Washington state’s educators face much uncertainty this fall. How will COVID-19 and the recession impact school budgets? Will we be face-to-face with our students or teaching remotely, or both? What if we or our students or family members test positive for the virus? There’s so much we don’t know. But there’s one thing we should be loud and absolutely certain about going into the 2020-2021 school year: Black Lives Matter.
Some educators recoil at this statement, claiming that because they are educators they must remain “politically neutral.” But Black Lives Matter is not a political statement. It is an affirmation of the humanity of our students and communities. Neutrality on matters of justice serves only the oppressors. Neutrality in the pursuit of justice for Black Lives betrays the communities we serve.
The recent nationwide protests in response to the killings of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor by police have laid bare the profound societal inequities many Black Americans experience. While educators have been supporters of peaceful protests and advocates for change in police practices, as calls go out demanding we reform how law enforcement treats Black Americans, particularly young Black males, we must question what’s happening to Black children in our schools and move beyond protest to action.
We start by accepting that our education system upholds and perpetuates systems of oppression. We have systems which uplift and support white students while creating barriers for Black, Indigenous and other students of color. We must break down these barriers in order to build a new system that will serve every student. As educators, this is our homework.
First, with the persistence of police brutality and violence perpetrated against Black community members, we must reassess our methods of school discipline. Black students in Seattle Schools are twice as likely as their white classmates to be suspended from school and half as likely to be enrolled in an AP class in high school. Current discipline practices are punitive and disproportionately impact students of color, particularly Black students. We must shift to restorative practices and ensure every educator has training on the theory behind these practices and how to effectively implement them.
Second, restorative practices are only effective if educators do the work of understanding and internalizing the impacts of institutional racism, white supremacy and systems of oppression, not only on our students, but also on us. Our perspectives. Our biases. Our lenses. With this self-reflection and knowledge, we must assess our curriculum and instruction. Is what we teach honoring, celebrating and empowering every student, or is our curriculum perpetuating white supremacy power structures? Washington state has made strides in requiring ethnic studies. We must ensure that anti-racist and culturally responsive ethnic studies are not an add-on but embedded in the instruction in every Washington classroom.
Third, we desperately need to diversify the teaching corps in Washington state. In particular, we must increase the number of Black teachers in our schools. In 2018-2019, 46.6% of students in Washington were students of color, but based on Seattle Times reporting, 89% of Washington’s teachers are white. This directly impacts students and their families.
In a recent tweet, Sara Baker, a Highline Schools administrator, explained “every day my son walks into school and gets implicit messages … one of those messages is white women have something to teach him and Black men will clean up after him.”
Black students deserve Black academic role models in schools. When Black students do not have Black teachers, they are at an academic disadvantage. A recent report from Johns Hopkins showed that Black students who had one Black teacher by the time they reached third grade were 13% more likely to enroll in college, and those with two were 32% more likely. Additionally, Black teachers can contribute to breaking harmful racial stereotypes in non-Black students and families. The absence of Black teachers in Washington state’s schools is an equity issue that harms students and deprives school staff of their diverse perspectives.
This is a time to roll up our collective sleeves and take some ownership over the inequities in our schools. This is our work. We have to prove we believe that Black Lives Matter. As educators, we must stop disproportionately disciplining Black students. We must interrogate our own internal racial biases and how they show up in our classroom practice. We must work to recruit and help retain talented Black educators in our schools. As a community of educators, if we aren’t willing to affirm the humanity of Black students in Washington’s schools, we don’t deserve and, frankly, shouldn’t be allowed to teach them.
The Washington State Teachers of the Year from 2015-2020 contributed to this opinion piece.