Teachers Must Be Ready to Engage

April 19, 2017

It was late winter in my ninth grade Humanities class. We were learning about the history of South Africa—how the white-ruled government oppressed people of color and called it “apartheid,” and how those oppressed people resisted. My student Mark was having a hard day. He had repeatedly disrupted class with disrespectful comments towards his peers. I wrote him a pass to see the dean, and he was angry. On his way out the door, he looked back at me and yelled, “How can they have a white person teach us about apartheid? That’s so racist.”

Being a white teacher in a school where my students are primarily black and Latino is a privilege and a challenge. Teaching them about moments in history when white people oppressed people of color was daunting when I first began working with students. Even now, over a decade into my career, there are moments, like this one with Mark, that makes me deeply uncomfortable.

After Mark’s remark, a couple of his classmates actually gasped. They looked at me to see how I would respond. I took a deep breath, closed the door, and continued with the lesson. When Mark returned to class after discussing the incident with the dean, we moved on as if nothing had happened.

I thought I was showing my students that I was unflappable, that the show must go on, that talking so explicitly about race wouldn’t scare me. But instead, I missed an opportunity for a powerful “teachable moment.”

How much more impactful and memorable would this class have been if we had taken the time to discuss Mark’s comment, to think through it together and explore what students thought? Reflecting on that day, I realize that I would have loved to ask my students whether they agreed that white teachers do not have the right or the authority to teach about the ways in which people of color have fought back against racism, oppression, and colonialism.

Making space for that discussion would not have taken us off course. It could have deepened students’ understanding of some of the historical content we were studying (like the nuances of the Black Consciousness movement, or the passion of students who marched out of schools in Soweto to protest the unjust, segregated education system). It could have helped students build literacy skills we were already working on, like making clear claims, supporting ideas with relevant evidence, and refuting counterarguments. It could have told them, more than any poster on my classroom wall, that this was a safe space to explore difficult concepts together.

Mark’s question was painful to hear, but it reminded me that, as a white teacher, I always have to be aware of my race and the privileges it has conferred upon me. Only by starting with that basic understanding can I create a classroom environment that is honest, trusting, and safe for my students to explore historical inequities and their connections to present-day injustices. If I do not make it my job to be honest with my students about race, I do them a disservice. I stifle their voices. I tell them that race is a subject we cannot speak about. I tell them that race doesn’t matter.

But, of course, as Mark pointed out, they know that it does matter.

To educate ourselves, white teachers can start, as always, with books. A few titles that have stuck with me are:

  • Christopher Emdin, For White Folks Who Teach in the Hood…and the Rest of Y’All, Too: Reality Pedagogy and Urban Education: Emdin argues for reality pedagogy, theory and techniques for effectively teaching “neoindigenous” youth of color. He contrasts his reality pedagogy with traditional forms of teaching and learning, which he argues are biased against neoindigenous children. I appreciated Emdin’s ability to balance theory with concrete, step-by-step instructions for implementation of these strategies in the classroom. His own classroom experience makes him a credible authority on how to teach better– and he’s also humble in his descriptions of his own missteps as a young teacher. 


  • Lisa Delpit, Other People’s Children: Cultural Conflict in the Classroom: In Delpit’s essay, “The Silenced Dialogue: Power and Pedagogy in Educating Other People’s Children,” she examines the ways in which teachers of color are silenced in dialogues about teaching, and she outlines “the culture of power” at play in education. Delpit provides concrete examples of the ways in which the culture of power contributes to inequity and suggests that teachers make this culture visible to students in order to help them learn to navigate it. She argues that white, middle-class educators must engage in conversations about power and seek to understand others’ diverse perspectives in order to best serve all students.


  •  Monique W. Morris, Pushout: The Criminalization of Black Girls in Schools:  Through vivid narratives of Black girls’ experiences with school and law enforcement, Morris paints a damning picture of the ways Black girls are criminalized. She offers concrete suggestions for how educators might do better, including creating restorative justice systems in schools, providing ongoing professional development where teachers and school leaders examine their own implicit biases, and forming respectful relationships with students as a foundation for all of this hard work. Morris ends her argument with one word: "Love." She argues that love is the only practice that can "fully redistribute power and eradicate racial inequity.”

Teachers can also make space to talk to students about what they’re thinking and feeling in schools and classrooms. Emdin outlines a process he calls “cogenerative dialogues,” or “cogens,” that invite students to envision changes within classes and provide ongoing feedback to teachers. Other protocols, like Socratic seminars, are ideal forums for helping students dig in to complex topics together, make connections to their own lives, and ask tough questions. Fostering these conversations shows our students that we are not afraid to talk about race with them, and listening carefully to what they have to say will teach us a lot about what we’re getting right, what we’re getting wrong, and what we just don’t know.

We don’t have to fear talking about race in our classrooms. We don’t have to pretend that it doesn’t exist. We don’t have to act as if we know everything and have all of the answers. We do have to seek out information, engage in conversation with our students and our colleagues, and continuously work to counteract racism within our education system. When students ask, “Why is a white teacher teaching us about apartheid?” we have to be ready to engage.


Sydney Chaffee, NBCT

Sydney Chaffee is the 9th grade Humanities teacher at Codman Academy Charter Public School in Dorchester, MA, the 2017 Massachusetts Teacher of the Year, and 2017 National Teacher of the Year. She is a National Board Certified Teacher with a passion for helping diverse learners grow through authentic, relevant, interdisciplinary curricula. For the past several years, she has worked as a mentor teacher for pre-service teachers from Tufts University and Boston University. She believes in the limitless power of teacher collaboration and leadership to make meaningful change for all students. Sydney earned her B.A. from Sarah Lawrence College and her M.Ed. from Lesley University.