Why Teachers Should Talk About Race
Leadership Insights

Why Teacher Professional Development Must Address Race and Privilege

By Monica Fuglei July 29, 2015
Why Teachers Should Talk About Race

In 2012, Portland, Oregon, school principal Verenice Gutierrez suggested that the “subtle language of racism” can be found daily in our classrooms. She used a lesson given by one of her teachers to illustrate the concept: an assignment asking students to write instructions for making a peanut butter and jelly sandwich.

The PB&J problem

Dr. Gutierrez stressed that while a PB&J was familiar to many, some students had little experience with the sandwich. “What about Somali or Hispanic students, who might not eat sandwiches?” she asked.

She was speaking from experience. The K-8 student body at Harvey Scott School was 13 percent African-American, 17 percent Asian, 45 percent Latino/a, 2 percent Native American and 23 percent white. Fifty percent of Dr. Gutierrez’s students spoke a first language other than English, including Spanish, Vietnamese and Somali.

Professional development that addresses white privilege is controversial — and needed

Dr. Gutierrez made the PB&J comparison during an interview about a teacher training course called “Courageous Conversations,” which helped educators have difficult but crucial discussions about white privilege and cross-cultural communication. Politically conservative blogs seized upon her comments and diversity training in general as an example of political correctness run amok. Although later proved false by Politifact, Breitbart.com ran a story titled “Portland Schools Spend $500K to Deem PB&J Sandwiches Racist.”

It is a statistical reality that while schools have highly diverse student populations, educators tend to come from a position of privilege. More than 80 percent of public school teachers are white, but half their classrooms are made up of students of color. Without proper training, many educators aren’t prepared to meet the needs of students from different cultural and ethnic backgrounds. Professional development that helps teachers understand and serve their student populations should be sought out and supported by school districts across the nation.

‘Help, my classroom volunteer is racist!’ Advice from Captain Awkward

While some people believe that we’ve entered a post-racial society, failing to discuss issues of race, class, and privilege undermines efforts at equity for diverse groups of students. If students do not feel honored or they witness teachers or volunteers devaluing their neighborhoods, cultures or families, they will be incredibly difficult to educate.

Advice columnist Captain Awkward recently fielded a question from someone who worked for a non-profit providing tutoring services to children in Title 1 schools. The reader wondered how to handle the racist and classist assumptions some of the white, affluent volunteers had about the low-income students of color they tutored.

In her reply, Captain Awkward noted that going through training that addresses race and privilege before working with students can help educators and volunteers avoid stereotyping the children they serve. She also advised that empathy and collaboration can help teachers and classroom volunteers better identify their privilege and the conflicts their expectations may create.

Educating educators and tutors can help them eliminate prejudiced beliefs about their students and gain knowledge about the cultural, financial, or time constraints of their student body. Rather than concluding that a student’s parents don’t care about their education, volunteers and teachers who’ve had professional development on diversity understand that the student’s family may work different or long hours, may not speak English, or could have other conflicts that keep them from routinely attending events.

New assignment: How to make a PB&J, pita, torta or sambusa

Qualities of the student body that have been previously perceived as weaknesses can be seen as strengths. The PB&J problem can be overcome, as Dr. Gutierrez explained, by asking students about common foods that exist in their homes. “Another way would be to say ‘Americans eat peanut butter and jelly. Do you have anything like that?'” she said. “Let them tell you. Maybe they eat torta. Or pita.”

Teachers often use the “How to make a PB&J” assignment to illustrate the importance of patterning and directions. By tweaking the instructions to “How to make a common dish,” cultural differences can be used to students’ advantage. Seemingly familiar dishes can be difficult to recreate if students have never experienced them, thus affirming the instructional objectives of the assignment. It also allows students to share their unique experiences with each other, honoring that difference along the way.

The deficits of monolingual white children: thoughts on lowered expectations from the Educational Linguist

A recent post from Nelson Flores, a University of Pennsylvania professor who blogs as The Educational Linguist, flips a standard script. Titled “What If We Talked About Monolingual White Children the Same Way We Talk About Low-Income Children of Color?,” it illustrates the unfairly lowered expectations and failure to fully harness student talent present when educators perceive a language gap in the student body. In a previous post, Flores addressed the “language gap” argument by pointing to research that shows students of both populations show similar abilities to communicate; they simply use language differently.

Flores rejects the deficit language of previous research into socioeconomic status and its influence on student performance, suggesting that the best foundation for true educational reform is one that recognizes the strengths of diverse student bodies and then builds upon them.

Banish assumptions about race and class by inviting students into the conversation

While diversity training, research, education, and discussions of privilege are all important aspects of education, the most important piece remains the students themselves. One of the best ways to banish assumptions about students’ capabilities and family backgrounds is to invite them to the conversation.

Developing assignments that help students describe their lives can be one of the best ways to learn about students as unique individuals. Asking students to share their strengths, worries, and one thing they want teachers or volunteers to know about them is key to best serving them. It may also provide insight to those differing student strengths that can be harnessed for a solid education.

Monica Fuglei is a graduate of the University of Nebraska in Omaha and a current faculty member of Arapahoe Community College in Colorado, where she teaches composition and creative writing.

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