On the first day of every semester, I ask my students, who are aspiring teachers, to define “diversity.” They look at me with blank stares and I am met with silence. I wait, and eventually someone raises her hand (it’s always a young woman) and she whispers “skin color.”
By Jennifer Rich | Education Week
This is the answer I expect (it is the same every semester) and I always react the same way. I pause, consider, and say, “Skin color? What do you mean by that, exactly?” The embarrassed young woman, put on the spot, turns a deep shade of red and doesn’t respond. Someone eventually answers, also whispering, “Like, black and white?”
This goes on for a long while. Students whispering, me pushing. Eventually I have a board full of words like “skin color, black, white, brown, race, ethnicity, religion, gender, straight or gay, bi, trans, family life, ways to learn, shy or outgoing … ” The list is long and often includes words that are not “politically correct,” since I capture the language my students use.
My students hate this exercise.
I love it.
It lets them know, right off the bat, that in this class we are going to grapple with issues that are going to make them uncomfortable. This is important because they are going to be teachers. It’s especially important because they are mostly young, white women.
I teach my university’s introduction to education class, where we explore issues of social justice, diversity, and democratic education. It is not a “methods class,” so I don’t cover lesson or unit planning. Instead, we consider the ways schools function within their communities. We read books like The New Jim Crow, Tell Me How It Ends, Schoolgirls, Refugee, George, and The Hate U Give; a mix of nonfiction and fiction works that deal with racism, immigration, and gender.
On average, I have 25 students in each class. Generally, at least 20 of them are white women. This mirrors the national numbers for white female teachers.
My students are good people. Many of them grew up working class and are the first in their families to go to college. They want to teach because they love children and they want to help them learn.
Often, though, the idea that they will teach children who are different from them, who have had different experiences and faced different challenges, simply does not register. They define themselves as “normal” because they are white and Christian. They love to claim color-blindness, proudly, as if this is the “right answer.”
Many of my students do not follow the news. They don’t see it as being relevant to their work as teachers. They know they will need to help students learn to read, multiply, and conduct scientific experiments. Somewhere along the way, history and current events fall off the list.
I, too, am white and female. In these ways, I remind my students of themselves. Some assume that I will share their beliefs and values, and that I will keep politics out of my class. This perceived kinship gives me a way in.
I never pretend to be a neutral party, and I never ask my students to think the way that I do. But I push students to consider things that they have never thought about before: the school-to-prison pipeline. Transgender 4th graders. Whether or not teachers should be armed. How to reach families that seem unreachable. Children with mental illnesses. Families that are hungry.
These subjects come up through planned readings, and in informal conversations about current events. These are often hard conversations for my students to undertake.
Reading George, for example, a middle-grade fiction book about a young transgender child, challenges them as some struggle to use a character’s correct pronouns, question their own biases and assumptions, and begin to think about if and how they might use this book in their own future class.
Semester after semester, I remain surprised by how little my students know about topics that have never touched them. Last year, when we read The New Jim Crow, by Michelle Alexander, I learned that my students had never heard of the murder of Emmett Till. My students questioned how “something like this” could have happened in America.
I wanted my class to debate ways to improve urban schools and systemic racism after reading Alexander’s book, but I realized they needed more context. I had to remain flexible and meet my students where they were. Before having that conversation, we watched the PBS documentary The Murder of Emmett Till. It is impossible to talk about the school-to-prison pipeline, or systemic racism more generally, without knowing about Jim Crow, Emmett Till, and lynching.
I teach by asking open-ended questions. When a student said, “One teacher on every floor of a high school should be armed,” I simply replied, “Say more about that.” This produced a rich conversation after the shooting in Parkland, Fla., engaging multiple students with strongly opposing points of view. Students spoke about safety and race, masculinity, and mental illness. My job was to facilitate rather than give a “right” answer.
I tell my students small things about myself, because my own life is relevant to the way I teach, the things I understand, and the things I still grapple with.
I talk to them about my first year of teaching, and how, as a white teacher in an urban school, I didn’t even know what I didn’t know. I share what I have learned as the parent of a child with ADHD that I didn’t know as an elementary school teacher, imparting to them how I might have been more flexible. I talk to them about how I struggle with what it means to be a woman finding her (sometimes public) voice.
At the end of each class session, students complete anonymous “one-minute writes.” I prompt them to write just a sentence or two to let me know how class went. Given the topics we cover, I always brace myself for these assessments, but they are generally positive. Students share ways in which their long-held beliefs were challenged and how they were exposed to concepts and ideas about society they had never considered. They admit that it was hard, but they almost never complain.
Why This Work Matters
Teachers need to learn the histories that shape communities that are different from theirs. This will take time. They need to ask hard questions, listen well, and confront their own biases. They need to be challenged without anger. They must learn in the safe environment that they will one day need to create for their own students.
Fundamentally, white teachers and white students (not to mention those who are straight, male, Christian, able-bodied, and middle-class) need to begin to check their own privilege, which is challenging because it is scary. As we acknowledge that we have privilege, we have to decide what to do with it. Hopefully, we will decide to become allies and activists.
Our country’s history is rich, messy, and complicated, and our future is bound to be the same. We need to prepare teachers for it.
Jennifer Rich is an assistant professor in the college of education at Rowan University in Glassboro, N.J., and the director of research and education for the Rowan Center for Holocaust and Genocide Studies. Her research and teaching focus on “hard histories” (such as slavery, the internment of Japanese-Americans, and the Holocaust), and how teachers can talk about these time periods in more honest and inclusive ways. Her most recent work has appeared in the Hechinger Report, the Washington Post, and the Conversation.