Category Archives: education

If You’re Angry That Harvard Rejected Kyle Kashuv for Using a Racial Slur, It’s Because You Don’t Know Anything About College Admissions

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Kyle Kashuv. (photo: Getty Images)

Recently a young man was denied admission to Harvard. That’s not much of a story, but this young man is famous because his conservative viewpoint set him apart from his fellow survivors of the 2018 Marjory Stoneman Douglas shooting, which made him a conservative media darling. This young man, Kyle Kashuv, had his offer of admission rescinded from Harvard after it came to light that he had used the racial slur “n****r” multiple times in school-related shared googledocs and text messages in his junior year, when he was 16 years old.

Kashuv showed no remorse about his actions until he learned that someone was planning to make screenshots of his repeated use of “n****r” public. Knowing this would jeopardize his admission to Harvard, Kashuv contacted Harvard in advance and pled his case. That’s “not who I am.” He says he’s “changed” in the “years” since then, as if he turned 16 in May of 1977 instead of May of 2017.

When Harvard denied his appeal, Kashuv went public, posting everything on Twitter, hoping to create a controversy and pretend that Harvard was singling him out because he’s a prominent conservative voice. That ruse has worked, and it’s worked because most people have no idea what the college admissions process is like. I’ve been teaching for years. Here are the facts they’re missing.

Universities rescind acceptances all the time. This is by no means unusual; what’s unusual is that Kashuv is a celebrity. The other students whose acceptances were rescinded this year by various universities are not celebrities, and are not being invited to talk about it on radio and television. All rescinded offers are rescinded due to new information coming to light. Academic dishonesty (cheating and plagiarism), lower-than-expected senior year grades, and dishonesty in your application materials, including falsifying transcripts, lying about extracurricular activities, or, oh, I don’t know, pretending you’re not a huge racist, top the list of reasons offers are usually rescinded. Harvard has rescinded applications of students for similar racism in the past, yet for some reason Kashuv expected to be treated differently. Anything other than special treatment is “persecution of conservatives,” according to the many conservative pundits currently in hysterics over this.

“But he was only 16! How can they judge him so harshly for something he did at 16!” Everything on a college application is something students did at 16– or younger. When do you think they earned those grades, took that SAT, played that cello, or wrote that college essay? Every scrap of information on a university application represents a student between the ages of 14 and 17. If you believe universities should not judge students for their actions at 16, you believe universities should not judge students at all.

Almost all university applications are due in the fall semester of senior year, before any senior year grades have been posted. The entirety of the application represents the student in 9th – 11th grades. Kashuv turned 17 at the end of his junior year. Why should Kashuv’s repeated acts of racism be excused due to his age when literally everything else about him at that age is precisely what universities are judging for admissions? His repeated use of “n****r” is the one and only thing about him that should not be judged for university admissions?

Are conservatives advocating for universities to stop rescinding offers when students are caught cheating or plagiarizing as teenagers, when their senior year grades drop as teenagers, or when it’s discovered students lied on their applications as teenagers? If not, then we know what they’re actually protesting.

Conservatives love to talk about taking personal responsibility, but they only believe that applies to people of color, poor people, and liberals. (Will Laura Ingraham condemn Kashuv’s posts about this as “whining”?) All the very same people who vigorously complained that teenager Michael Brown, teenager Trayvon Martin, and literal child Tamir Rice were “no angels” and should bear the responsibility for their own murders are now upset that a privileged white boy will have to take personal responsibility for his actions in the weakest and mildest way possible– having to choose a different university than Harvard. That “denied opportunity” is angering conservatives, but denying a Black teenager literally all opportunities, stealing his entire future, is absolutely right and just in their eyes, because when a Black teenager is “no angel,” murder is justified, but when a white teenager is no angel, even when he rapes someone, no punishment, no matter how mild, is justified.

Harvard rejects 95% of all applicants. Conservatives evidently believe that white teenagers belong in the top 5% and must commit atrocities much worse than racism or rape to lose that place while Black teenagers must be perfect in every way just to retain the right to draw breath.

