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Teaching about racism is urgent — but tricky

Current events are inspiring many K-12 educators to go deeper on the subject of race. Are they equipped to do it well?

Adobe/Omar Vega/Globe Staff

Kennel Etienne was terrified in the aftermath of George Floyd’s killing by a white Minneapolis police officer — terrified for himself as a Black man and for his 12-year-old son, who was nearing the age where others may view him as a threat. But was it OK for Etienne, a history teacher at Boston’s Snowden International School, to share his anxieties with his students as part of a lesson on racism?

“There is a tightrope, and I’m struggling how to balance that,” says Etienne, 36, whose students are predominantly Black and Latino. Reflecting on Floyd’s death and recent shootings by police of unarmed Black men and Black women, he adds: “As a Black man, as a father, I’m dealing with all of these things myself, and I have to lead my students into dealing with it as well. It’s hard not to have my feelings come into it. It’s hard not to have my opinions spill over as well.”


Nonetheless, when the new school year begins, Etienne, as he has always done, will teach US history through the lens of race. Once he has established a community with his students, he will talk about Floyd’s killing, and then over the course of the school year, he will use history to address how America arrived at a moment in time where “we got to a white officer kneeling on the neck of a Black man in public in broad day.”

Gary Shiffman, a 57-year-old white teacher at Brookline High, had a different question on his mind last spring as he and white colleagues planned a lesson for students on Floyd’s killing and its historical context. How could they make sure their students, a mix of whites, Blacks, Latinos, and others, also heard from a Black adult voice?

“You must be real with yourself. If you’re a white teacher teaching Black kids, you have to acknowledge it,” says Shiffman, also the school’s social studies coordinator. White teachers, he says, have more work to do to educate themselves than teachers of color.


Etienne and Shiffman represent a sliver of the complexities of teaching about racism and the potential for backlash in American schools. Social studies instruction in schools has always covered racism in some fashion, giving at least the nuts and bolts of slavery, Reconstruction, Jim Crow, and the civil rights movement. But now, many teachers feel compelled to do more to show that Americans are far from living in a post-racial era.

The question for educators at all levels during the 2020-21 school year, then, is not so much whether to teach about racism, but how: How can they teach in a thoughtful way that does right by all students, especially with the added challenge of the COVID-19 pandemic? Whether students are taking classes remotely or in person with masks on, their expressions and reactions to such sensitive discussions will be tough to read.

Given that school districts and teachers have to contend with this nation’s assortment of views on policing — such as the argument that police shootings of Blacks don’t truly stem from racism — how can they be sure to let students reach their own conclusions?

And how can teachers avoid the kind of controversy that befell Milton sixth-grade English teacher Zakia Jarrett in June?

Jarrett, who is Black, was briefly put on administrative leave from Pierce Middle School after someone leaked a video clip of a remote lesson in which she said many police were racist. The clip was just a snippet of a broader lesson, prompted by Floyd’s killing, that used poetry to spark conversation about racism. Jarrett was criticized for expressing an opinion about police. But was she just stating a fact? Hundreds of parents and teachers protested in support of the 18-year teaching veteran, who was quickly reinstated.


Zakia Jarrett. Blake Nissen for the Boston Globe

“There’s always going to be pushback when you do this work. It’s inevitable. It challenges people’s world view,” says Julia Hanna, Pierce’s chorus director, who was heralded for a lesson on music in civil rights protests the same week her colleague was penalized. “We have to feel like we have support from the top.”

Karen Spaulding, Milton schools’ assistant superintendent for curriculum, won’t comment on Jarrett’s case, but she acknowledges that the incident remains raw and the community still needs to heal from it. The school system, she says, must work with teachers and the community to agree on what it means to be an “antiracist educator,” a move that many scholars say is critical for all school systems. “This work is not about giving teachers a list of 27 things teachers can or cannot say,” Spaulding says.

AMERICA IS IN the middle of a reckoning on race, and educators and administrators realize that they cannot stay silent. Otherwise, they risk sending the message to students that bias and racist ideas are somehow okay. They end up in a reactive mode, which happened to schools in Davie County, N.C., and Kingston, N.H., just days after Floyd died, when high schoolers posted videos of themselves mocking the Black man’s death.


“So often, school leaders, bless them, they feel beholden to popular sentiment in the community or a lot of families’ voices. Hopefully, they will choose to do what is right, which means telling kids the truth and allowing their teachers the freedom to teach the truth,” says Monita Bell, the interim co-director of Teaching Tolerance, a part of the Southern Poverty Law Center in Montgomery, Ala. “It takes courage, taking a tidal wave of criticism and in some cases, venom.”

Teaching Tolerance has watched demand for its educator resources skyrocket, with roughly 3.6 million page views of its site in the first month after Floyd’s death. Facing History & Ourselves, a Brookline-based education organization, saw the same phenomenon, with a dramatic rise in demand for sample lessons and workshops.

Rather than airing their opinions, teachers should focus on encouraging students to share their thoughts, says Steven Becton, the chief equity and inclusion officer for Facing History. “Our approach is not to say Donald Trump is a racist,” says Becton, a former social studies teacher based in Memphis, Tenn. “Our approach is: You need to understand what hate speech sounds like when you hear it, and kids can make the connections themselves.”

Many educators, though, have long been afraid to teach about race. After Donald Trump’s election as president, a 2016 survey by Teaching Tolerance revealed that educators were worried about the bigoted views they might unleash from students if they engaged too deeply in conversations about race in class. Teachers’ reluctance also stems from discomfort and lack of knowledge, researchers say.


