Baptiste: How to Have ‘Courageous Conversations’ About Race That Can Help End Inequities in Our Schools

(Photo by Bilgin S. Sasmaz/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images)

With the election of our first black president, many clung to hope that we had entered a post-racial America. The recent events in Charlottesville proved that we are not as far along in this journey as we had hoped, a sad truth that many educators across the United States have known for a long time. Despite the 1954 ruling in Brown v. Board of Education that “separate educational facilities are inherently unequal,” our schools are still separate and unequal.

The resegregation of America’s schools over the past 20 years has created an environment where lack of exposure to those different from ourselves presents a seemingly insurmountable barrier. Because we are separated from one another, it is impossible to build relationships with each other. Without a trusting relationship, we cannot have a courageous conversation and approach topics that are uncomfortable and scary.

Fear spreads; hate spreads; the cycle seems unbreakable. But it isn’t.

The Office for Civil Rights in the U.S. Department of Education reported in 2014 that for all suspensions of preschool-age children, 42 percent were given to black children, compared with 28 percent given to their white peers. Unfortunately, many schools whose demographics are predominantly children of color have become analogous to prisons, with metal detectors, bars on windows in some school districts, police officers on guard, and teachers or administrators as wardens.

Those groups that are consistently marginalized (students of color and students with disabilities) are not proportionate or nearly representative of the teachers serving them; more than half of students attending public school are children of color, while less than 2 percent of teachers are black males.

Schools struggle to recruit and retain teachers of color due to lack of exposure, not talent. Because our students fail to see a representation of themselves in the teaching field, they have little desire to enter it. I know because I am one of those students. It wasn’t until I got to college that I had a professor invest in me and help me find my hidden talents. Today I am fortunate to share what I have learned with coaches and teachers all over the country.

In the school culture work I do through CT3, I see firsthand how diversity in schools can stimulate creativity and build cultural understanding, not only among students but also non-white teachers and staff who often face the same disadvantages. But if all adults are not seen in the school as equal, valued members, it will be impossible to create a trusting environment.

When we all agree that we have a problem with race, class, and equity in education, then comes the challenging question, “Now what?” What can we all do to start fixing the problem? I often hear educators say, “I’m only a teacher, what can I do?”

The first step is to learn how to have a courageous conversation: an honest discussion about what has happened and is happening in our classrooms and how it makes us — all of us — feel. We cannot work together to create solutions for problems about which we are afraid to talk. The key is to find a way to have meaningful communication to understand what is at the root cause of our feelings and beliefs. Often what we find is that there is more that binds us together than separates us, contrary to the images we saw coming from the Charlottesville rally.

As for much of the commentary that followed it, let me be clear: A panel of so-called experts shouting at one another is not a courageous conversation; that’s venting.

In their book Courageous Conversations About Race: A Field Guide for Achieving Equity in Schools, Glenn Singleton and Curtis Linton explain how courageous conversations utilize the agreements, conditions, and compass that engage, sustain, and deepen interracial dialogue about race in order to examine schooling and improve student achievement. A courageous conversation requires every person in the school to make the time and commitment to come together, regularly. One courageous conversation that makes you feel better is a good start, but that is not where it is supposed to end.

With courageous conversations, we accept that we might get upset or frustrated, but we agree that being vulnerable is OK. Everyone’s opinion, respectfully stated, is valid no matter how uneducated or uninformed it might seem to you. Much of the work of CT3 is based on authentic, trusting relationships. Similarly, courageous conversations must happen in a place that is safe, and must be supported by our school administrators. If your administration is not supportive, then that could be an opportunity for your first courageous conversation.

Courageous conversations start like this:

“I feel safe in my classroom, but if I am being honest, I am scared of some of my students when they are hanging with their friends and their conversation gets loud.”

“I resent that most people of color are placed in a dean position while most whites are placed in a principal position.”

“My job is only to teach … these kids don’t care about school … if their parents don’t care, why should I?”

This is where it gets real. This is where we move from confrontation to communication.

Open, collaborative dialogue about diversity and culture can lay the foundation for change when used as a discussion tool, and when both sides listen emphatically to each other’s beliefs. In my work at CT3 — training coaches all over the country to work with teachers — I often encourage them to put themselves in the other’s shoes. When discussing sentiment, experts use statements such as “This is how I feel when you …” Being honest without judgment allows the safe space necessary for people to have courageous conversations.

So what is the connection between courageous conversations and closing the equity gap?

Courageous conversations can lead to the formation of an “equity team” of students, teachers, parents, school safety officers, and community stakeholders to discuss inequities and the beliefs that uphold them. The result can be a multi-tiered plan of support that addresses equitable curriculum, mentors for all students, effective discipline hierarchies that are not used punitively, incentive systems, and social/emotional support before referring students to special education.

Broward County Public Schools created an entire team dedicated to equity and academic attainment where schools identified ambassadors responsible for leading conversations on how to eliminate the racial predictability and disproportionality of harsh discipline, like suspension. This path has led to significant decreases in suspensions and student arrests and increases in students of color entering Advanced Placement classes and gifted and talented programs.

At CT3, we believe curriculum should be challenging, accessible to all students, and culturally relevant by providing students opportunities to build confidence, self-efficacy, and global awareness and develop critical-thinking skills to challenge the status quo and engage in critical dialogue. People of color have remained oppressed in most educational settings, because their history has either been extremely diluted in textbooks or wiped out completely.

I’ve shared with principals that dedicating one month to Black History is not enough to say your curriculum is culturally relevant; creating robust classroom libraries where students have endless books about their culture and language is a start. Curriculum that accurately depicts all viewpoints and the role people of color held throughout history and how it impacts students today and for the future is another gateway.

Now let’s talk about the teacher-student relationship. Showing passion and commitment to transformation means working and becoming involved in the community where students live. We encourage educators to regularly visit student homes, churches, and local stores to understand the needs and culture of the community students live in. This is a start to building trusting relationships that encourage students to care about learning. You can’t have effective conversations if people don’t trust that you have their best interest at heart.

Just as fear and hate are taught, so are love and respect. It is in these uniting virtues that we can embrace our nation’s children and teach them to do the very thing our generation was unable to on Saturday, Aug. 12, in Charlottesville, Virginia.

School is the primary institution responsible for providing equal opportunities by truly teaching all students acceptance, diversity, and equality. Our job as educators is not to simply help our students rise above inequity and escape poverty, but to be fearless in ending it, so that all students, regardless of ZIP code, can experience a principle this nation was founded on — that all are created equal.

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