Being a teacher who is black, indigenous, or a person of color (BIPoc), can be challenging in and of itself. So many resources that come across don’t always speak to our experiences in the classroom as a teacher. There are commonalities and trends to what we experience as teachers, and it’s even more pronounced when we are in classrooms where the student population is predominantly white. I want to offer the advice and the tips I wish someone had shared with me as I prepared to be a brown teacher in a room of predominantly white students. You’ll see evidence of my field being language arts, but these tips go beyond content areas.
FIRST: First unit of the year must establish the tone of challenging conversations and courageous moments that you will all be undertaking. The first book or topic must get their attention and be used strategically to introduce some key terms and concepts for the year. This a unit where terms such as ‘injustice’ and ‘institutionalized racism’ are defined and explored.
SECOND: Use texts as an opportunity to build missing background knowledge. These are opportunities to fill in gaps, reveal missing information, open eyes and widen understanding of systemic injustices. Pacing for this is key. I often use a method where I introduce the topic, students research their subtopics and present the knowledge to their peers. In essence, they teach this content. There’s reading, small group discussions, collaborative critical thinking questions and I always debrief at the end. It gives them a chance to process and listen to others as they process their experiences.
THIRD: Always have objectives linked to all assignments and assessments and grading method. While doing this is simply good practice, we need to be extra prepared in order to respond to white students and parents. We get questioned for things our white colleagues don’t. We need to be equipped to defend our pedagogical choices and approaches. Use professional organizations as foundations for the curricular and pedagogical choices you make.
FOURTH: Use various genres each unit. If you are discussing a book that brings up issues of race in school (for example), then also find poetry that explores it and a film. Why? It’s important for students to see these ideas across different spaces. It allows white students to see the ways race, bias, and injustices are not bound to one text or one film, but are systemic and everyone is talking about it. Additionally, you want to show that these are real issues, that you’re not fabricating these points, and that this isn’t simply “your opinion.”
FIFTH: Make sure you are extra strong on content and skills. Sometimes because of the challenging nature of the dialogue and the texts, some students will critique the course by saying they’re not getting enough “content” or “ skills” in your subject area. Of course they are, but this is one form of resistance to engaging in this work and resisting you, to be honest. This is one way to discredit your work and your knowledge. Make sure to keep expectations extra high and articulate content objectives clearly and often.
SIXTH: Do lessons on whiteness and offer students opportunities to explore their identity. Create spaces for them to see themselves as racialized and wonder about their racial identities.
SEVENTH: Assume they don’t know. Unfortunately, it’s helpful to assume they don’t have the background knowledge necessary to grapple with large issues present in the unit. If you find that along the way some of them are, then push them to see deeper into a text or do more research.
EIGHTH: Understand that some of your students will not act up in your class simply because you are BIPoC. It’s too risky to stand up to you. It would seem very racist to have an outright argument with you. So, they may tell their parents, or friends, or one of your colleagues. It will come up when it’s time to offer feedback and in PWIs, during course evaluations. It will show up there. Be ready for that. How? Be ready with your documentation and pedagogical stances. Be ready with your receipts. Don’t let nobody catch you slipping.
NINTH: Read books students and deal with topics that matter to you. There is so much to teach and so many issues to explore. Meet their needs, yes, AND ALSO meet your own. You and that curriculum might be on the only voices of color in there. Let that curriculum be your brethren in that space.
TENTH: Course and teacher evaluations: Students understand the power of their voice. They know they can bring a concern to mom or dad and that it can cause repercussions. They know your career, your position, can be touched. They fully understand their privilege. Because the evaluations are anonymous, they often take grand liberties. I find that the first year of this is always hard. They’re getting used to you and you are working on getting used to them and that friction leads to discontent.
ELEVENTH: Reach out to and befriend the students of color on campus. I don’t really have to say this because it often happens naturally. But, I want you to think of them as a way to fill your own cup, too. Yes, they have needs and you will serve them through counseling and mentoring, but they are also a support system for you. Laugh with them, advise the student of color group, eat with them, go on trips with them, and let those relationships keep you warm.