This fall, teachers should feel emboldened to do more, given how rapidly public sentiment is changing. According to a Pew Research Center poll conducted after Floyd’s death, two-thirds of American adults now support the Black Lives Matter movement. A few years ago, high school students were getting reprimanded for wearing Black Lives Matter shirts.

“Now, you click on Amazon, and there are Black Lives Matter T-shirts everywhere. There’s a shift they (educators) are going to have to contend with,” says Hasan Jeffries, an African American history professor at Ohio State University who hosts the Teaching Hard History podcast for Teaching Tolerance. He also predicts that students, many of whom are protesting in the streets, are also likely to push educators to do more teaching about racism.

Community members joined Milton teachers in a march against racism on June 19. Blake Nissen for the Boston Globe

Doing that properly, however, will require teachers to think carefully about who’s in their classes, Jeffries says. Which students will find discussions traumatic? What will happen if a student needs to be corrected for racist remarks? There’s another potential problem, too: “Most of the white students wind up going through the five stages of grief. It’s denial, anger, sadness, depression, then mad again because they should have known this stuff,” says Jeffries, who adds that teachers have to make sure one student stuck in one of those five stages doesn’t dominate the discussion.

Roughly 80 percent of the nation’s teachers are white, and they’re apt to make mistakes. In Brookline, for example, Shiffman and his colleagues thought they planned well for their Floyd-related lessons, which had to be done virtually. These topics were not new at Brookline High, which has been working to incorporate race and identity across the curriculum and has had an elective course on racial awareness since 2015. When the teachers updated the curriculum to incorporate Floyd’s killing, they showed a video by Trevor Noah about Floyd, protests, and social contracts, to provide a Black voice for the class. The teachers also posted links to news articles, but they did not realize that one article automatically showed a video of Floyd’s killing as soon as the link was clicked. At least one parent complained that she had not wanted her Black son to see the video.

Shiffman and his colleagues saw that they had failed to protect Black students from the possibility of further trauma. They emailed an apology to students that said in part: “Our goal is always to nudge you as a student toward critically thinking about our world and the events that shape it, but it is never our goal to expose you to disturbing images without warning.”

Makeeba McCreary, whose son was in Shiffman’s class, saw the video link as a careless move. She was more worried about how prepared teachers were to teach her 15-year-old Black son about history and events that are so intensely personal for him.

“I was coming from, ‘How responsible are you, and are you competent in this area to even talk about it?’” says McCreary, the chief of learning and community engagement at the Museum of Fine Arts. “With my son being a Black man in this city, this will land on him in a different way.”

McCreary says schools must be transparent with parents about how they plan to teach about racism. “Parents have a right that their children’s history and their children’s narratives are presented with integrity,” McCreary says.

Shiffman did not favor letting parents screen lesson content in advance, given that there likely would not be consensus among parents about the best approach. “It’s a devastatingly bad situation to be in if white teachers are afraid to teach about race unless they get the approval of a Black person,” he says. “Race will be off the table.”

Despite her concerns, McCreary wants the topic taught. “My son’s experience is directly impacted by how enlightened and not enlightened the white kids are,” she says. “The only way this is going to change is if white kids and Black kids start to understand the history and the path forward.”

AT SNOWDEN IN Boston, Headmaster Eugene Roundtree has used emails to parents, students, and staff and his speech at the school’s virtual graduation ceremony to emphasize the importance of teaching about racism. In one email, he reminded his staff of the school’s commitment to become a “fully inclusive, antiracist community” and the importance of talking with students about the recent events. Days later, he emailed staff again, noting he had seen openness and courage from some but reluctance from others to “lean into these conversations.”

“We have to confront the unwillingness and to reflect on the fact that some of the inequities we’ve seen in our national community also exist within the walls of our school,” he wrote.

Etienne started his lesson after Floyd’s death with a five-minute silent “moment of grief.” Then, at a student’s request, Etienne shed his reluctance to share his personal experience. “I let them know I was grappling with, ‘How do I teach my own kids about this? How do I teach them that the world may not love them the way we love them or may not see them the way they see them?’”

His vulnerability opened the door for student dialogue. “Students were saying, ‘All cops are racist. Police are racist,’ " he says. Rather than let that statement stand as it was, Etienne was careful to steer the conversation so students could learn to go beyond making blanket statements based on emotion. He incorporated lessons on the history of policing, to give students needed context. “It doesn’t mean all cops are racist, but they are playing within a racist system,” he says.

Angelo Baez, who’s 17 and identifies as Hispanic and Black, appreciated the moment of grief and the discussion of how history led to today’s events. “The main answer is power,” Baez says.

Julia Davis, who is 15 and identifies as Latina and white, shied away from speaking in open discussion and emailed her comments to Etienne. Her cousin is a police officer, and she was conflicted about the looting. She praised her teacher’s deft handling of the topic — including how he empowered students. He told them they could use their voice to protest in person or on social media, and then decades from now, could count themselves as a part of history.

“It’s important because we are a generation that is supposed to help and try to fix what people in the past have done wrong,” she says. “He’s trying to teach us how to change history, not to relive it.”

Linda K. Wertheimer, a former Globe education editor, is the author of “Faith Ed: Teaching about Religion in an Age of Intolerance.” As a 2020-21 Spencer Fellow at Columbia University, she is working on a project on teaching about racism in schools.