Stepping Out: One White Teacher’s Quest to Be An Anti-Racist Educator
December 3, 2020
December 3, 2020
By Rebecca Field
I first wrote this piece in 2019 as a reflection on a massive change in my teaching career, a new beginning, at a time when no one anticipated the societal upheaval that would come months later. I’d been planning to leave education after 18 years of teaching.
Like many teachers, I’d forgotten what it felt like to be excited about my job. I loved many of my students and although I found joy in teaching every day, I was too angry and too defeated to continue. We all have a reason we chose this career, why we put up with so much stress and so little pay. Mine was that I felt teaching was the most direct way that I could work to make the future more just. I taught to affect social change. I teach high school art and it was easy for me to include social justice objectives into my lesson plans. I could pretend I was making a difference in my classroom, but I saw myself, more and more, as a complacent part of a school, district, and system that are unjust. I’d lost my belief in myself to be a changemaker. I preached to my students that they had to make their voices heard: They must actively work for social justice—by being a bystander and letting bad things happen, they were agreeing to injustice.
I wasn’t following my own advice. So, I left.
At the end of the 2018-19 school year, I quit my teaching job in the suburbs and took a position teaching in my neighborhood high school in the city. My new workplace was a Title One school of largely economically deprived students. Before giving up on teaching, I decided to find a position in which I could use my experience to benefit young people in my beloved city.
When I arrived, I believed in my abilities to be a good teacher and I thought the years of experience I wore would make the change fairly seamless. All the students I teach are Black and I am white. I am a middle class, college-educated, award-winning teacher who has always believed in myself because I’ve grown up in a world that told me my voice matters. What I quickly learned, however, was what made me a good teacher before didn’t hold up in my new school. What I thought was good practice was harmful to my new students. This year I began again, committed to the difficult work of becoming the best educator I can be.
The first few months at my new school were the hardest of my teaching career but also the most interesting and the most exciting. The more time I spent with my students, the more I understood why I must change everything I thought about teaching. They didn’t trust me. Their experiences with people who look like me haven’t always been positive, and I’m the third art teacher that they have had in two years. They questioned my reason for being at their school. They want to know why I left a “good school” to come there. I was so used to being the experienced mentor for new educators that I was naively shocked that my students didn’t buy into my pedagogy right away. Frankly, I failed as a teacher because of my biases and ego. I wanted students who were worthy of my talent instead of yearning to be the teacher that was worthy of my students’ love. Facing this reality has been essential to their futures. I show them that I want to be with them every day, even on those days when they see my nervousness and hesitation, or on the many days when I feel like an outsider. I do this by pledging to dismantle my biases and by working to learn more and more about how to be worthy of my job.
After a fairly shaky start last year, I have to be better this year and at the same time learn how to teach virtually, upending everything I’ve learned about classroom teaching My students are not the same kids I said goodbye to in March. They’re transformed. The pandemic has affected them on every level. Some have relocated, lost their homes, their jobs, or loved ones, and experienced financial hardships that have changed them. They’ve also seen footage of people who look like them being murdered by the police. They’ve watched symbols of white supremacy being torn down in their city while white supremacist systems that affect their lives remain intact.
If you’re an educator anywhere in America this year, you must learn new ways of teaching and of building relationships with students. I urge you to pledge to learn how to be an anti-racist educator. You cannot ignore the acts of direct and cultural violence that have shaped the childhood of our Black and Brown students. We’re not allowed to focus on our subject matter and fail to talk about the trauma of these last few months. Set the intention of being an anti-racist educator and then earn that title by engaging in the difficult process of self-evaluation, each and every day.
Being an anti-racist educator means that my students know that every time they walk into my classroom, I will acknowledge that their Black and Brown bodies are strong and brilliant, creative and imaginative. They’ll know they’re not invisible, that their teacher recognizes each one of their individual identities and at the same time lets them know they have collective power as young people. What and how I teach are deliberately geared towards their empowerment and self-awareness. Many of your students may have been showing up for marches and protests while they’ve been away from school. As a teacher, jump on that experience. Our kids are itching to fight the wrongs that our generations have put into place. Support the growth of their awareness and use it in your lessons.
