Henry Turner is the principal of Newton North High School in Newton, Massachusetts, an advisor to Future Ready Schools, and a national speaker on race in schools, technology in education, and creating change to narrow racial and economic opportunity gaps. K-12 Dive recently named Henry its 2020 Principal of the Year.
Lainie Rowell is an educator, author, podcaster and international speaker who specializes in working with other educators to find innovative and sustainable ways to transform teaching and learning. She is the lead author of "Evolving Learner: Shifting From Professional Development to Professional Learning From Kids, Peers, and the World."
Many educators aspire to have a fair and equitable classroom. But how do we actually commit to equity and anti-racist work in our classrooms? The aspirational self vs. the actual self is something we all struggle with. We may aspire to be the perfect mentor, colleague, friend and family member. However, in reality, we often fall short of perfection. The problem is that aspiring to be something isn’t enough. We need to know our "why," analyze what we need to work on, and get into routines to stay focused and avoid fatigue.
If you are reading this article, you probably already place a high value on equity and you want to be an anti-racist educator. However, it might also feel overwhelming. Where do you start and/or how do you help others start? We all need to start with our "why." What is your "why" for committing to equity and anti-racism?
2020 was an awakening for many White people regarding the depths of how racism still exists in our society, particularly after the highly publicized killings of Black people such as Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor, and George Floyd. This focus on racism broadened to the racial inequities that exist in schools as more educators, particularly White educators, saw a need to shift their practice. But for many educators, this focus may have quickly shifted to a feeling of being overwhelmed and helpless.
Those who have continuously committed to anti-racism understand the emotional and challenging work of anti-racist teaching. Dr. Bettina Love explained this work, saying, “Too often we think the work of fighting oppression is just intellectual. The real work is personal, emotional, spiritual, and communal.”
This work requires a commitment to an honest look at one’s racial identity and ideas about race, then evaluating the impact one’s identity and ideas have on students of color. The “why” is just the start.
Once you are clear on your “why,” determining the “what” and “how” gets you started on a cycle of inquiry for continuous improvement. Yes, “continuous.” The work is ongoing.
In his TED Talk, Jay Smooth compared being anti-racist with brushing your teeth: “We need to shift towards thinking of being a good person in the same way we think of being a clean person. Being a clean person is something you maintain and work on every day.”
As educators, if we understand that our work on race is continuous, we must be vulnerable and accept and reflect on feedback.
As anti-racist educators, the “what” and “how” are in our every day and every minute. What is your focus? How will you learn and grow to improve? Here are some questions to guide your ongoing “whats” and “hows”:
Do I accept that race and racism are embedded in our society and the reality of privilege and power?
This fundamental question is often a place where people get stuck. We get stuck when we tie racism to our being and disregard that it’s about our racist acts and ideas. Think of racism as a system of advantage based on race (Wellman). Consider writing an identity chart to help you understand and reflect on your identity.
How do I engage during conversations about race? Am I listening and talking?
We are taught to not talk about race. This just allows for racism to exist. If we don’t talk about it then it is not a problem. Consider having a conversation about race with someone that you trust. You might find inspiration in Uncomfortable Conversations with a Black Man. Regardless of how this conversation goes, just remember, you had a conversation about race.
How can I use my privilege/platform?
Privilege is having access to power based on certain advantages. (Kendall, 2002) Watch this video on White privilege. If this video speaks to a privilege that you possess, reflect on when you used it to stand up against racial injustice or for racial equity in your school.
How do I process and accept my own development of racial identity?
Racial identity models show that people of color and White people develop differently as they come to understand race and their racial identity. White people often do not think about race or come to think about race later in life than people of color. Consider analyzing your racial identity development based on this chart. Where would you list yourself based on your racial background and how can you grow?
For educators who are recently coming to this work of anti-racism, we are so grateful you are here. However, be aware that racism in schools cannot be solved quickly and swiftly. Education is a system that excels at replicating itself. We must also realize that the system of what we view as normal is only through our own lens.
It is possible to quickly become overwhelmed and quit this work or take on an initiative that reinforces the racism in our schools because we double down on an idea that we already believe because of our own experience. Many educators have or will quit this work of anti-racism if they don’t commit to the process.
Your "why" got you this far. Now, what will you focus on and how will you commit to the work?