This is a personal story by Trakela Small, an English teacher who has worked at private, public and charter schools for the past six years. She recently became an administrator at a charter school. She says her passion for social justice led into the field of education — and keeps her there.
This article, which was originally published on the Educator’s Room blog here and which I have permission to republish, speaks specifically to the deaths of a number of black men at the hands of white police officers. They include the deaths last week of Alton Sterling in Louisiana and Philando Castile in Minnesota; the 2015 death of Freddie Gray in the custody of police in Baltimore; Michael Brown, who was killed in 2014 in Ferguson, Mo.; Tamir Rice, a 12-year-old killed in 2014 in Cleveland; John Crawford in 2014 in Ohio; and Walter Scott, killed in 2015 in South Carolina.
By Trakela Small
Look around your school. Who would be the person to talk to your students about race and how it affects minorities? Who would start the conversation about Alton Sterling or Philando Castile?
If you cannot think of anyone, there is an issue. If you don’t think children need to discuss racially charged incidents, there is an even bigger issue.
Minority children are now the majority of students in the United States. Hispanic and black children are historically among the most under-served children of the American education system. In the same vein, Hispanic and black people are disproportionately victims of police brutality. They are killed at rates that far exceed their makeup of the American population.
So why aren’t some schools talking to students about police brutality? And what does this mean for retaining teachers of color?
What happens to minority teachers when schools ignore race
I’ll illustrate my point with a personal story. Two years ago, I began teaching eighth-grade English in a school year that spanned the high-profile killings of Michael Brown, Walter Scott, Tamir Rice and John Crawford. In the fall of that school year, we were reading “To Kill a Mockingbird.”
After my initial shock from the tragedies wore off, I waited for the school leaders to reach out to staff. I expected them to help us sort through how to have hard conversations with students. I was the only black teacher in the middle school, which meant the kids with questions came to me first. A week or so later, leadership told us teachers to steer away from “politically charged” conversations. These conversations were not “age-appropriate” for middle-school students.
For a long time, my colleagues were silent. They continued their conversations of the merits of smoked paprika and Gouda cheese during lunch. I slowly withered. I lost my appetite for my food and their fellowship. Here and there, teachers awkwardly discussed the issues at lunch. But no one expressed the value in talking about anything with the children.
The violence of silence
By the time Freddie Gray died in police custody in Baltimore in April 2015, the continued silence of my school’s leaders sealed my decision to leave the school. The fact that leadership advised us to say nothing to children let me know teaching was the right thing (teaching), but I was in the wrong place. I had already signed a contract to return a couple of months earlier, so I decided to come back for a final year. I also knew I was one of three black teachers at the school. I was not ready to leave such a gaping void in the faculty. But I was carrying one in my heart.
In the winter of the following school year, I informed our leadership of my plans: I wanted to move on. I mentioned that I would like to discuss their plans to recruit more teachers of color. My question sat at the bottom of my intent form, which they had read before our meeting. My inquiry was a glaring accusation of their unwillingness to aggressively seek, to value black and Hispanic teachers. However, leadership chose silence again. They wished me the best of luck in my future endeavors and swiftly dismissed my concern. I effectively reduced the number of black teachers by a third. I found out the school hired a white woman to fill the position. This cycle would probably continue, and I was taking my voice away from my students.
Why schools avoid hard topics about race
The modus operandi to close the educational gap is an urgency for achievement so severe that it does not leave room to address students’ humanity. In schools where teachers call children scholars all day, it is easy to forget they are humans who have to live in a world outside the school walls. In a school where the staff does not look like the children it teaches, it is easy to avoid conversations about race. Many schools choose silence when police brutality reduces black people to hashtags. This is not without consequence to children.
Too many urban schools, populated by an overwhelming number of white teachers, simply do not have enough people in leadership who can speak from an authentic place about race. A person who has only ever lived in the eye of a tornado cannot easily talk about the damage one leaves. The silence that follows has lasting effects on minority staff members and the children that education reform is under-serving. This silence creates a physical discomfort, an emotional chasm that is empty and full at the same time. Teachers, with the best intentions, sell children on the lie that striving for college will change their lives. Teachers do a poor job telling black and brown children about the world that succeeds in stealing their lives and then excuse the theft as a natural disaster.
What we need to do
It’s never too late to change our mindsets about what children need to hear us say to them. We need a decolonization of schools and minds. When a school offers little more than WASP values and college preparedness, the school is not educating the whole child. A school cannot ignore reality for the sake of political correctness. Teachers need guidance on how to communicate world events to the students who deal with these issues when the final bell rings.
School leadership, no matter the ethnic makeup, must be fearless in how it navigates racial and social climates. Many schools are continuing to under-serve these students by choosing to ignore the societal issues that singularly affect minorities. We have to be brave enough to tackle the uncomfortable problems with the children who will one day grow up to change the world. Otherwise, we are no more than cowardly hypocrites.