, I love a police officer very, very much. Nephew’s dad actually.  He was my first best friend and I am so proud of him.  This is not to bash police officers.  I think they, like teachers, get blamed for way too many of our society’s ills.  There are bad cops just like there are bad teachers.  As a nation, we have to stop punishing ALL for the evils of SOME.  The SOME should be punished to the full extent of the law though.  But they aren’t and that is why #blacklivesmatter is so important.  #blacklivesmatter does not mean other lives don’t, it means when black lives are lost, they are less likely to achieve justice for those lost lives.

As a former educator, I always think of my students in a situation like this. What are they thinking?  Should I talk to them about this?  What do I say? What can I do to make this better?  If I was still in the classroom, this is what I would do:

  1. Be aware of my personal bias whenever I make a decision.  We all have biases.  Here is one I had recently.  I went to get my nails done and there was an Arab woman working in there.  Ummm…what? Does she know how to do nails?  Where is the Vietnamese woman? Silly example, but we all do it.  The serious problems happen when those in power are unaware of their personal bias and make decisions based on them.  If we pause before we make a decision that affects others and think about whether or not bias exists in that situation, we are more likely to make an equitable decision.  In the classroom, black boys are more often sent to special education classes, and they are more often formally disciplined than other students.  Stop and think before you make decisions for students to ensure that those decisions are free from bias.
  2. Realize that color does matter.  As educators, we love our kids no matter their color or religion.  However, being color-blind is just ignoring the problem, not helping it.  White females make up the majority of public school teachers in this country.  Teachers must be aware of their students’ various learning styles and levels. Furthermore, we must also be aware of the various personal issues that affect our students.  Daniel Katz voices this brilliantly in his blog post “What Teachers Owe Tamir Rice”.   “Boys and girls touched and confused by tragedies – both personal and national in scale – enter teachers’ classrooms every day.  Young men and women whose consciousness of injustice is flaring brighter than America’s white majority can possibly understand enter teachers’ classrooms every day.  In today’s education environment – where achievement scores matter far more to policy makers than the humanity of those in school – this poses a difficult and possibly contradictory dilemma. As teachers, our responsibilities to children demand that we acknowledge and affirm the lived realities of their lives.  It further demands that we confirm their sense of injustice in the world in real and substantive ways.  Even though most teachers will never experience racism the way their students of color do, it is vital that they work to help those students maintain visions of their futures and how to obtain them as they navigate their lives.”
  3. Understand the issues that black students face, but don’t use those issues to make excuses for them.  I know this may sound contradictory to #2, so I’ll give you a personal example to explain.  I had a black student who had a pretty hard life…parents not in his life, raised by an aunt, etc.  In spite of all of that, he was a mostly model student.  I was so proud of him!  However, I caught myself allowing him to get away with things that I would have never allowed others to get away with.  He didn’t turn in homework, so I overlooked it.  He talked a little too much, I ignored it.  I realized that I was actually hurting him by favoring him in those ways.  I had high expectations and he needed to be held to those as well.  
  4. Listen and be honest.  I always had an open relationship with my students and we talked about many different issues.  Mostly I listened and tried to provide them with whatever knowledge I had about the situation.  If I didn’t know, I told them so.  I know some will be concerned about talking to other people’s children about such a controversial issue.  However, I think this problem is too large to be quiet about.  This is affecting our children.  Imagine if Tamir had been one of your students.  Personally, it would have been a conversation that I regretted not having with him.  In this instance, I would specifically tell my students:
    1. don’t play with toy guns outside
    2. always do what the police tell them to do

If they are black, their parents are probably telling them this anyway. Reiterating it can only help.  I would rather be reprimanded than lose another kid.

Finally, this isn’t just for teachers but applies to everyone.  If you don’t have a black friend, make it your purpose to figure out why not and change that.  I’m not talking about the black teacher across the hall that you simply eat lunch with a couple of times a week.  That’s your co-worker, not your friend.  I’m talking about a friend who knows your personal children’s names and has hugged them.  I’m talking about a friend that comes to your mom’s funeral and checks on you every day for the next two weeks and then every Mother’s Day thereafter.  I’m talking about a friend you go on vacation with.  I’m talking about a friend who comes to a party at your house and knows where you keep your wine glasses.  When you have a friend like that, you will understand the issues that they face and it will matter to you so much more.

My thoughts are always with my former co-workers and all teachers for the difficult work they do daily.  As you head back after this long break, this issue may come up in your classroom.  Your kids will have questions.  It will be difficult, but I do know that if any one group of people can change the way this country looks at race, it is teachers.

“Racism is still with us.  But it is up to us to prepare our children for what they have to meet, and, hopefully, we shall overcome.” -Rosa Parks