The effect of systemic racism and historical oppression on students of color, especially as manifested in the school-to-prison pipeline, is an issue that educators cannot ignore.
As a white educator, it is my duty to educate myself and work against this injustice.
In my first year of teaching, I had to design and teach a unit on the Haitian Revolution. I was too embarrassed to admit this, but I had never even heard of this revolution.
Humbled, I realized that my education had occurred within a racist system that privileged Eurocentric achievements.
I would need to do significant work to correct my ignorance.
Examining my own privilege—“unpacking the invisible knapsack,” in the words of Peggy McIntosh — is behind-the-scenes work I owe to my students.
When my students are study the Haitian Revolution, they learn that Haiti’s crippling poverty can be traced to colonialism. Hurricane Matthew’s recent devastation provides us another opportunity to extend our learning, and my students and I have begun brainstorming fundraising ideas.
This work requires that students understand learning as broader than how we often envision what happens inside classrooms. Authentic learning enables students to see and create connections in the world.
By framing my class as a place where students do the real work of writers, actors, and historians, I encourage them to see themselves as active community members who have a stake in shaping their world.
Theory becomes reality inside my classroom. After taking a course called “White People Challenging Racism,” I thought more carefully about my responsibility to challenge racism.
After reading the work of Lisa Delpit and Christopher Emdin, I questioned my use of certain management techniques. Currently, I am implementing alternatives to traditional behavior management systems, such as more frequent and open parent contact.
Building relationships with families helps me become a part of the support network holding students up, rather than pushing them out.
My school’s standards-based grading system is a more just and equitable way to assign students’ grades. It allows me to grade students on what they know, rather than their effort or behavior.
I offer students opportunities to revise their work to improve their understanding and their grade. Last year, a student who missed weeks of class due to severe emotional disturbances passed my class due to these revision opportunities.
In a traditional system, he almost certainly would have been retained, putting him on a path towards potential dropout. I also work to create a culturally relevant curriculum.
When we study apartheid, my students make connections to the Black Lives Matter movement.
To complement our study of South African history, I have invited South Africans into our classroom. These conversations have resulted in students’ most enduring understandings of apartheid.
They have also gained a much more nuanced understanding of how racism operated in the lives of white people in South Africa by speaking to them directly. Students have also given back to these visitors, many of whom have been teachers and administrators, by talking to them about life in American schools.
The authors whose books we study in depth are primarily people of color.
My curriculum centers on justice and injustice, ideas which urban students of color are well-versed in and hungry to discuss.
In the spring of 2015, as a capstone project for our study of Puerto Rico, students wrote letters to Congress. This process was academically valuable, helping students build argumentative writing skills, but it was also grounded in real-world work: arguing either for or against a bill that would have made Puerto Rico a state. This project helped students better understand their political agency.
As a TeachPlus Policy Fellow, I engage others in this issue on my own time.
With other teachers, I am researching the school-to-prison pipeline in order to take action on a state-wide scale. I am excited about this opportunity to collaborate and gain access to policymakers who can effect real change that results in greater equity for my students.
Education is a tool for social justice. It can empower students to stand up for themselves and create change. It can only do this, however, if teachers like me hold ourselves and each other accountable for confronting the system’s historical inequity.
It can be difficult and painful to confront the ways I have been implicit in oppression, but students deserve teachers who will work alongside them to make the world a more just place.
Sydney Chaffee, 2017’s National Teacher of the Year, is ninth-grade humanities teacher at Codman Academy Charter Public School of Dorchester, Massachusetts.