Racism: This ugly word has infested both the United States and the entire globe for centuries. It shows up in all nasty forms in the workplace, on the street, in our homes and in our schools. As we as a nation have fought to overcome this derogatory social presence, we sometimes forget the vulnerable ears in which it can inhabit. Children are exposed to a numerous amount of complex realities that we can not always have control over. Russel Byers Charter School educator Nora Durant chose to make a stand towards how schools handle this reality in the faces of our children:
As I began my fifth year as a fifth grade teacher at Russell Byers, I wanted to address the ways that I saw racism negatively impacting our school. As I saw it, the biggest hurdle we face with regard to racism is overcoming the tendency to remain mute about race in general, which prevents us from recognizing the ways racism might be operating in our school. Not talking about race, because it generates uncomfortable feelings, is a function of White privilege. Since racism doesn’t usually affect White people in negative, personal ways, we tend not to talk about it. Because most of our staff, administrators and board members are White, race-muteness is a norm at our school. This is a barrier to recognizing incidents of racism when they do occur, and also prevents us from building relational trust with our students and families of Color who make up the majority of the population we serve.
I surveyed the staff and was relieved to find that many of us were interested in learning about how race operates in schools. I asked the Byers School Foundation for funding to hire Doctors Ali Michael and Chezare Warren as consultants. Both facilitators have worked with educators to help address issues of racism at schools in Chicago and Philadelphia. I had a first-hand, positive experience working with Dr. Michael on my own questions about racism and my classroom practices in the past, so I trusted that she would be able to connect with our staff. Together, Dr. Michael and Dr. Warren created a professional development plan to lead us in four, two-hour workshops. I hoped that they would be able to help those of us who were willing to attend the workshops build confidence and competence in talking about race.
13 of us met for the first time on January 30th to begin learning about racial identity development models in one breakout group. In the other group, we explored the ways language, learning preferences, social interaction styles, social and cultural capital and historical context are relevant in our work with Black students. Teachers engaged in rich discussions and shared more of ourselves than we would normally do in a typical professional development experience. I look forward to the second workshop in the four part series at the end of February. My hope is that those of us who participated in this series can feel more knowledgeable, confident and comfortable having conversations about race with our colleagues, students and their families. This can only improve our ability to create a culturally relevant and responsive space at Byers, where authentic relationships can develop among teachers, students and their families.
Coordinating this PD experience with the support of my administrators and the Byers School Foundation felt incredibly empowering. I felt like those who wield the most power at my school truly shared their leadership, listened to my concerns and allowed me to have a voice in improving our school culture. I feel more confident about enacting change at RBCS and will encourage my colleagues to take the initiative to do the same.