Of course all adults will lose their tempers from time to time. It’s a part of being human. Teachers aren’t exempt from fallibility.
But there’s something more at play than just kids mouthing off and adults “raising their voice,” something different and more nefarious. When we examine the role of race in our interactions with students we must acknowledge the role of power. White teachers working in schools with majority Black and/or Latino students must open our eyes to the power dynamic that’s more than just teacher/student, but also white/non-white and state/citizen.
Let’s return to the revised Sandra Bland scenario once more. It’s independent work time in your classroom and everyone is supposed to be working silently. You notice Sandra whispering to her neighbor and so you move towards her.
“Sandra, stop talking. Get back to work.”
“I wasn’t doing nothing! I was just askin’ Carlos for a pencil!”
Your student is talking back, and now your power is challenged. Meanwhile layer on to this an impulse to tone police as your student’s use of African American Vernacular English presents another subconscious challenge to the dominant culture of your classroom. How do you respond?
White people generally, and white educators specifically, need to recognize that ending racism doesn’t end with stopping police brutality. Rather we need to take a hard look in the mirror at our own privilege and our own practices. We can’t pretend that we don’t wield the “master’s tools” with just as much deftness and deadliness as police officers. It’s called the school-to-prison pipeline.
Many “no excuses” charter schools are the most extreme examples of schools that reinforce that existing racialized power dynamic by valuing silence, compliance and respectable behavior over respect for the home life and culture of students and their families. “Work hard. Be Nice.” is not a slogan for ending racial injustice.
But I would be dishonest if I pretended that the KIPPs, Success Academies, and Democracy Preps of America are the only offenders. The vast majority of teachers work in traditional public schools. In a report just this Spring, researchers found in the study, “Black Girls Matter: Pushed Out, Overpoliced and Underprotected” that “Girls of color also face specific factors that push them out of school, like sexual assault, criminalization and teacher stereotyping, yet girls are often excluded from current efforts to address the school-to-prison pipeline.” This is a problem we must face honestly.
from the study “Black Girls Matter: Pushed Out, Overpoliced and Underprotected”
Returning to our situation with young Sandra one last time, let’s think about how it ends. Maybe it escalates into a shouting match? After she slams her desk down do you send her to the Dean’s office where she’ll face an in-school suspension? And what happens on the day she returns? What lessons has she learned about who has the power in your classroom, your school and the world, and who does not? Whose voice matters and whose does not?
Is this an ending we’re okay with? If not, what will we do to rewrite the story.