Teacher to teacher: Let’s improve how schools and families talk about race

As a teacher and father of two young children, I feel the apprehension creeping in as we approach the fall. I don’t think anyone — school or family — is fully equipped to deal with the anxiety that will come with returning to school. The stress of the coronavirus pandemic has been coupled with the tension of protests, riots, and the national conversation on race. 

Communication between schools and families, particularly Black families, is crucial to supporting all students this fall. As educators, we must devote ourselves to anti-racist work and engage families in the process.

Reframing our students’ understanding

I am a Black man, I teach mostly high school students of color in a historically Black neighborhood in West Philadelphia, and my own children are biracial. My students and I have felt stress from racism our entire lives. They live in neighborhoods where decades of systemic oppression have resulted in some of the highest rates of generational poverty in the nation. All the buzzwords of redlining, gentrification, brutality, and displacement live in West Philly. 

Some of my scholars have lost their homes, their favorite businesses and stores, or their entire blocks to riots. Some have engaged in protests for months. My own family has engaged in protests (even my 5-year-old). 

As a history teacher, I have made it my career’s purpose to use my platform in the classroom to empower students to form an intimate relationship with their history. I encourage my students to reframe their understanding of how they will commit to dismantling the systems that have perpetuated inequality. When George Floyd and Breonna Taylor became martyrs for the Black Lives Matter movement, it stirred emotions within me that had become all too familiar. Rage, sadness, fear, resignation, and hope all bubbled to the surface. If this is my experience, imagine how our students feel.

Planning for anti-racist conversations

All of this cannot be ignored in September. Even if teachers hold vastly different political stances or teach in predominantly white schools, they must be even more prepared to engage in conversation around systemic racism and institutional inequality. 

The weight of social injustice is heavy for Black people right now. But it is also getting heavier for white people. Many white people are having deep, challenging conversations and experiences surrounding race for the first time in their lives. That too will cause emotional stress. Schools have to be prepared for that. 

I can’t give a blanket recommendation for how to address race, as each school and community is vastly different. But I hope that by the fall, every school in America can at least commit to beginning the challenging task of becoming an anti-racist organization. 

As a parent, I wonder how my children’s school will tackle conversations on race. We chose the district we live in because of its demographic diversity and commitment to social justice. I am hoping for authenticity. I am looking for strong commitment statements and a genuine acknowledgment that just as they don’t have all the answers for how to manage the coronavirus pandemic, they don’t have all the answers for addressing systemic racism. But I want to know they are actively working to force solutions and change. Every. Single. Day. 

That’s the sort of communication that all schools should share with their families. They should invite families to work together in all aspects of their planning for anti-racist conversations and initiatives. 

Oftentimes, schools fail to communicate effectively about race because they decide what is best for the community — without ever living there. It is no secret that the majority of educators in communities of color are white. If schools are actually committed to making this time different, they have to start by listening and opening up their decision-making tables for others to take a seat.

Ripe for change

The nation is ripe for change. Teachers of all races may feel compelled to jump into gigantic reforms for their schools. But the work of anti-racism is not easy and must be approached with the same respect that schools give to other academic initiatives. I hope that every school district will commit to forming a team to draft a plan for how they will address anti-racism and share the early plans a few weeks into the school year. 

Above all, we must protect our most vulnerable in these times of change. Many families of the 1 in 5 students who learn and think differently have undergone monumental levels of hardship over the past several months. For students and families of color, the stakes are even higher. 

Every school needs to provide time and training to plan for how to make the transition back to school even more seamless for students receiving special education. There are many ways schools and families can open up communication to help with this transition. One way is for schools to schedule weekly or biweekly check-ins with families even before school starts so they have as much information as possible in preparing for their return. 

As we head into the fall, I’ve been thinking about a quote from writer Arthur Golden: “Adversity is like a strong wind. It tears away from us all but the things that cannot be torn, so that we see ourselves as we really are.” With this in mind, we must stick together. We must be patient. We must show empathy and caring. We must be prepared to experience the unknown. If we do all of those things, we will have a chance at coming out of this a better world. 


Read next