People are more concerned about the kid who repeatedly used “n****r” than they are about the Black students and staff who would be forced to sit in classrooms with him. Harvard is rightly considering the health and safety of its current students and staff in its decisions about who they add to their community. It’s telling that people are more worried about protecting this celebrity from the consequences of his own racist actions than protecting the Black members of Harvard’s community from racism. They’re worried about Kashuv’s future, but not at all concerned about the grad student who would be forced to teach his freshman Comp class, knowing full well that Kashuv would take to Twitter with a whining rant about “reverse racism” and “persecution of conservatives” if he earned a B on an essay.

In the application process, elite universities are just as concerned about character as they are about grades and SATs. Applicants must submit a personal narrative and letters of recommendation that attest to their character as hardworking and community-minded. Elite universities are very picky in their decision-making around who they will add to their learning communities, and a student’s character– again, at 16, just like everything else on the application– is a large part of the consideration. It is not at all surprising that Harvard rescinds acceptances from students when racist acts come to light. The examination of applicants’ character during the high school years is precisely what the application process is designed to do. It’s preposterous to imagine that the best way to go about this is to examine everything about a student BUT racism.

I’m writing this on Juneteenth, a time when many people reflect on the brutal racism Black people have suffered, and continue to suffer, in an America dominated by white supremacy. Do we really wish to continue being the kind of nation that believes it’s too much to ask white people who were born in 2001, who grew up with the internet, and who are supposedly academic superstars devoted to the betterment of society to avoid repeatedly using the word “n****r”? Several conservative pundits I refuse to link here have stated that Harvard is setting an “impossible standard” by weeding out students who have used racial slurs, which reveals far more about those pundits than it does about Harvard.

I’ve spent the last six years teaching 16-year-old students after 25 years as a university adjunct. They are magnificent, brilliant human beings perfectly capable of understanding that racial slurs are harmful and why they are harmful. We expect them to take personal responsibility for literally everything else right up until a white male student must face consequences for words or actions harming a woman or a person of color. We expect 16-year-olds to be responsible enough to drive, to work, and to carry the enormous academic workload that college-bound students now must undertake. It is completely and obviously disingenuous to pretend that 16 is too young to understand the harmful nature of racial slurs. We all know that Kyle Kashuv absolutely understood what he was doing and felt no remorse for anything but being caught. What they’re arguing for– what all of Trumpism and modern conservatism is arguing for– is the right to use racial slurs without consequence.

Free speech means freedom from government interference, not freedom from social consequences. “Free speech” means you can say “The President sux” without going to prison. It does not mean that social media companies must host your racist speech, that TV shows must not fire you, or that Harvard must allow you to attend. Actions have consequences, conservatives. Yes, even for you.

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Teachers Have Been Telling You For Years that Rich People Cheat the System. Here’s What Else We Know.

 

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Photo: Angela Litvin, Creative Commons

The nation exploded in surprise that thirty people nationwide, including two famous actresses, were indicted for participating in scams to get their children into elite universities. Educators similarly exploded in surprise, but for a different reason– we were shocked that the wealthy and powerful were being held accountable for something that’s been widespread for decades. Educators have known about this– and more– for years, yet no one has listened to educators about the widespread inequities in education.

Are you ready to listen now?

Let’s start with the obvious:

Standardized tests are worthless. Educators know that performance on a standardized test is nearly useless in measuring a student’s overall performance in a subject or in predicting a student’s future performance in that subject. A standardized test only measures how good students are at taking standardized tests, which is why plonking down $1300 for an SAT prep course can bring a student’s scores up so dramatically in a such a short period of time. I’ve been teaching both university and high school students for 30 years, so believe me when I tell you that teaching someone how to take the SAT in my subject is entirely different than teaching my subject. Take a look at the job requirements for a Kaplan employee— they’re not looking for a PhD in the subject or experience teaching it; what they want is a high SAT or ACT score in the subject. High standardized test scores can be bought if you have the money for a test training class. Add to this our longstanding knowledge that people with economic privilege score higher on standardized tests overall, and you can see what these tests are really measuring.

But that’s not the only reason standardized testing is problematic. The SAT, PSAT, and AP exams (among others) are administered by a company called College Board. On the surface, they appear to be a nonprofit devoted to creating and administering standardized tests. Have you proctored one of these exams recently? I have. When students take the PSAT, a practice exam whose scores are never distributed to anyone but the students and their high school, College Board insists on students providing full legal names, home addresses, and social security numbers when each exam is already given a unique identifying code. College Board asks for pages of optional information such as phone numbers, GPA, and whether a student’s parents are US citizens.

