I believe that educators take an unspoken oath to ensure that every child, regardless of race, ethnicity, religion, sexual orientation or socioeconomic status, receives a fair and equal education.
As a future educator, I’m learning how to communicate more effectively and how to shine a light on topics such as racism and educational inclusion. One of my learning experiences happened during my field placement at a Milwaukee middle school. I was leading sixth-graders through a lesson when Susie*, one of my students, yelled: “Billy called me the N-word.” (All student names have been changed for this article.)
I had a choice: Either I acknowledge what Billy said was not school-appropriate, or I continue with my lesson. After a long moment of silence, I said: “In this classroom, we refer to our friends, classmates and teachers by their name. If I hear anyone say the N-word again, I will be calling home.”
I made it very clear to my students that I do not tolerate that kind of behavior, but there were no consequences for Billy. That was not okay with me.
Several days later, there was a fire drill. While outside, I saw Susie hit Frank, another student. I asked my supervising teacher to intervene, but the teacher declined.
During lunch that day, I asked Susie how she was feeling and if she felt comfortable telling me what happened. She explained that what Billy said had hurt her feelings, and then during the fire drill, Frank had told her that she looks like a boy.
After listening to Susie explain why she was so upset, I realized that I should have made Billy apologize for his racist comment a few days ago. I reassured Susie and then told her: “I understand what Billy said hurt your feelings, and I’m sorry. But next time, if Billy or any other student calls you the N-word or says you look like a boy, you tell me or another teacher. I don’t tolerate that type of behavior in my classroom, and I also don’t tolerate violence. We use our words, not our fist. Do you understand?” Susie was calm throughout our conversation. After, she hugged me and thanked me for listening.
The moment when a teacher sees a student being bullied or harassed but says nothing, that shows a student that you as a teacher accept that behavior. Saying nothing is the equivalent of doing nothing.
This experience, to me, is one of many examples of how teachers, principals, and administrators have failed to address the pain and humiliation that Susie and so many other students of color have experienced. It is inexcusable.
I challenge principals and administrators to start having these conversations and taking action to address race and racism. Talking about race and racism during the middle of global pandemic may seem daunting, tiring and even a little overwhelming, but to be an effective educator and ally, you have to reflect on your own experiences with racial inequality and deepen your understanding of racism.
The moment a Black student, or any student, speaks about issues regarding race, racism, discrimination, exclusion, and prejudice, it is our job as educators to believe them and question those who are skeptical.
Racism is a learned behavior. With effort, education and action, we can address difficult topics such as racism in schools.
Maya Kasch, Class of 2021, is a secondary education and English Language Arts major.
This article appears in the fall/winter 2020 issue of Alverno Magazine.