Photo: Jesse La Tour/Fullerton Observer

“I want to be a firefighter, but then I will have to work with the police…and what if they kill me on purpose?” said my son Asher, a second-grader.

Coming from an 8-year-old, these words should be shocking. What’s shocking is that they aren’t.

I fear that far too many educators and educational leaders are not prepared to respond to the heartache and expressions of despair that may come from our students of color, especially in the wake of George Floyd’s death and the ensuing civil unrest. Asher wrote a paragraph for his teacher early this spring about his dream job as a firefighter. Since George Floyd’s murder in May, he sits with confusion, a heavy heart and fear while reconsidering what he might be when he grows up.

Our schools must require educators to learn how to engage effectively with people of different backgrounds. Without that preparation, our students will not feel their identities are valued and affirmed. We, as educators, may not have control over what happens on the world scene, but we can control what happens within the walls of our schools.

Teachers must learn to embrace diversity and recognize that cultural differences are assets, not barriers. If we want school culture and climate to be affirming for all, then we must have teachers who are caring, empathetic, culturally responsive adults available to guide, support and uplift our students.

There also must be leaders who will courageously enter into crucial conversations with other adults on campus whose behaviors are not reflective of the mission to support equity and access.

As an educator of color, I have experienced prejudice and discrimination at school sites. I have shielded my students from stereotyping and bias. I believe these negative experiences can be reduced and hopefully eliminated with training.

I have had the opportunity to work in a district that offered access to a professional learning community that focused on embracing diversity, that is, cultural proficiency. However, even though the district provided this choice and expressed its value by way of mission and vision statements, there were many who chose not to opt-in. They remain ill-equipped to handle students of diverse ethnicities, racial identities and cultures.

What I would share with the teachers who are uncertain about pursuing professional development in cultural proficiency is that the learning process truly ignites your “why.”

Building my capacity so that I could support the learning and identities of all of my students is the greatest reward. Furthermore, seeing the outcomes in student achievement is gratifying. Students are better able to take in knowledge and create new knowledge when they feel safe, valued and affirmed in their learning environment.

In my training, I learned that an educator unconsciously can create an environment that devalues the culture of some groups of students. I walked away from my cultural proficiency learning experience with a concrete understanding of the behaviors I needed to start and stop in my classroom in order to positively impact my class and school site. I was able to do exactly that for one of my fourth-grade students.

This particular student was placed in my class because he needed a chance to start over again. He told me that his last teacher did not like him and that he was always getting in trouble, even when it wasn’t his fault.

I listened to him and made sure he knew that I wanted him in my class. Over the next days and weeks, I realized he had a comedic personality. He liked to laugh, tell jokes and was excited about learning. He shouted out answers often and gave animation to everything he said and did.

While to me he was lively and zealous, his former teacher viewed him as disruptive, loud and obnoxious. The former teacher viewed his differences as a barrier to the culture she sought to maintain in her classroom. Through the mindset of cultural proficiency, I viewed his differences as gems.

I supported him in his self-expression and talked to him about his dreams and aspirations. He said he wanted to be an entertainer. He was one of my strongest readers and I asked him to be my student leader during language arts. His personality, comedic talents and dancing ability made our literature leap off the pages. He volunteered to read often and supported other students in reading with expression. I viewed everything about him as an asset and my perception became his reality.

All students deserve the opportunity to have an experience like this fourth-grader.

All students of color will need a teacher who is able to value and affirm them. They will need someone who can provide a timely and empowering response, such as the one I gave my son: “Asher, I understand what is happening around you may make you feel afraid. But please do not walk away from your dreams. Talk to me about your feelings. You can make a difference and touch the hearts of others. Let’s talk about this some more and maybe you could write a letter to our local leaders. You have a powerful concern and it should be heard.”

•••

Tamra Simpson is a teacher on special assignment at San Jacinto Unified School District in Riverside County. She is a 2019-20 Teach Plus California Policy Fellow. 

The opinions in this commentary are those of the author. Commentaries published on EdSource represent diverse viewpoints about California’s public education systems. If you would like to submit a commentary, please review our guidelines and contact us.

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  1. Anna P. 3 months ago3 months ago

    Tamra, thank you for sharing your personal story. As a teacher and mom of color, my family shares generational discrimination in schooling. The system conditioned us to think that it was better to be white and people of color were dangerous. If we as teachers pretend that this narrative does not permeate every facet of our student of color's life, we are not doing our job to fully prepare them to rise above racism towards … Read More

    Tamra, thank you for sharing your personal story. As a teacher and mom of color, my family shares generational discrimination in schooling. The system conditioned us to think that it was better to be white and people of color were dangerous. If we as teachers pretend that this narrative does not permeate every facet of our student of color’s life, we are not doing our job to fully prepare them to rise above racism towards excellence.

