An Open Letter to Educators: How You Can Work to Shatter Systemic Racism

By Dr. Teresa Flores

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Here’s how educators can learn to treat each student as an individual

I am African-American. I was given that label at birth based on the amount of melanin in my skin. I cannot change it.

So, what conclusions have you already drawn about me? What assumptions have you made about my upbringing, taste in music, education, morals and religion?

Consider this, more than 41 million Black people live in the United States. Yet, we are often confronted with people who assume that because we are Black, all of us have the same experiences and inclinations. It seems impossible for all 41 million Black people to have the exact same experiences, ideologies and interests to fit any assumption that could be made.

(Hopefully, you are already shattering some of your assumptions. Hopefully, you can truly see us as individuals when you meet us, and give us a chance to create a vision of who we are as our own unique selves.)

As an educator, I want to help you see how you can break those habits, let go of assumptions and avoid placing all of us into a unilateral and unyielding stereotypes.

 

Become purposeful

Be on purpose. Challenge your assumptions on purpose. Get to know Black communities on purpose. Choose to be a light in the life of our Black children on purpose. It is amazing if you sit and talk with other Black people just how many of us have been purposely discouraged by educators.

I was told that no African-Americans had doctorates when I was in high school when I mentioned to a professor that I had that goal, a goal which I went on to achieve from a more prestigious university than his.

I have heard about teachers who say those kids are not going to amount to anything anyway, so why bother. Some students are placed at a lower level beneath their academic ability. Many Black children are set on a path educationally that does not allow for the option of college, or even military.

I personally have been singled out in class as the only African-American in the room. By treating me “special,” I was actually made to feel like I somehow needed more help and did not quite fit in with the others, which was untrue.

This is why we, as educators, need to consider how we treat children of color.  Our job is not to discourage children, regardless of race. We should be a light in their lives and a safe place, because some children have no other place to feel safe and accepted. Black children within a few years of being born have already been told by someone, “You are different, therefore not accepted.” They have been discouraged from dreams and feeling successful.

Many non-white children struggle with self-esteem because they do not look like their classmates, or perhaps the kind of person that they have been taught is beautiful, smart and successful. Their feelings should be respected and their opportunities for education should be equal. You should treat them as equally capable of high grades, good behavior and long-term success. Anything else is injustice and a disgrace to our students.

 

How can educators learn to do better?

So how do you learn to treat your children equally? First, I would like you to self-reflect. Think of you how different and unique you are from other people categorized into your race or culture.

Maybe you come from a culture stereotyped as having fiery tempers when you are actually quite level-headed.  Perhaps people tend to think you love dancing like all of “your people,” while you have two left feet.

If you truly reflect, you will find that you do not perfectly fit the stereotypes associated with your culture and race. So then is it remotely logical to assume that all people of any race would fit one mold?

If we are honest with ourselves, we all stereotype as a means of understanding others and making judgments about what we think about the people.

It takes a conscious effort to avoid those assumptions. As an educator, I cannot assume that an Asian child needs less help because he or she is smarter than the other kids. I should not assume that the Hispanic child cannot speak English well. It is unfair to think the white child has financial advantages to help their education. Likewise, a Black child should not be labeled by any preconceived notions about how they learn or who they are. It is unfair to the child and to us as educators.

Many children suffer educationally because they have been labeled as behind or overachieving based on race. It cheats our children out of getting the education they need at the level that they can perform. It also cheats us as educators. If we lump everyone into who we think they are, we miss the chance to know them as individuals.

 

My own experience as an educator

As a Center Director at Sylvan, I see how kids from literally everywhere come in for tutoring. I think I have a had a favorite student from every corner of the world. I love them as a result of getting to know them.

If I decided who they were beforehand, I would never bother getting to know them. I would give them what I think they need and disregard those quirks that make them special and wonderful. Additionally, I wouldn’t be able to provide individualized and personalized instruction if I decided their capabilities beforehand, instead of discovering their gifts, abilities and strengths as individuals.

With self-reflection, you can see ways you have jumped to conclusions in the past. Be honest with yourself about what you truly believe about Black children. Then, purposely look for the contradictions that help you destroy those assumptions. This can only be accomplished by getting to know your students.

 

How can I get to know my students as individuals?

Ask them about what they do in their spare time, about dreams, goals and their family. Get to know your students as real and unique children, not just as Black children.

Beyond this, find ways to socialize with the Black community. Some people assume this means going to some special place, but look around, we are literally everywhere. Talk with your cashier, your children’s friends, your coworkers, your church members, your healthcare specialists, etc.

When you know people as individuals, it is much more difficult to make presumptions. Stay engaged with people of various cultures. It may be uncomfortable at first, but it will be a godsend in your life and make you a more effective educator of individuals outside of your race.

 

Look back, then make changes for the future

Yes, many educators over the years have let Black children down by discouraging them from reaching their potential. They have let preconceptions muddle their idea of who these students are and their capabilities. But you can change the future.

Make an oath as an educator that this ends now. Black lives matter to educators because these are our precious minds and hearts that we are impacting. These are the people who are shaping the future of America. They will vote. They will be your doctors, lawyers, clerks, city leaders and so much more. They deserve our best.

If we place low expectations on them, we should not expect the best from them.  If we are to hold them to a lower standard, we should expect learned helplessness and illicit behaviors. But is that the society you want to live in, have your children grow up in?

The Black community wants to be held up to the same high standards of anyone else. As educators in their formative years, if we allow our students to blossom and grow into their potential, it not only makes them better, it makes our society better. I hope you will make the effort to grow, to be kind and be a beacon of equality … on purpose.

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