Being an anti-racist educator means setting high expectations for my students, challenging them to think creatively in a world that often doesn’t expect innovation or critical thinking from Black and Brown children. It means making sure that my students know that they’re missed when they don’t come to school, and calling home when I’m particularly proud of their work or disappointed with their progress. It means advocating for better resources and fighting for opportunities to showcase their amazing talent. We now have more resources to help our students engage with the wider world. The entire planet is our classroom and student work can be showcased nationally and globally. This is the moment that we can step out of our classroom and make sure that our students can see the effects of their learning in the wider community.
Being an anti-racist teacher means that I’m always learning, always critiquing myself, always calling my behavior and my thoughts into question. I take classes about pedagogy of race and equity, I attend conferences, and I volunteer for nonprofit groups that teach kids how to be allies. I read a lot: articles and blogs about anti-racist teaching and novels by Black and Brown writers, both young adult titles and adult fiction. I follow Black and Brown teachers, activists, thinkers, writers, and journalists on Twitter, Medium, and Facebook. I ask a lot of questions and do a lot of research. I’m always striving to be a better co-conspirator. I want to learn more about how to provide space and support for students to be heard and seen without me getting in the way. This work is time-consuming. It’s also mind-consuming. Now anti-racist workshops are online and usually recorded, so your anti-racist professional development is right on your screen. This summer I attended conferences and webinars that I have never had access to before. This is the time to do the work.
Being an anti-racist teacher also means that I am constantly absorbing new research about trauma-informed teaching, restorative justice, local housing and food equity, city transportation and job creation, integrating and funding public schools, and the school-to-prison pipeline. I’m active in the VEA, I work to elect local officials who care about Black and Brown children, and I remain committed to being vocal about the amazing young people I teach. My Instagram feed is filled with community activists from all areas of my city, from Black-owned businesses, to Black farmers working to end food deserts, to anti-eviction activists. I know I’ll never be finished finding new resources. Systemic racism is deep and embedded in all aspects of our lives and we are lucky to have direct access to the next generation of ant-racist activists-in-training.
Being an anti-racist teacher means I’m wrong more than I’m right, but slowly moving in the direction of knowledge. It means depending on the work of Black teachers, administrators, and parents to learn what our students need to thrive. I move my ego out of the way and give credit to those who teach anti-racist and abolitionist theory and practice. After nearly 20 years of thinking I’m the expert, I fight with my own feelings of wanting credit for my learning process. That credit is now found in the successes of my students. My joys and pride in my work look different now. I have days in which I get a very hard-earned smile from a particular student and I feel like I could fly. And then there are days in which I feel completely incompetent, or angry at how I handled a classroom outburst, and I cry from frustration. There are also days, yes, when I yearn for the students that I had at my old school…kids who I swear in the moment just seemed easier to love because they needed less from me. Those self-defeating moments pass fairly quickly and I am learning to allow myself a bit of grace.
Being an anti-racist teacher means that I get the privilege of introducing my art students to a whole world of artists who look like them and are helping to lead our country’s conversations about art. I get to teach teenagers about artists who are making art about racism, injustice, and what it’s like to be Black in America. I encourage them to ask questions about why Black bodies are not welcomed in museums and art spaces, and in public spaces in their own city. They come into my classroom (and now on my screen) and see important and creative work being done in their names. I then get to teach them effective ways they can represent themselves the way they want to be seen. They see themselves becoming artists and advocates for their community.
I’m so lucky to get a chance to spend my life like this. I learn from them every day; about how they view the world and about what they care about. I enter my classroom each morning hoping that because of me, there will be teenagers in my community that believe in their own creative power and that envision a future that I can’t even imagine.
The activism for Black Lives Matter this spring and summer have allowed students to witness the effects of loud, organized, and creative people who are pushing our city towards justice—and they’ve learned that they, too, can be a part of this. I believe in their power and their imagination. Of course, I don’t tell them all this at once. I’ve learned that they protest loudly when I “teach” too much. I know that they don’t like me to waste their art time by talking at them. They will still come to class each day as they did last year, and say, “Hey Ms. Frizzle, what are we doing today?” And in the months I’ve tried to answer that question, I’m still not exactly sure. But for the first time in a long, long while, I can answer that whatever I’m doing, I,m learning how to be the teacher they deserve.
Field, a Richmond Education Association member, is a high school art teacher.