Nearly 60 years ago, our nation’s students watched as leaders of the civil rights movement pushed back against entrenched Jim Crow laws and re-defined American history.
Some of our nation’s educators, especially African-American teachers, embedded this watershed moment across their lesson plans, engaging their students in critical conversations about race and justice. They viewed this seminal period as an opportunity to teach our children about civics, highlight the impact of these issues, and shape a new generation.
And still into this very moment, issues of race, tolerance, and inclusion continue to define our national dialogue—and many of our nation’s youth continue to engage in social activism, leading protests against police brutality or advocating for sensible gun control in the wake of shootings at Parkland and Tree of Life Synagogue.
Yet, sometimes their engagement with issues of race and justice stops as soon as they enter the school building. When my research team asked middle school students in Central Virginia to describe how teachers addressed the aftermath of the white supremacist rallies that happened in their community, they had one common response: They didn’t.
When pressed further, many thought that teachers weren’t supposed to discuss sensitive topics like these because they would be too controversial. We asked the same students what they learned about race in school, and most said “nothing.” And when race did come up, it was almost always in the context of history; as one student put it, “the main point of history is about segregation between Black and White.”
Shaping a New Generation
As the majority of our nation’s student body is now non-White, and America enters a majority-minority age, our educators have another opportunity to shape a new generation; one that comes together across traditional racial and ethnic lines to chart solutions to entrenched issues.
Rather than serve as neutral forums for academic, abstract content, schools can provide the educational spaces where students of all backgrounds unite to grapple with race, inclusion, tolerance and diversity.
Yet, there are some significant strides school and district leaders must take to translate this vision for our schools into reality.
That journey begins with a need to empower today’s educators to facilitate these significant conversations. Currently, many teachers express that they lack the tools or confidence to weave discussions about the critical issues of the day into their curricula.
To complicate matters, while the demographics of America’s public schools are rapidly changing, the educator workforce is still predominantly White and female. This divide reinforces teachers’ reluctance to grapple with issues of race and ethnicity—and even creates a corresponding impression among youth that they are not allowed to raise these issues.
To tackle this divide, school and district leaders must expand the scope of professional development, not only elevating evidence-based resources like those from Teaching Tolerance, but also providing opportunities for current educators to learn how to facilitate these challenging conversations. Pre-service programs should do the same to build the capacity of the field, equipping a new generation of classroom leaders with the imperative and skill-set to develop, and adjust, lessons that align with real-world events.
As a part of this capacity-building work, the field can support new, cross-sector initiatives that not only expand, but scale the accessibility of these practical, proven resources. Right here in Charlottesville, for example, the University of Virginia is teaming up with Bank of America Charitable Foundation to both create—and then disseminate—a hub of evidence-based tools that any teacher can use to integrate topics such as racial justice, ethnic diversity and religious tolerance in their lessons.
More broadly, we must ensure that the new generation of classroom leaders is racially and ethnically diverse, which we know makes a difference for student learning and engagement in the classroom; especially given teachers of color tend to be more sensitive to issues of cultural pluralism.
To do so, teacher preparation programs can introduce a variety of strategies that range from inclusive admissions policies and ongoing mentoring from experienced, teachers of color to a concerted effort to remove traditional financial barriers.
By taking these critical steps, we can develop a national pipeline of teachers that know how—and when—to foster a dialogue about race, diversity and tolerance.
Yet, we must also empower school leaders to scale these dialogues across the entire building. With specialized training, they can ensure increasingly diverse student bodies have consistent opportunities to engage with peers from different backgrounds—and tackle the issues of the day. These can range from Mix It Up at Lunch days to support for student-led, after-school initiatives that address issues of race and justice that continue to define our national dialogue.
Through these steps, our schools will be well-positioned to assume their role in the majority-minority age. They not only can empower our teachers to provide diverse, inclusive forums for students to come together—but also equip them with the skills and experiences to produce long-lasting solutions that once again re-define American history.