I changed schools in the middle of the first grade because my teacher was a racist.
“She told you that you’re smarter than your classmate because he’s Black,” my mom explained.
My mom had a habit of exaggerating, so I never really knew whether she’d taken liberties with that particular story. Still, it’s not a stretch to imagine a White teacher harboring harmful biases about kids of color. I know because I’ve been one of those teachers.
I noticed it a few years ago when I got that itchy teacher feeling that told me one of my assignments just wasn’t working. I’d asked kids to write an essay, and the results were formulaic and uninspired.
It was my fault, though. I had taught them to write that way. Their essays were symptomatic of my lowered expectations for my students of color. I had allowed myself to believe that they weren’t capable of more sophisticated and authentic writing.
I was reminded of this story when watching “A Teacher Has to Believe,” one of the videos recently released with NNSTOY’s (National Network of State Teachers of the Year) Courageous Conversations About Race in Schools.
Thinking back, I know I wanted my students to feel excited about writing the way that I did when I was in school: to unleash their ideas, express themselves, find their voices. But instead I had replicated a pattern of low expectations for kids of color that is woven throughout the history of education in our country.
If you had asked me, at the time, about my students, I would have told you that they were smart and powerful and capable. But my actions—specifically, the way I was choosing to teach them—told a different story.
It took me a long time to see this. At first, I refused to think it had anything to do with race. Over time, I realized that as a White teacher, I had to recognize and be willing to confront my own internal biases if I wanted to do right by my students. In this case, I needed to actively unlearn the bias that I grew up steeped in—the false belief that kids of color are less intelligent or less capable than their White peers.
As teachers, we’ve got to believe that our kids are capable of deep thinking. We have to believe that they are capable of incisive writing and critical analysis and creative problem solving. We’ve got to recommit to being the teachers our students need: the ones who tell them that they are all brilliant, the ones they will remember because we made them feel like they were all capable of greatness.
Fortunately, I don’t have to do this work on my own. As National Teacher of the Year, I’ve seen my colleagues all over the country digging into this work together, allowing ourselves to be vulnerable enough to admit our own imperfections and ignorance, to be messily human.
…Will you join us?
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