The year was 1995 and I was teaching math at Ames High School in Ames, Iowa. It was my
|first year as a full-time teacher. I didn't make it a habit of checking my desks for student writing. Perhaps that particular day there was a pencil on the floor or a piece of paper and I went to pick it up near the desk. I can't recall those details. However, I do recall seeing something written on the desk and I bent over to read it. The words I read were burned into my memory. It said, "Mrs. Nataro is a n***** lover."|
I was shocked by the words I saw, naievely thinking my community was safe and free of racism. It has taken me until now to realize that what I did next contributed to the underlying racism that was in present in my classroom.
Image from pixnio.com
A flood of thoughts raced through my mind, "What do I do? How long had this been written on the desk? How many students had seen it? Was it written on other desks?" I recall quickly walking around the room and checking each desk. After I saw it was only on the one desk, my thoughts changed to "I can't let other students see this. I need to remove this vandalism from the desk immediately."
I can't recall where I found the products I used to clean the desk, but I do remember scrubbing vigorously and checking several times to make sure the words could no longer be seen. I had erased the words and thought I had solved the problem. The desk was clean, but the problem was still there. I had removed the vandalism, but I did not address what had led to that vandalism.
At the time, I thought I had done the right thing. I was protecting my black students from being exposed to that vile language and I was preventing those words from being viewed and used by my white students. I now understand that by not saying anything to administrators or my students, I contributed to the racist undercurrent in the school and my classroom. And if you were a black student or black teacher at Ames High School in 1995 and you are reading this post, I am sorry that I did not speak up. I am sorry I did not recognize what my silence meant.
So, what can we do as educators? I am not an expert on this, but offer a few thoughts.
1) Train educators with what to do and say in response to racism and intolerance. Train us to listen and train us on the ways we can support marginalized students. Posting platitudes around the school like "we care for our students" and "your education matters to us" is meaningless without the tools teachers need to promote change and have difficult conversations.
2) Find groups that work to actively support anti-racists practices in education and share your experiences and expertise within those groups. If you are looking for some ideas, check out the link to the recent statement posted at The Global Math Department.
3) Don't relegate teaching of black history or marginalized groups to one month of the year or a specific week or a single assembly to check off a box. Doing that is like saying, "Look here. We didn't forget about you. Problem solved." This doesn't come close to doing the hard work that needs to be done.