Racism and Educational Injustice: Some teachers ARE Part of the Problem

by Adrienne Wallace

While there are a lot of people who advocate against racism, many people fail to address how it plays out in schools, affecting our students and their futures. A study by the Center for America Progress that came out in early October highlights some difficult but important truths that we must confront – that there are teachers in our public school system that act on racist beliefs and harm the educational outcomes of brown and black students. That’s a nice way of saying what most parents and students of color already know to be true: Some teachers perpetuate racism in their classrooms.

Anecdotally this is something that I, as both a student and a teacher of color, know all too well. I loved math from the time I was a kid – I still do. I appreciate its rhythm and simplicity. I tested into the advanced math track in middle school and excitedly walked into my 8th grade class. As I walked in the doorway my teacher looked at me and told me that I was in the wrong classroom and that my math class was down next door. Never mind the fact that I had scored the highest on the qualifying exam and never mind the fact that I was on his roster. He saw me, a Black girl, and directed me to the remedial math class.

That was the first time I ever skipped a class. I brought my dad with me the next day to personally escort me into class. I sat in the front row and wanted to cry with shame. It isn’t surprising I bombed the first test, due to pressure and the self-consciousness I felt. The teacher tried to kick me out of the class. My father convinced him to let me retake the test, and told me, “Listen, Adrienne, he thinks nothing of you – we know that. Show him what you’re made of.” I got a 94% on that test and never got lower than a 99% on another exam for the rest of the year.

I ended up with the highest score in the class. That teacher ended up as principal of the school.

Hundreds of other kids ended up harmed by his low expectations, mostly because not everyone had a father who worked in the school system who could advocate for them.

I became a teacher in 2011 mostly because I was infuriated that many teachers still had such low expectations and weren’t truly engaging with their black and brown students. Many of the things I heard spoken to me or around me about black kids are too painful to rehash here. There were teachers who specifically had plans to get “those kids” out of their classes. They would suspend a black student from their class for coughing and call it “extreme disrespect.” A teacher once even said “Listen, monkeys are illiterate, so I’m not gonna have them swinging around my class.” How could he say that about the students I loved so much? How could treat my babies that way? And why couldn’t he see that the environment he created for them would only yield those results?

These were the same students who sat in my class, did their work, occasionally talked out of turn, but mostly, they were energetic kids who rose to the level of my expectations, which were sky high.

I had a mother of one of my students tell me I was the only teacher who didn’t give up on her son, the only one who called her to make a plan to help him do better behaviorally and academically. The only one.

My experience isn’t unique. In fact, it’s endemic.

I am aware that there are systemic factors that make it challenging for students to succeed (read this where I wrote that poverty and institutionalized racism make it hard to do well in school). Teaching in schools in high poverty communities is challenging, as they are almost always under-resourced, micromanaged by bureaucratic rules, and often suffer from mediocre or poor school leadership, is incredibly difficult work. But imagine you’re a black parent and you know that deep down your child’s teacher doesn’t think your baby can get into, let alone graduate, from college. As proven by a wealth of research and the most recent CAP study, this belief manifests itself in the classroom and significant sets your student behind. You complain to the teacher. Nothing changes. You complain to the principal. Nothing changes. You complain to the district. Nothing changes.

It can be easy to feel hopeless in these circumstances, as discussions around education reform often overlook at specifically changing the way teachers view and engage students of color in the classroom. If we have teachers who ultimately don’t believe that black and brown kids can be high achievers, then how can we even begin to build an educational system that values these students and their needs?

Who holds schools and school districts accountable? Who demands the adoption of anti-racist teacher education programs, and how can we ensure that racial biases in the classroom are both acknowledged and tracked? How can all parents be empowered to advocate, like my dad did for me?

One way to ensure that parents can advocate for kids is to support the work of organizations that give parents real power to advocate for their kids (not just the ability to host a bake sale). Organizations like Parent Revolution, Black Alliance for Education Options and the Partnership for Educational Justice work with parents to ensure that they have a legal right, support and the ongoing encouragement necessary to advocate for their kids.

That’s racial justice that we need. You can be a part of the solution by advocating for educational policies that put the needs of kids before the needs of adults, that hold accountable teachers with racially based low expectations and that demand parents have a right to act to improve their children’s educational outcomes.

Photo Credit: Deposit Photos

Adrienne Wallace is an educational justice advocate, organizer, writer basketball lover and teacher. One of her life goals is meeting Blake Griffin - introduce them if you can. Read more of Adrienne’s sports writing here.

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