Many educators have just recently, in the wake of the killing of George Floyd, been introduced to the concept of culturally responsive teaching (CRT) and to authors such as Geneva Gay—who coined that term—Christopher Emdin, and Zaretta Hammond, who have published articles and books and helped facilitate professional conversations about CRT and how to implement it in the classroom.
While implementing CRT is important—it can boost students’ engagement with learning and sense of belonging in school—it’s also important for White educators to understand how to work with their colleagues who are Black, Indigenous, and people of color (BIPOC). As teachers, we’re often told that our relationships with our students matter, but we rarely focus on how important our relationships with our colleagues are. The strategies for connecting across cultural differences are not always obvious, and there are things that well-meaning educators do in attempting to support BIPOC colleagues that aren’t really helpful.
The first step that White people in schools can take is to educate themselves about their own personal biases. When we take the time to focus on our biases, conscious or unconscious, that work allows us to be open and honest with ourselves about how we think and feel about certain colleagues. And educating ourselves about what unconscious bias is and what our own particular biases are opens up the possibility that we can have an honest conversation about race and address some of the stigma that surrounds the topic.
To help with this work, I recommend books such as Waking Up White, So You Want to Talk About Race, and articles like “White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack” by Peggy McIntosh. Reading books and articles like these can help White educators understand and realize that race and privilege play in their favor most of the time.
The next step to fostering stronger relationships with BIPOC colleagues is to work intentionally to bridge gaps. To improve the culture and climate of your school building, it’s important that teachers understand that everyone is an important member and contributes to the building as a whole—that understanding allows us to make connections and build professional relationships.
To get to know your BIPOC colleagues, you should get to know their cultures and traditions, just as you would do with students if you’re implementing CRT. For example, you could attend a service at a church in the neighborhood of your school or with one of your colleagues, or attend a community celebration in the neighborhood of one of your peers. When you do, just take in what is happening around you and live in the moment, with your eyes open to cultures and traditions you have not experienced before.
Becoming an Ally
Building these relationships with your colleagues opens up the doors for you to be their ally, to use your privilege to speak up and argue against the racial and social injustice they encounter frequently both in and outside of the workplace. It is important to advocate for your BIPOC colleagues as an ally because oftentimes they are overlooked in the workplace and may not always feel comfortable speaking up—they may wish to avoid conflict. As a Black man working in education, I have often been overlooked for positions in schools, and I didn’t want to be seen as “angry” or “envious” of my White coworkers who were placed in these positions instead, so I didn’t speak up for myself.
One specific way you can advocate for BIPOC colleagues is to suggest that they not be used in discipline situations as a parent figure or authoritarian toward the students who look like and relate to them. It happens far too often in schools, especially urban schools, that White educators ask BIPOC colleagues to resolve discipline issues involving Brown and Black children, instead of taking the opportunity to build relationships with those children to better understand them and the possible triggers that set off the behavior. White educators may prefer to pass students of color on to a teacher of color, but BIPOC teachers don’t want to be seen as the one who handles all the behaviors all the time. Like White educators, they didn’t go into education to focus on discipline—that is work that should be broadly shared. Asking BIPOC teachers to handle discipline all the time is a practice that has to be stopped—and it can be stopped when White teachers speak up as allies.
A Final Point
I recommend that when you’re doing this antiracist work within your school building, you share the workload between White and BIPOC colleagues. Sharing the workload holds all educators accountable and helps bridge the racial divide. One strategy that can be used is hosting book studies about controversial topics that can segue into necessary, meaningful conversations.
Participants in a book study should create a safe space where both White and BIPOC colleagues can discuss a variety of popular and/or controversial topics. That requires setting social norms for the meetings, norms that are important because they allow everyone to know that their opinions are valued and respected, and that whatever is discussed in a meeting will not be shared beyond the group. One worthwhile norm: The book study group should be fluid—everyone on the staff should be welcome to participate, and should be able to attend meetings or not as they please.
The selected readings should be agreed upon as a collective, not picked by one member of the group. At the end of the book study, the group can share their takeaways with each other and plan ways that they can help incorporate what was discovered from their readings into the everyday school culture and climate, and in that way the book study will lend itself to being a part of creating an antiracist culture within your school.
Every educator deserves the same respect and should be included in all aspects of the work environment. BIPOC educators and White allies should continue to find ways to advocate, build relationships, and educate themselves on social and racial injustices and ways to end them. And remember, we are stronger together.