Race and racism are popular topics of discussion right now, and as an educator, it’s important to help students to navigate the difficult conversations that may occur around these subjects. Here are some tips to make your classroom a safe space to talk about race and racism.
CONFRONT YOUR OWN FEARS ABOUT THE TOPIC
Many of us are uncomfortable discussing issues of race and racism, but if we want to have conversations with our students, we have to work past our own fear and discomfort first. If you want to gain a deeper understanding of the issue, there are many excellent resources that can help. A great place to start is Teaching Tolerance, a project designed specifically for educators.
ACCEPT THAT WE ALL HAVE IMPLICIT BIASES TO WORK THROUGH
We’ve all had different experiences and opportunities in our lives that led us to the perspectives we hold today. Thinking about your own history and experiences and how they shape the beliefs you have today can help you uncover any racial biases you may hold subconsciously. Teaching Tolerance developed a self-assessment that might help you begin to dig deeper. The point is not to create feelings of guilt, but rather to increase awareness. Recognize that you too have implicit biases, make yourself aware of what they are, and work through them in a positive way.
Telling yourself that you “don’t see color” isn’t the answer. When a person says they are “colorblind,” they are failing to recognize the racism that exists in our society and overlooking the many opportunities to work for change. Positive change cannot happen unless we recognize the struggles many people face due to race.
BE HONEST WITH YOUR STUDENTS
Many people are experiencing new insights and new learnings about these topics all the time. It’s OK to be honest with your students and share that you are learning too. It’s OK to admit that you still have questions to explore. Be OK with being vulnerable in front of your students, and they will in turn be more likely to participate in, and therefore learn from, these tough conversations.
BUILD AN ENVIRONMENT OF SAFETY AND BELONGING
The key to having a productive and beneficial conversation about race is to help your students feel safe throughout the process. They may feel uncomfortable at times as these are often very difficult conversations for everyone. However, the feeling of safety is a non-negotiable. Set clear norms and expectations with your students and refer to them often. Let students contribute to building these norms to help increase student buy-in during the conversations. Build community in your classroom all year so students know they belong and they are valued. Once they are comfortable in your classroom and know it’s a safe space, students are more likely to open up and help you to discover what questions they have.
PROVIDE OPPORTUNITIES FOR STUDENTS TO LEAD THE CONVERSATION
It’s important to let your students’ voices be heard and to give them the chance to ask questions. For those who don’t know where to start when it comes to faciliting these conversations, use students’ questions to ignite the conversation. This may lead you to topics that you could explore in greater depth and tie to your curriculum for deeper learning.
MODEL THE BEHAVIOR YOU WANT YOUR STUDENTS TO SHOW
Be open to different points of view and ask questions to encourage students to think more deeply. Use respectful language and model emotional self-regulation. Show your students that even when a conversation may provoke tense emotions, you can still handle yourself in a respectful and professional manner. If necessary, explicitly explain how you are feeling and what you are doing to cope. When they watch you respond in this way, your students will begin to respond similarly and the benefits will be endless.
SEEK OUT COLLEAGUES & RESOURCES TO HELP
There are tons of great resources out there to help you facilitate conversations around race and racism in your classroom. You may also have colleagues who are knowledgeable about this topic and willing to share ideas. Here are some links to get you started:
If you’re interested in learning more about this and other topics, Credits for Teachers provides self-paced online Professional Development courses for K12 teachers. Teachers who take our courses receive graduate credit from our university partner that can be used for salary advancement or license renewal. Learn more now!