Here’s why: College Board makes millions selling the student data they collect to anyone with the cash to pay for it. Here’s the link— buried deep on the website– that helpfully provides various payment plans. You can buy information on individual minors for just 45 cents “per name,” pay $7.710 for the right to roam free through the collected information of minors in an “unlimited annual subscription,” or upgrade your annual subscription to an unlimited “Segment Analysis Service™” for $17,750. Here’s a chart of the kind of data you can buy— including race, GPA, “religious interest,” and whether the student is a “first generation” American.

Is the ACT better? No.

Companies that market various services to students purchase your child’s information in order to market to them. College Board pressures students to check the box opting in to “Student Search Services” by requiring test proctors to read a paragraph extolling its virtues, pretending that opting in will result in elite universities recruiting them– without considering that universities are just as likely to use that data to eliminate them from consideration. Students are also told that opting in will result in scholarships contacting them, a deeply unethical promise that plays on the very real fears around paying skyrocketing tuition. This private company’s executives are dangling the false promise of scholarships to students to entice them to hand over data– data that those executives sell to enrich themselves and ensure their own children have unfair advantages over the very students whose data they sell.

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Photo: gvarc.org, Creative Commons

Standardized testing exists to generate wealth for testing companies, and for companies that purchase the marketing data testing companies gather.

But testing companies aren’t the only private companies lining their pockets with public education funds. Two of the most successful education profiteers are companies that market educational systems and companies that create charter schools.

 

In the past few decades, schools were suddenly labeled “in crisis,” and the phrase “failing schools” was everywhere. Nothing had changed– in fact, literacy rates were at an all-time high– but suddenly schools were all “failing” due in large part to “bad teachers” protected by unions. Never mind that non-union states have lower test scores than union states. Facts were not the point. This was marketing meant to shift public opinion, and it worked beautifully. Standardized tests were quickly positioned as the key factor used to measure “teacher effectiveness” and identify “low-performing schools” by demanding that scores rise by a set percentage each year in order to “pass.” This makes no sense, as pedagogical effectiveness can only be measured using a complex variety of assessments and data. Just ask anyone who’s been through a WASC report. This also makes no statistical sense, since the student population at any given site or in any given teacher’s classroom changes from year to year, so you’re comparing two different populations. But, again, this was not about facts. This was fear-mongering meant to manufacture a crisis. The crisis was manufactured by business-friendly politicians so that corporations could sell us the solutions. 

In addition to the billions of tax dollars shelled out to testing companies, and the additional profiteering in selling your child’s data, there are further billions to be made in educational systems and charter schools, all of which depend on maintaining the mythology that schools are “failing” and that we must continually hemorrhage money into private companies to “save” our schools.

 

 

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I’ll just take this over to the private sector #savingschools #wedogoodwork

It’s important to understand that the educational system is unfairly structured in favor of the wealthy at its core. Public school funding is based on property values. Yes, you read that correctly: higher property taxes means more money for schools, because so much about K-12 public education is district by district. This translates into endless benefits for the affluent: higher teacher salaries that attract and retain talent, smaller class sizes and more varied classes (including the art, music, and theatre programs that translate into better grades and better student retention), better facilities, better extracurriculars– in short, everything that educators know improves student outcomes. Poor Black women are jailed for “stealing” educations when they falsify residencies to get their children into higher-rated schools, but those schools are only better because the wealthy unfairly structured the system. While the children of the wealthy are given the best of everything, my public school teacher husband has had to seat students on the counters because there were not enough chairs. But there’s plenty of money in his district to spend on educational systems and charter schools.

