Opinion: My Failures as a White Teacher Confronting Racism in the Classroom

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On May 30, the superintendent of Anne Arundel County Public Schools, Dr. George Arlotto, released a statement addressing the killing of George Floyd and racist comments posted by students on social media after Mr. Floyd was killed.

“Over the last two days, we have been made aware of and are investigating reports of hate-filled, inappropriate and, in one case, racist online posts that appear to have been carried out by Anne Arundel County Public Schools students.”

As a white teacher and a part of this community, I have reflected on my own responses to racism in the classroom and my failures to sufficiently address it.

I love the community and the students I teach, and I find most of my students to be caring and considerate with a sense of justice that makes me proud. However, this is not about that. This is about what I also hear and see, as well as my inadequate responses to it.

I have witnessed discrimination in classrooms and in hallways, whether in the form of a “joke” or action that signals a form of exclusiveness, and I have failed to sufficiently address this behavior.

I do not mean I failed in the sense I did nothing. I followed the standard procedure, stopped the behavior, addressed the comments, went through disciplinary actions, and contacted the necessary resources and parties. Where I failed was in continuing the discussion.

When a student said, referring to a hijab, “If they can wear a towel I should be able to wear the confederate flag,” I tried to discuss the history of the confederate flag, its symbolism, the hurtfulness of those words and the use of “towel.” But I faltered when the student gave a half-hearted apology for saying “towel,” insisted that the flag no longer stands for “that,” and made arguments based on the right to free speech. I faltered, not because I felt the discussion was over, or because I felt they had learned something. I stopped because I was uncomfortable. I thought about many things, including backlash from parents, the community, and student resentment.

I questioned whether it is my place to discuss false meritocracies, class, capitalism, gender, logic, and go beyond the matter at hand. In ending the discussion, I fell back into the protections of the systems that I benefit from and others die from. I succumbed to my discomfort and failed. My privilege protected me while I sat and let an inherently violent discourse circulate in my classroom.

I falter when students frame discussions of human rights as arguments between liberal versus conservative viewpoints, and I fear being accused of indoctrinating students as opposed to being the ideal and impossible “politically unbiased” teacher we are called on to be. I falter as I see my students fall back on their personal political views of individualism without understanding the brutality that has been part of our racist and capitalist history which has stopped many from flourishing as individuals. And by stopping the conversation, I let students continue to see many who are struggling as people with individual failures.

School is meant to be a place to allow students to think for themselves and develop their own views — but what views are they developing if those views are based on a false narrative that I am too uncomfortable to address? How can calls for inclusiveness work if they are shallow and divorced from history and our reality?

This is not a call to put all responsibility on teachers. Schools and teachers are only a small part of the solution to systemic and social ills that need greater work than the educational system alone can provide.

Also, without proper consideration from a teacher, these important conversations with students can further alienate us from each other. We would not want students to walk away with resentment, rather than understanding, while violence continues.

For teachers to act constructively in these situations they must engage in authentic conversation, not lectures. They must not falter when truth is put up for debate as a political view.

Lives are on the line because of the false narratives not addressed in a comfortable society, including in the classroom.

In his statement, Dr. Arlotto also wrote, “As a school system, we are charged with teaching our students the academic lessons they need to succeed. There are lessons, however, that the larger ‘we’ – our society as a whole – must teach.”

He is right – when I have these conversations, it is not only my responsibility as a teacher, but as a fellow human being. And I must have these conversations outside of the classroom as well. I do not want to fall back any more. I want to address racism. I am not the solution, but I can be a part of it. I am a white teacher who wants to hold these discussions, not settle, and embrace the discomfort. Because while I am benefiting from that comfort, people suffer and die.

— DYLAN CRAIG

The writer is a high school English teacher in the Anne Arundel County Public Schools.