As part of a deep look at school discipline this year, Education Lab reporter Claudia Rowe highlights two recent essays by teachers that urge discipline conversations to confront hard questions about race.
This year the data finally bore out what most observers have suspected for a long time: A majority of public school students in America are racial minorities and low-income. But 80 percent of the nation’s teachers are white, which makes it difficult to discuss school discipline without at least considering race.
In Washington, where the teaching corps is 92 percent white, the divide is so stark that a task force of education experts have called for beefed up teacher training in cultural sensitivity because “staff bias may easily affect student discipline decisions.”
While there is scant evidence that black educators handle misbehaving students differently than whites do, two teachers — one black, one white — have recently published provocative essays underscoring the idea that schools can no longer ignore the role of race in the classroom.
Gary Hamilton, an African-American who teaches fifth grade in Washington, D.C., recalled the moment in middle school when he was told black men faced significant life challenges. “We live in a world where equality is tested daily,” his teacher explained, frightening the boy. “I felt confused, scared, and angry,” Hamilton writes, “yet did not know how to express these feelings.”
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They came out anyway.
Hamilton had a friend, a kid with blond hair, blue eyes and white skin, who resembled the slave owners Hamilton imagined from his history books. “He looked like the police officers who raided our communities.”
After his teacher’s comment about race, a minor disagreement between the boys sparked rage in Hamilton. He pulled his friend’s hair. He hit anywhere he could. He aimed, in particular, for the child’s face. “I kept hitting and kicking, the anger rushing through me,” Hamilton writes. “For so long I had heard stories of white people hurting black people because of the color of their skin, and now I had reversed the role. In my young mind, the hurt did not know where to go.”
The critical failure, as Hamilton sees it now, was a lack of opportunity for those young students to discuss the emotions raised by lessons on race. “Our children need a place to understand and channel these emotions,” he urges fellow teachers. “Allow them to address their confusion. If you don’t provide children with safe places to talk, process, and act, who will?”
But bridging the gap between mostly-white educators and their increasingly darker-skinned students is not easy.
“The fact of the matter is that schools were set up by people who looked like me for people who looked like me,” says Christina Berchini, a white teacher who trains other teachers-to-be, almost all of whom are also white. Like Berchini, most sailed through school:
“My parents never, not once, not for a nanosecond, would have to worry about how my teachers and administrators chose to relate to me — or worse yet, treat me — because of my race, culture, or primary language,” she says.
The Olympia task force examining student discipline here was stunned to discover gaping holes in data on suspended students, particularly the fact that while blacks are over-represented, no one tracks graduation rates for those who are disciplined, and no one is legally bound to make sure they are keeping up with classwork while at home.
“Race is something that can’t be avoided and it is better understood when discussed honestly,” writes Hamilton, still wracked with guilt over his schoolyard brawl. “We cannot step away from the truth, but we must provide space to talk and ask questions.”