Late to the work

The past couple of weeks I’ve been quiet and haven’t felt great about it. I have withdrawn from posting on social media as I immerse myself in the news and the conversations that are happening about it. Engaging with students about current events during distance learning is strange to say the least. Though I have been consuming lots of news & resources about Black Lives Matter (and about addressing inequity in education settings) I have not shared as much as I should. I did share this wonderful annotated bibliography that is a great starting point for Ontario educators interested in learning more about racism in education in our context.

I am thankful to some of my colleagues who have reached out to have conversations and share resources. There seems to be an absence in strong voices and direction from leadership right now. If teachers are to address anti-Black racism in their classrooms they need support. I am very thankful to those leaders who have been sharing, and I hope that we will see more support forthcoming. Racism exists in our buildings even if everyone isn’t ready to say so.

This week I worked through a short course on ‘Equity Literacy’ along with some colleagues. I found the course helpful as it gave me some language I can use to help me discuss/address equity issues with students and staff at my school. Part of this involved identifying what I have control over as a teacher (eg. assessment practice in my classroom) and where else I had some indirect influence (eg. school committe work). This has caused me to reflect on many events from the past and think about what I missed or how I could have handled them differently. I want to share one story here with the goal of sharing some of my thinking and learning.

I teach in Barrie, ON. When I moved here in 2003 it felt like the least diverse place I had ever lived.* A couple of years later as a new-ish teacher I was teaching a junior Science class that was one of MANY all-white classes I have taught over the course of these 17 years. Students in that class were from a mix of urban and rural homes. In this particular class I had to address racist comments regularly – maybe once a week. I specifically remember a couple of examples: students placed ‘Chinese person’ in a food chain diagram above a cat; students joking about how ‘it must have been some black kid’ when something went missing.

I called out these comments, stopping everything to ask why they would say it and point out that is was inappropriate. (I surely didn’t use the word ‘racist’ in those discussions.) I took these opportunities to lecture my students about the ‘big world out there’ and how if they ever moved away to another city they would surely meet, work with (or for), and even be friends with people who didn’t look like them. I shared stories about specific friends of mine from China and India in an attempt to help normalize these identities for my students.

Near the end of that semester, our class took a trip to Toronto. Some of my students had never been to the city, though it is less than one hour away by car. When we arrived at our destination, my students poured out of the school bus with the expected amount of fieldtrip excitement, but their moods quickly shifted. Black and brown bodies were unloading from the 4 or 5 buses nearest to us. My students ‘circled the wagons,’ huddling together and looking over their shoulders. They were not expecting to feel that they were in the minority and were unsettled by it.

How did I react? In the moment the strongest feeling was ‘I told them so!!’ I felt like I had won some kind of bet with them. Hadn’t I been telling them that other places weren’t as white as our school was? The next day at school, though I didn’t explicitly say ‘I told you so,’ it was implied as we debriefed our experiences. I reminded them of our previous discussions and asked them how it had felt in the minority in that moment. They reluctantly gave some answers and that was the end of it.

In hindsight, I can see so many things I missed. I can see that I was naiive and didn’t have the skills or language to talk to my students about racism. Like so many things that we do as new teachers, my efforts were awkward and I was more concerned with teaching a very superficial life lesson (“Hey, look; not everyone is white!!”) than digging into what the students were thinking and feeling.

One thing I didn’t notice in that moment beside the school bus so many years ago was that my students were scared when confronted with that sea of faces and bodies that looked so different from them. I am curious about that fear and wish I could go back and ask them about it. I wonder if some of those students may have gone on to jobs in law enforcement. I wonder if they are still unsettled by ‘otherness.’ I wonder about how I could have used my opportunity as a teacher to do more with that moment.

I have become better at addressing issues of racism but I have a long way to go. This year I have missed more than one opportunity to step into a difficult situation and do the right thing. I know that my learning is important but that it isn’t of any use to anyone if I keep it to myself. I’m late getting to the work but I’m committed to seeing it through.

*For comparison, I have also lived in St. Catharines, ON, and Halifax, NS.
At the time, St. Catharines and Barrie had a similar proportion of visible minorities but St. Catharines had a larger (recent European) immigrant population so it seemed more diverse. In Halifax I spent much of my time on a university campus that was likely much more diverse than the surrounding community.

6 thoughts on “Late to the work

  1. I think you are right on time for the work.
    The Equity course sounds good. I’m waiting until I have a few days to give it the time it deserves.
    I think and hope that ignorance is behind racist and poor judgemental statements of our students. I used to get angry until a principal, Dan Trafford said, “Where do you think that 7 year old got that word and ideas from?”
    Then I started with questioning and talking with the student. I left the younger student with a message and hopefully an understanding that, “It’s wrong and hurting and don’t say it again.” While I didn’t hear the same kid say/do the same thing again, I wonder if I helped them change.

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    • Agreed. Children are not to blame for racism that has been taught to them or modelled for them. I’d like to think the teens I teach might start to question racist views if their school did a good job consistently challenging those views. I know how hard (and sometimes impossible) it is for a child to question/reject things taught to them by those they love. I see this in Biology class when Science isn’t consistent with a family’s religious views. It is very traumatic.

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  2. Amy I am asking here because I can’t find another forum. How do you and other educational thinkers feel about graduation awards (perfect attendance, Arts, Music, Math, Science, Principal’s award, etc. etc.) I’m looking for research on these things because I’m wondering if there is another way to celebrate the work students engage in without awards. CAn you send me your thoughts, and/or other leaders to look into so that I can come to my own decision based on the thinking out there?

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    • The longer I teach, the more I question traditional academic awards. It is definitely something I struggle with. I have wondered about other ways to celebrate student learning but I admit I do not have any concrete answers.

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  3. Hi Amy,

    I am in Ottawa, ON and teach High School Science (mostly 9 and 10 currently). I am looking at trying to go Gradeless this year or at least Grade Less with more feedback. I am wondering if you could potentially share how you organize the goals or expectations for students to keep track of their progress or how you translate the feedback to marks for the report card (since you are in Ontario as well). Any suggestions you could give would be appreciated! I was on a chat with Monte the other day but, thought with you being in Science it would be more helpful to see some of your examples so I could wrap my head around it all. Thanks!

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