Educational systems. Without getting too deep into the ed policy weeds, pre-2018, schools that went into “program improvement” were forced into choosing from a list of draconian measures that included firing every single teacher or purchasing an expensive “program improvement” educational system from a private company. While the rules have become somewhat less draconian, “low-performing schools” are still singled out through testing and are still required to take steps to “improve.” These “educational systems” sold by private companies are expensive and proprietary. Teachers must undergo hours of training on the new system and have almost no flexibility for what we call “differentiated education”– changing things up for individual students who have different learning styles, the gold standard in pedagogy. While I have all the academic freedom I had in university teaching in my private school classroom, my public school teacher husband is required to teach to a system that is, in a word, wretched. I’ve found multiple errors in the material the system requires his students to use, everything from teaching students erroneous grammar to study questions that don’t match the reading . Even without the errors, no educator on the planet would say a one-size-fits-all system was pedagogically useful. It’s the antithesis of effective pedagogy. Yet these essentially useless systems drain billions of tax dollars out of schools and into the pockets of the corporate profiteers who sell them, while those corporate profiteers send their own children to expensive private schools with individualized instruction.

Charter schools. Charter schools are run by private companies but, somehow, are considered public schools and funded by your tax dollars. The charter school system was a gift from a business-friendly government to private companies as the first step towards privatizing education. Literally any company that files the paperwork can start siphoning tax dollars out of the local school system and into their own pockets without having to prove they actually know how to teach.  Don’t get me wrong– there are good charter schools out there run by true believers with a vision– but too many charter schools are run by people with no experience in pedagogy or school administration. In order to collect public funding, you need students, and charter schools have aggressively marketed themselves. Shady charter schools have run wild in areas that lack economic privilege, preying on desperate parents, promising a better education than the woefully underfunded public schools– schools the charters are helping to defund– and pretending to deliver results by manipulating test scores through weeding out low performers in the admissions process, “counseling out” low-performing students, and suspending them or just marking them absent on test day. Charters are notorious for low teacher pay and poor treatment of teachers because they’re exempt from hiring union teachers, just as they’re exempt from almost all the regulations and oversight we put in place to ensure high-quality public schools. While there are good charter schools, the program itself was designed as a love letter to regulation-hating corporations who wanted to privatize public education, and as such it privileged the needs of the wealthy over the needs of the students, and created a host of problems for which charter schools have become notorious among educators. And while all aspects of privatization of public schools, like charters and vouchers, have been the darling of the right, it’s worth noting that charter schools were created by the Clinton Administration and heartily supported by the Obama Administration.

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Photo: Ted S. Warren/AP

 

This is the tip of the iceberg; there’s so much I’ve left unsaid, including the critical influence of racism on all of this. This is just a taste in the hope that people will begin to listen to educators when forming ed policy. For decades, we have formed ed policy around the lie that educators cannot be trusted to helm education, and now we have a ship that has been all but handed over to corporate raiders and privateers.

For the past few decades, education policy in America has been set largely by business-friendly politicians who have done everything they can to use public education funding to line the pockets of the wealthy. They have allowed testing companies to collect and sell personal data about minors. They have wildly overstated the efficacy of standardized tests and increased their importance in every sector of American education to create revenue for testing company executives. They have used those standardized tests to create impossible standards for schools to meet, and when schools inevitably “failed,” they forced schools to purchase expensive “program improvement” systems from private companies. They’ve used those standardized tests to justify handing public funding to private companies to open “charter schools” with no oversight. In short, bad ed policy has opened the coffers of public education and tacked up a sign saying, “Carpetbaggers Welcome.”

Believe educators when we tell you where the problems are– and where they are not. Stop allowing the wealthy to enrich themselves by raiding public school coffers. Put education policy back in the hands of educators. 

 

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Back to School: Creating an Equitable Workplace

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Only 2% of K-12 teachers nationwide are Black men, and just 4.5% are Black women. Black teachers are 50% more likely to leave the profession than white teachers. Just 4% of university faculty are Black. (Photo: teacher.org)

This piece is the second in a three-part series about education in the US. The first is Back to School: How to Be a White Teacher, As Taught to Me By Students of Color.

A few years ago, when I was the senior lecturer at [name redacted] university, the only time my “senior lecturer status” was ever mentioned was when the department chair offered me a class in Black theatre because they “had to” due to my “status.” I told them to hire a Black colleague instead. My “status” as “senior lecturer” had never come up before and never came up again. In fact, that same year I was roundly scolded for “assuming” I had a particular class just because it had been offered to me. They suddenly announced at the last minute they were hiring a white man, lecturing there for the first time, and when I brought up the fact that the job had already been offered to me, I was sternly rebuked. So much for my “senior lecturer” status. I was scolded again by senior staff for later refusing to assist the new hire without pay.

