On the morning of my first day of third grade, I got all dressed up. My mom tied two braids in my hair with ribbons and let me wear my favorite dress, a beautiful white and black polka-dot dress trimmed with lace. When I entered my new classroom, a boy looked at the color of my brown skin and said, “Why do you look so dirty?”
Thirty years later, I can still recall my teacher standing there, shocked into silence by his question. She did nothing. As I sat down in my assigned seat, I felt embarrassed and broken.
In that moment, I lost all feeling of self-worth that my parents had patiently instilled in me. To this day, I wonderwhat would have been the outcome of this experience had my teacher intervened, acknowledged what had happened, and fostered a conversation about race, difference, tolerance, safety for all students, and love.
Today’s Classrooms Still Isolate Students of Color
Over the last 15 years, I have taught many students of color who have told me that their schooling experiences have been cold, numbing, and isolating. The disconnect they experience from content is not as significant as the disconnect that happens socially in their classrooms. When reflecting on his middle school experience, Miguel, now a junior, told me, “When I was little, all of my teachers were white. They expected me to act like them. When I didn’t have good grades, they actually thought it was because I was dumb, not because I felt like I didn’t belong there. I am not dumb, I just never learned to do things the way they wanted me to.”
Ketzia, also a junior, said, “When I am in a room full of my people, I can speak openly and not be afraid. I don’t want to be silent like I do in most of my classes where I feel like I’m alone.” She put into words a feeling I, too, as a person of color, have had my whole life. Miguel and Ketsia’s experiences illustrate clearly that when you are invisible within a classroom where you are supposed to grow and develop, that space becomes silencing rather than empowering, just like it was for me thirty years ago.
It’s on Us, Teachers, to Create Safe Classroom Spaces
Although lesson planning, creating assessments, and other technical aspects of being a teacher are important, we must also think about our classrooms as social spaces where power, identity, race, and various other factors have great impact and influence on student learning and engagement. When we honor student identities and create a safe classroom space for everyone to be heard, we empower our students to learn. If we dishonor their identities, we marginalize them. It is our responsibility as educators to approach these social spaces with this understanding, to foster community, belonging, and engage every student who we have the privilege of serving. It is our responsibility to ensure that none of our students and none of their multiple identities are invisible.
Action Research Can Help Us See Ourselves More Clearly
One way teachers can begin to accomplish this is by analyzing our own blind spots, by acknowledging the voices we might not have heard, encountered, understood, or considered. Identify what is the dominant ideology in our teaching spaces. Whose voice did we discount, and why? Question how race impacts one’s lived experience. and then consider, how does this emerge within our teaching and the classroom spaces in which we are present?
Another, deeper way to accomplish this is to engage in ongoing action research cycles in our classrooms to better understand the impact of power and positionality on our instruction and the way we facilitate learning. I urge all teachers at any level to involve themselves within this process to understand the way they impact each teaching space. Through peer observations, videotaping, self-reflection, and through qualitative data from our students, we can begin to understand how students experience us as instructors and inform the curriculum and instructional changes that need to be made to best facilitate belonging, safety, learning and growth.
I know what it’s like to be hurt by ideologies that have led those I looked toward for guidance and success to unintentionally make me feel like I was inferior and unworthy. I do this work because I believe that each and every student deserves the humanity to be seen, honored, and their strengths and talents acknowledged within a learning space. This is what it will take to empower our most silenced students to overcome the limitations and barriers that society often imposes. It is this type of education that will create the change necessary to move our country forward.
Anita Thawani Bucio teaches English and AVID at Evanston Township High School and mentors new teachers as an instructional coach and professional development facilitator. She is a 2019-20 Teach Plus Illinois Policy Fellow.
Anita Thawani Bucio
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