Talking About Race and Racism with Students

We are seeing an alarming number of posts from teachers indicating that they have been prohibited from discussing current events or contemporary issues with their students. This appears to be an attempt to prevent classroom dialogue about Black Lives Matter and the incendiary events surrounding the killing of unarmed Black people recently.

Let’s leave the most obvious issue with these prohibitions to common sense — school is the exact place to teach children about current events and help them understand what is happening. These prohibitions against learning reek just a bit of the short story “Examination Day, by Henry Slesar.

Instead, let’s focus on the moral quandary these prohibitions put teachers in. Students see the news, they see these events in their own lives. Students see others reacting to them. Maybe they see people marching with #BLM banners, or perhaps a truck full of “Bat Boys” drive by shouting about protecting their neighborhood. Regardless of what exactly they do and do not see, they feel. In many instances they will feel fear, anxiety, confusion, and anger. They may be wondering why Black Lives Matter is a movement. Maybe they wonder why people who look like them are so much more likely to be killed when coming in contact with a police officer. Mostly, they may wonder if they are safe… is school safe for them. Is the teacher’s class a safe space for them.

To prohibit teachers from acknowledging the trauma endured by children and denying them the opportunity to process it is also denying teachers the right to create a safe space for students in their classroom. This strikes us as morally reprehensible.

Teachers do not have to extol one side of the issues or the other, but they do need to address the needs of their students. When students walk into school full of fear and confusion, teachers need to be able to address it. Prohibiting them from discussing events will not make the murder of George Floyd go away or even be unknown to students. Instead, all it does is send the message that school does not care about the things that threaten Black and Brown students.

Teachers need to create a safe space where students can discuss their feelings and learn how to do so in the manner demanded by a representative democracy. Teachers need to be able to show students that school is a place for them to explore their thinking and that the adults will keep them safe as they express their outrage, sadness, frustration, or confusion.

It seems somewhat foolish to think that students who are concerned about their safety and are banished from discussing it with caring adults will be successful in learning algebra or biology. Until we work to make students feel safe, they won’t be able to learn the curriculum, only that some students are not welcome to show up as their whole selves.

The function of education is to teach one to think intensively and to think critically. Intelligence plus character — that is the goal of true education.

  • Martin Luther King Jr.