My story is not unique. It’s not even particularly unique in my own academic career. White educators, especially white male educators, experience enormous privilege in the workplace, whether they know it or not.

White men are over-represented in all academic leadership roles. In public high schools, 70% of principals are male, almost all white. Independent schools fare no better; 90% of school heads are white and 64% are male. Over 86% of public school superintendents are men and 92% are white.

White men also enjoy a host of privileges as teachers. In an era when student test scores have become a (mystifyingly) critical marker of teacher performance, white men are assigned high-performing classes more often than women and people of color. Men are given better evaluations than their female colleagues and colleagues of color, even when teaching online classes with literally identical, copy-and-paste content. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, in non-union independent schools, men are paid a full 32% more than women. Even in unionized public schools, men are paid 12% more than women. This may sound impossible given the codification of pay scales in teaching positions, but schools have a great deal of flexibility in determining which step on the pay scale a teacher begins when hired and what kinds of classes, certifications, and degrees they will accept for pay-raising post-graduate education. Educators of color are less likely to be retained, and Black teachers’ expertise in both subject matter and pedagogy is routinely downplayed or overlooked.

In short, discrimination is rampant in academia, and, although this piece focuses primarily on race, it’s not limited to race alone. Teachers with disabilities are routinely refused accommodations, and in most areas of the country, transgender, non-binary and gender-nonconforming teachers are deeply discriminated against. Shockingly, half of transgender teachers report being harassed by colleagues and administrators.

White educators, we can create a more equitable workplace for educators of color. Male educators, you can create a more equitable workplace for women. Cis educators, we can create a more equitable workplace for transgender, non-binary, and gender-nonconforming educators. Able-bodied educators, you can create a more equitable workplace for educators with disabilities. While this piece focuses on race, there is much work to be done in all areas of inequity, and the techniques described below can be used to create diversity, inclusion, and equity for all.

EXAMINE RETENTION RATES. A site’s retention rates are key to understanding the experiences of those who work there. Is your site able to retain white people, but struggles to retain people of color? Are men retained longer than women? Has your site lost a number of women of color all within a short time frame? Examining your retention rates will provide valuable insight into whether your site is truly welcoming and equitable. If your site utilizes exit interviews, perhaps compiling the answers of the people of color who have left your site within the past few years will prove enlightening. Believe what people of color tell you about working at your site, and pay careful attention to trends in the compiled exit interview data.

ENCOURAGE DIVERSE HIRING AT YOUR SITE. Diversity in the workplace, both in teaching staff and in leadership, has numerous benefits. Although our student population is now “majority minority,” US teaching staff is 80% white, with many sites lacking even a single Black or Latinx classroom teacher, even in diverse areas, while evidence continues to mount that students of color have better outcomes when they have teachers of color. A 2015 Stanford University study showed that Black students are disciplined more harshly for the same infractions than white students. The odds of being assigned to a “gifted” or advanced program are 66% lower for Black students and 47% lower for Latinx students than they are for white students, even with high placement test scores. Non-Black teachers have lower expectations for Black students than Black teachers do, even when evaluating the same students. Non-Latinx teachers have negative perceptions of Latinx students, especially when they’re EL students. A more diverse teaching staff is the first step in creating a more equitable education for students of color. White staff will also benefit from working alongside educators with diverse perspectives and experiences.

Is your site hiring? Spread the word to colleagues of color. Post on social media and ask your friends to keep an eye out for candidates of color. Mention to administrators the critical importance of a diverse staff. Advocate for candidates of color when they apply. When you have the opportunity to invite guest speakers to your classroom, look for people of color regardless of the topic. Both students of color and white students need diverse role models.

