If you don’t know me, I am a white teacher. And when I say white, I mean, I glow. My background is pure privilege: two parents who are still together, middle-class homes in the suburbs my whole life, parents who were able, through hard work and planning, to pay for my college tuition for me. So when I walked into an incredibly diverse Title 1 school on my first day of teaching, I was completely unprepared. This job has forced me to really look inward, examine my own biases and prejudices, and learn to do better. In this post, I want to share 5 tips for other white teachers who also want to do better for our students of color.
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Tip #1: Learn Your Students’ Names
I shouldn’t even have to write this.
And, this tip isn’t just for white teachers teaching students of color. This is basically a tip for anyone who just wants to be a decent person: learn how to pronounce people’s names!
Alas. One year I had to co-teach with another white teacher who could not figure this out. She was new to the area and had only ever worked at a mostly-white school before. Our diverse student population was new territory for her.
One thing she just could not get over was the “unusual” names in our school.
There was one student in particular who’s name sounded differently aloud than it may have looked on paper if you were following standard English phonetics. She absolutely refused to pronounce this poor student’s name properly, but instead insisted on saying it the way she thought it should be pronounced.
This student was an incredibly quiet child. Every time she yelled out his name improperly, I could see him shrink in his seat.
I tried to correct her. I pulled her aside a few times to let her know the correct pronunciation. She insisted that her mispronouncing the name was an inside joke between her and the student.
Finally, the student had had enough. He told her that he didn’t like the way she said his name. He corrected her pronunciation and asked that she please use his real name.
And you know what? She refused.
She continued using the same, incorrect pronunciation. Each purposeful mispronunciation was a microaggression against this student.
(And guys, our school was not under the best leadership at the time. I promise you–I went to our vice principal. I was told I wasn’t “trying hard enough” to work with this co-teacher and that I was the problem.)
When you refuse to use a student’s given or preferred name, you’re denying their identity. You’re telling them that you don’t care enough to learn it.
When I do attendance on the first day, I tell my students: “I am bad at names. It will take me forever to learn them. But I want to learn them. Correct me. Correct me every single time I mispronounce a name.”
Names matter because our students matter.
Tip #2: Incorporate Voices of Color Into Your Curriculum
This will probably be controversial, but I cannot stand “African American Lit” units.
Because when there’s an “African American” anything unit, educators tend to adhere to the curriculum, check off “black author/historian/change-maker” off of their to-do list, and then go right back to the white canon.
We have to do better. Voices from people of color need to be woven throughout our curriculum. They need to be an integral piece that cannot be separated from the whole.
Look for places in your curriculum where you can add these voices.
One great example is the To Kill a Mockingbird Unit. There is so much debate about whether or not we should be teaching this book still.
If you want to teach To Kill a Mockingbird to analyze Harper Lee’s writing style, characterization, or analyze plot, sure, go for it.
But if you’re teaching To Kill a Mockingbird because you want your students to know that racism is wrong, I have a problem with that. It’s not that TKAM isn’t worth teaching, but that it often replaces the perfect slot for black voices.
Too often To Kill a Mockingbird–a book that centers around a white character, her white family, and praises the white savior archetype–is presented as the core of an anti-racism unit. The last thing we need when talking about race is more white voices.
So look for the places where you can add in voices of color.
Big note! This will probably mean that you’ll need to read and research more people of color yourself, so you can make informed curriculum choices!
Every school will vary when it comes to the flexibility of curriculum. You’ll have to feel it out. But you’ll certainly be able to add in supplementary material.
If you can’t do a whole novel or a big unit, add in some poems. Add in news articles. Try Ted talks or art from people of color.
And then, challenge a white-washed curriculum every chance you get. At meetings, try offering new curriculum ideas. Ask your principal if you can try something new. Heck, shred the textbook and just don’t tell them about it.
White teachers, we need to act as allies and do the work to incorporate more voices. We can’t throw up our hands and blame decades-old lesson plans.
We owe our students an inclusive curriculum.
Tip #3: Make Books by POC Available to Students
Everyone wants to be represented.
If you play video games, you probably always choose a character avatar that resonates with you in someway. With movies, we often identify with people who look like us or come from different backgrounds.
The same is true, of course, with books. Our students are already not reading enough. Let’s make sure that when they do, they feel seen.
(This is part of my sneaky mission to get them all addicted to books.)
If you have a classroom library, be sure that your library is diverse. (If you don’t have a classroom library, it’s time to start one!)