SUPPORT YOUR COLLEAGUES OF COLOR. It’s not going to do much good if you hire educators of color and then dismiss, minimize, or contest everything they have to say. This is diversity without equity—hiring people of color and then relegating them to a voiceless underclass. Practical ways you can support your colleagues of color (and remember that all of these can be extrapolated to colleagues with disabilities, LGBTQ colleagues, etc):

  1. Educate yourself. Read writers of color and believe what they have to say about whiteness. If you’re uncomfortable with their critiques, work to change the impact of whiteness on their lives rather than fault writers of color for telling the truth of their lived experiences. A better understanding of the experiences of your colleagues of color will increase your effectiveness as an ally.
  2. Listen and believe your colleagues of color. Do not argue with people of color about their lived experiences of racism, especially if your argument is about intent (“I didn’t mean it that way!”). Impact is much more important than intent. If a colleague of color trusts you enough to educate you about something racially problematic happening at your site, or something racially problematic that you’ve done or said, listen to them. Your colleague of color is taking an enormous risk by discussing this with you. Honor that by listening sincerely. Then support your colleague if further steps need to be taken, such as bringing a proposed policy change to administration, or requesting administration reverse a racially charged decision.
  3. Work with administration to get diversity and equity training for the whole staff, and approach the work sincerely by educating the staff about white fragility beforehand. I’ve been through many diversity trainings, and I honestly think most white people imagine diversity training will just be a lengthy affirmation of our cherished belief that we are “not racist.” We imagine that we will sit for a few hours shaking our heads in dismay about “those racists over there” while congratulating ourselves for being “not that.” White people in diversity trainings become enormously fragile, defensive, and even angry the moment they realize that diversity training is actually about combating our own implicit racism and the ways in which we support systemic racism. White people will angrily or tearfully insist we’re “not racist” and “a good person,” insist we “don’t see color,” insist the trainer is incompetent, crow about our resistance to the training (such as boasting about “stumping” the trainer with whataboutism or examples of “reverse racism”), state that we feel “attacked,” dismiss accounts of racism by people of color as “exaggerated,” and more. Staff-wide education around white fragility could provide some tools to mitigate those all-too-common negative reactions to the work. Until white staff are past fragility and defensiveness, little progress can be made.
  4. Work to create clear policies and procedures. When we leave decisions to “case-by-case bases,” more often than not, implicit biases create inequity. Clear policies and procedures, applied equitably, can insure that decisions are as untainted by implicit biases as possible. For example, it’s startlingly common for white male administrators to plan privately with white male educators, securing the most desirable classes and assignments for the white men and then offering the remainder to the women and people of color on staff. “We didn’t know you were interested!” is always the excuse, an excuse created by keeping initial planning secret so the question is never asked. Codifying equitable policies would avoid the resentment that such favoritism breeds, increasing retention.

DIVERSIFY LEADERSHIP. In the US, the vast majority of educational leadership is both white and male. Such homogeneity not only reduces effectiveness, but perpetuates itself in that white males are far more likely to hire and promote other white males, minimize or discount their errors and failures, and assume competence even with extraordinary evidence to the contrary. (We’ve all been in situations where a white man who failed spectacularly at another site is hired for a position of leadership at ours.) Homogeneity in leadership leads to the implicit biases common to that group running unchecked through the industry as a whole. Leadership– from department leadership all the way through the superintendent and school board or board of directors– must reflect the diversity of the surrounding community if it is to effectively serve that community.

Diversity without equity is not effective. Hiring women and people of color and then refusing to pay them equitably, promote them, or even listen sincerely to their input is not reflective of a true “commitment to diversity,” a phrase every school and university across the nation displays proudly on their websites. We have much work to do in our industry– and in our culture at large– to live up to that promise. Let’s get to work.

Next: Back to School: How to Fix the “Broken Education System”

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Back to School: How to be a White Teacher, As Taught to Me By Students of Color

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Image: JSTOR Daily (daily.jstor.org)

This is the first piece in a three-part series about education in the US.

I taught for many years as a lecturer at a state university in the Bay Area. Once, after the first day of class, a young Black student stopped me to ask a routine question. He was a freshman, at the start of his college journey. We walked together to my next class for a bit and chatted. I asked him what I asked many of my students when we had a chance to chat: What did he want to do with his life? What were his dreams and goals? He stopped in his tracks, turned to me, and said, “No white person has ever asked me that.”

This was very early in my teaching career, and was a formative moment for me. In one comment, this teenager had given me a master class in being a white teacher, and in whiteness in America. No white teacher– no white PERSON– had ever cared enough to ask this young man the ubiquitous, “What do you want to be when you grow up?” That broke my heart and changed my life as a teacher. I began to think hard about how white teachers serve– or do not serve– students of color. I began to think hard about the many ways in which living in a society flooded with racist messaging has influenced the way we teach, the expectations we have of our students, the material we teach, and our classroom cultures.