Pay attention to the authors in your classroom. If you’ve been buying books on autopilot, it’s time to stop and audit your classroom.
This is important if you work in a diverse school. If 40% of your students are black, but only 10% of your books are, then you have a problem.
Of course, your library shouldn’t be a perfect mirror. You want to include voices and perspectives that allow students to see outside of their everyday experiences too.
I work very hard to include diverse voices in my classroom library, but I know I’m not perfect. I think I do well with incorporating black authors, but I know I really need to work on acquiring books from Latinx authors.
That said, even though we have almost no Muslim students in our school, I work hard to get Islamic voices on my shelves because I want students to think outside of their neighborhoods.
It will forever be a work in progress, but it’s work worth doing.
If you need resources, check out #weneeddiversebooks, #projectlit, and FirstBook Marketplace. If you need recommendations, check out my Lit Literature Reviews.
Tip #4: Analyze Your Data
We can’t improve what we don’t track.
I know, I know. I hate studying data as much as the next person. But so often we have to keep records, so why not use them?
As part of our school’s PBIS initiative, we regularly see the school’s data on behavioral discipline.
One thing we’re always analyzing is the race breakdown. If 30% of our students are black, then we shouldn’t be seeing more than 30% of our referrals or suspensions being given to black students, right?
When we do these data share outs, we’re also privately given our own data. We can see who we’ve sent out, how many times, who got referrals from us, etc. These moments are the perfect time to reflect on our teaching practices and to analyze our own internal biases.
Whenever I write a referral for a student of color, I try to think about the reasons behind it. Some things are easy. If a student cheats on a paper, the referral is a no-brainer.
But sometimes, when we discipline a student for a behavioral outburst, our subconscious will react differently. A seventeen-year-old black male student who angrily hits his desk and swears is often punished more harshly than a seventeen-year-old white female student who might do the same thing.
Examining why that is gets uncomfortable. Part of analyzing your own data (and consequently, your own biases), is learning to work through that discomfort.
We will never always make the perfect decisions in every moment. But if you realize that your own internalized prejudices may have affected a decision you made, it’s time to take a look inward.
This goes for all data, too, not just disciplinary. Look at your grades and test scores. If students of color are disproportionately failing your class, what’s happening there?
Are you grading them differently? Are there cultural biases within the curriculum or content?
None of this is easy or comfortable. But we have a duty to keep examining ourselves if we want to make the world better around us.
Tip #5: Listen to Your Students (without Judgement)
When your students tell you stories, listen. When they describe the world, listen.
I was naive, ignorant, and unaware of the extent of my own privilege when I began teaching. While I will continue to learn from experts in this field, I can tell you who has taught me the most: my students.
They share their backgrounds with me and in pieces I learn what day-to-day life looks like for them. I begin to understand their pressures, fears, and hopes.
When we talk about food, I learn about their families, customs, and traditions.
They have surprising ways of making me question my own line of thinking. In my first year, I was tasked with talking to seniors about how to act at a job interview. I asked my student if they knew what to do during an interview.
“Yeah,” one student said, “You dress nice and put on your white voice.” The fresh-faced, authority-loving English teacher that I was, I tried to argue that the manner of speaking to which he referred wasn’t “white”, but standard English.
He shook his head, with a smile (looking back, it’s clear that he knew he knew more about this than I did), and said, “No, it’s white.”
I still think about that conversation today and the implications of that young man’s line of thinking.
Does something as everyday as a job interview really feel like casting off one’s race? How exhausting must that cultural code-switching back and forth become?
While we should of course continue to study from teachers and experts of color, our students are our best teachers. If you listen–really listen in between the words–you’ll learn so much.
A Final Tip for White Teachers Who Want to Do Better
Us white teachers have a responsibility to fight for equity for our students. It’s part of our job to make our students of color feel seen, heard, respected, and appreciated.
The process of “doing better” is just that–a process. There is no finish point. No final destination.
The work of creating equity in education is never-ending. All you can do is continue to self-examine your thoughts, listen to others, and try and do just a little better than the day before.
The final, and most important, tip I can leave you with is this: never stop learning and examining your own internal thoughts, biases, and prejudices.
There are some wonderful book recommendations out there to help you in this work. I’ll link to a few below.
(I encourage you to read some fiction with your nonfiction because I think stories have a way of teaching and making us think differently that nonfiction simply can’t.)
The only thing better than committing to do this work, is to do this work with others. Find a partner or start an anti-racist (book) club. Follow educators and mentors of color online.
Just never stop trying to do better.