While many assume education is extremely diverse– I’ve had white people tell me they believe their whiteness is a liability on the academic job market– 80% of public school teachers are white, and 90% of full-time professors are white (but when you include underpaid lecturers, that number drops to 79%). A full 77% of K-12 teachers are women  (but of course just under a quarter of full-time professors are women). White men are given school leadership roles at all levels– K through grad school– at astonishingly higher rates than anyone else, even though they are underrepresented in K-12 education. The more prestigious the educational institution, the more likely white men are chosen for leadership roles.

Most American teachers are white, and most of us are teaching under some form of white male leadership, while the US student population is more diverse now than ever before. Yet we’re also confronted with the reality that white fragility around conversations about race and white resentment are both at a fever pitch, making support around these issues from parents, colleagues and, most importantly, administrators uncertain and often conditional.

How do we support all our students whether leadership is on board or not? How do we create a curriculum and a classroom culture that support the needs of all students using the tools available to us, with or without outside support?

EDUCATE YOURSELF. Read writers of color, and not just when they’re writing about race. Seek out writers whose lived experience differs from yours and learn what they have to say about a wide variety of topics. Believe what writers of color have to say about whiteness. If you begin to feel uncomfortable with a writer’s criticism of white people, lean into it. This is where the growth happens. Don’t allow yourself to pretend that your own resistance, defensiveness, or anger mean that the writer is “wrong.” Defensiveness, resistance, and anger are far more likely to mean that the writer is discussing an uncomfortable truth you do not want to confront. Do you want your students to give up the minute something gets difficult? If we’re asking for that kind of disciplined effort from 14-year-old students around algebra problems or essays, we can certainly give that disciplined effort ourselves about the systemic racism that has destroyed lives for generations. If you’re unhappy with the way writers of color critique whiteness, work to change the impact of whiteness in their lives rather than dismiss the writers for telling the truth.

BUILD A DIVERSE CURRICULUM. Don’t worry about being a white teacher teaching material by people of color. Just don’t present yourself as an expert in the race-related material. It’s enough to be the expert in, say, novel structure; you do not also need to be the expert in Black lives to teach a novel by a Black writer. Read the work of Black scholars when prepping Black material. Present the material to your students as something you are exploring together. Tell students why it’s important to read writers of many different perspectives. Model humility; model the desire to learn about people different than yourself, to learn from people different than yourself. Demonstrate to your students that material by people of color isn’t “Black history” or “Latinx literature” but “history” and “literature.” “History” and “literature” are not naturally white, requiring modifiers to demonstrate distance from the natural whiteness of the fields. All work comes from specific perspectives, including white-written work. We just pretend white-written work is “neutral” and “universal.” White work is heavily influenced by the writer’s whiteness, not “neutral,” but we read whiteness as “neutral” and everything else as defined by its distance from whiteness. All work is both specific in perspective and universal.

Scholars invented “the canon” and we can reinvent it to include writers of color. Writers of color are not temporary diversions from “important work,” existing solely to speak specifically about people of color for a moment before we return to work about more universal themes. Writers of color are firmly enmeshed in the same web of influences and references, and handle the same universal themes, as “canonical” writers. But because scholars privileged white work and relegated, for example, Black work to a “Black lit” or “Black history” sidebar, we’ve been taught to see it as an extra, a detour, a specialization. American writers of color are only considered “canonical” when writing about their identity, while we deem white writers the only people capable of writing work that speaks to the human experience as a whole. Does that seem exaggerated to you? Look for the American writers here, here, and here. Works by writers of color about identity are critically important, and of course do indeed contain universal themes, despite generations of white academics ignoring that. But works by writers of color about other topics are also important and also deserving of inclusion in curricula. Any list or syllabus that includes Orwell and Bradbury but not Butler is broken. Academics invented the broken canon, and we can repair it. Start with your syllabus.

If you’re a Humanities teacher, diversifying your curriculum is easy, especially if you’re already seeking out diverse writers and educating yourself about diverse perspectives. There are literally thousands of articles and lesson plans available online. There are social justice-focused lesson plans, lesson plans about writers of color, lesson plans based on primary source material written by people of color throughout history, and so much more. If you’re a STEM teacher, this might seem more complex. How do you “diversify” an Algebra 2 curriculum? The website Teaching Tolerance has sample lessons for all subjects and grade levels, and is a great place to start. They also published a useful article about diversity in STEM teaching called “Planting Seeds, Growing Diversity.”   There are many resources online for STEM teachers looking to create diverse curricula.

EXAMINE YOUR IMPLICIT BIASES. Implicit biases are unconscious responses to internalized cultural messaging. In a culture rife with systemic racism, we encounter racist messaging every day of our lives. (The same goes for misogyny, transphobia, ableism, etc.) Our implicit biases are not consciously racist, but rather a reaction to our understanding of our culture shaped by a lifetime of racist messaging. All humans have implicit biases and must work to uncover what they are before working to counteract them. I won’t lie to you; it’s difficult work and it’s never-ending, but the results are critically important for teachers. What are your expectations of your students? Do you unconsciously expect white boys to be “better” at some things? Do you allow a Black girl’s math errors to slide because “that’s the best she can do”? Do you see rowdiness from Black students as “inappropriate” and requiring consequences, but rowdiness from white boys as “high spirits”? Do you make up nicknames for students when their names are “too hard to pronounce”? All humans have implicit biases, and all Americans, especially white Americans, have a host of implicit biases about race that we must examine intentionally in order to overcome. Not sure where to start? Take a look at this article from the Yale Center for Teaching and Learning, “Awareness of Implicit Biases” and NEA Today’s “When Implicit Bias Shapes Teacher Expectations.”   This is a life-long project with no finish line, so don’t look for quick, easy answers or a bullet-pointed “to do” list for the classroom. This is about examining our own thoughts and behavior over time.

RESPECT STUDENTS’ CULTURES. One of the most frequent mistakes we make as white teachers is around the usage of English dialects such as AAVE (African American Vernacular English). What we call “correct” or “proper” English is just one style of communication students will need to use as a tool in a few, very limited settings. Even in the business world, most communication is done in a slang-y, jargon-y English that is nowhere near “correct.” While formal English skills can indeed open doors for you as the lingua franca of many aspects of our culture, it’s just one style of English communication. When I mark something on a paper as “incorrect” grammar or syntax, it is “incorrect” for formal English, not for all English communication. “Correct” grammar and syntax are always changing. Case in point: Americans insisted on using “momentarily” incorrectly so persistently dictionaries now include “in a moment” as an “alternate usage” along with the original “for a moment,” which quite frankly galls me, but language evolves despite my personal feelings about it. White people complain bitterly about various dialects but don’t know how to use “whom” properly and can’t tell the difference between “every day” and “everyday.” I see white people writing the utterly incorrect “I drink coffee everyday” while sneering at the usage of “ax” for “ask,” a pronunciation that goes back 1200 years. Learning to code switch from AAVE, Hawaiian pidgin, or Spanglish to formal English is a skill, and a deeply useful one. When teaching, emphasize that you’re using one style of English—formal English—in your classroom, not that you’re using “correct English.” No one dialect is always “correct” for every setting.

Think about when formal English is required in your classroom and when it isn’t, and be certain that you’re monitoring that equally. During class discussions, too many teachers allow white slang while “correcting” students who use AAVE (even though the vast majority of “white slang” was appropriated from AAVE). If you’re using “cool,” “hang out,” or the prepositional because (“because science”) but “correcting” students who use “finna,” “ax,” or “I got out the bed,” you’re creating a classroom culture where random white slang is acceptable but a longstanding dialect with its own grammar and syntax–AAVE– is not.  We need to teach formal English to our students, but we can (correctly) recognize that code switching is a complex and useful skill rather than denigrate one dialect while teaching another. You don’t need to denigrate other English dialects to teach students formal English any more than you need to denigrate English to teach Japanese.

LISTEN TO STUDENTS AND COLLEAGUES OF COLOR. Most of what I’ve ever learned about serving students of color as a white teacher came from listening to students and colleagues of color. But in order to listen to colleagues of color, you need to have colleagues of color– and you need to have colleagues of color who are able to speak out without consequences. In the next piece, I’ll examine our role as white allies in creating diversity and equity in the academic workplace.

Next: Back to School: Creating an Equitable Workplace.

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