    You mention that cultural proficiency training is voluntary for teachers. I have found that that by not doing the work, we never fully understand where our privilege lies. This leads to cyclical teaching practices that are tactical in its purpose for dis-empowering students of color and as a result leaves them behind. It is critical now, more than ever that teachers guide all students into more socially conscious and responsible behavior to break the existing cycles of racism.

  2. Cynthia Chambers 3 months ago3 months ago

    I’m a music teacher and almost all elementary music teachers teach multicultural diversity. Music is universal

  3. Betsy Alexander 3 months ago3 months ago

    What a wonderful way to look at this child. I wish my daughter could have had a teacher like you, as she shared many traits with this kid. I hope you are appreciated!

  4. Bridget Donovan 3 months ago3 months ago

    I agree in the urgency of teachers becoming culturally proficient. It is essential, in part because the percentage of white teachers to racial minority students is shocking. I am a recently retired white teacher in a majority minority school district in the state of Nebraska. Terms such as "institutional racism, implicit bias, and white privilege" were virtually unknown to me. The school district hired an outstate group to come "fix" our teachers. I am grateful … Read More

    I agree in the urgency of teachers becoming culturally proficient. It is essential, in part because the percentage of white teachers to racial minority students is shocking.

    I am a recently retired white teacher in a majority minority school district in the state of Nebraska. Terms such as “institutional racism, implicit bias, and white privilege” were virtually unknown to me. The school district hired an outstate group to come “fix” our teachers.

    I am grateful that I was active in the National Education Association trainings. Through the NCUEA I received the most valuable, meaningful education/training of my life. As we as a profession move forward in our profession, I have to say, I am sincerely grateful that I had the benefit of the training and education provided by this under-appreciated organization. Under the mentorship of Nilka Julio, my association received an unprecedented understanding of the issues and needs surrounding all kinds of educational issues of race, gender, and poverty.

  5. Ann 3 months ago3 months ago

    Cultural sensitivity should include not claiming white supremacy is a current reality and cease labeling white persons as racist. These messages are destructive and divisive and serve no purpose other than to create misunderstanding, suspicion and distrust. I suggest she reassure her seven year old that police are not to be feared but are there to serve and protect us along with firefighters.

    Replies

    • Amanda Garner 3 months ago3 months ago

      Hi Ann. Respectfully, what you've done is reframe Asher's reality through the lens of whiteness. It may be your reality that the police are not to be feared, but it is important to understand that the lived reality of many people of color is that the police are to be feared and that they can be weaponized against you, even when you haven't done anything wrong. That child is experiencing that reality. So cultural sensitivity … Read More

      Hi Ann. Respectfully, what you’ve done is reframe Asher’s reality through the lens of whiteness. It may be your reality that the police are not to be feared, but it is important to understand that the lived reality of many people of color is that the police are to be feared and that they can be weaponized against you, even when you haven’t done anything wrong.

      That child is experiencing that reality. So cultural sensitivity training doesn’t tell us all white people are racist, but rather acknowledges the reality of white privilege (which is different and distinct from white supremacy) and encourages learners to identify their own biases (we all have them; we have a responsibility to work actively to deconstruct them) so they can effectively support learners of all backgrounds. It is not an indictment of anyone’s personhood to say that you are privileged because of whiteness. I recommend that you explore White Fragility by Robin DiAngelo.

      • ann 3 months ago3 months ago

        I respectfully disagree, have participated in several "cultural sensitivity trainings" and laughed through DiAngelo's malarky. I always treat all students (all people) with dignity and respect. In essence this notion of 'framing' is actually teaching fear. Don't break the law but if you do and are caught, for God's sake and yours, cooperate with law enforcement. It may save your life regardless of the color of your skin. Read More

        I respectfully disagree, have participated in several “cultural sensitivity trainings” and laughed through DiAngelo’s malarky. I always treat all students (all people) with dignity and respect. In essence this notion of ‘framing’ is actually teaching fear. Don’t break the law but if you do and are caught, for God’s sake and yours, cooperate with law enforcement. It may save your life regardless of the color of your skin.

  6. Terry Montelibano 3 months ago3 months ago

    So, the writer is a hero and the other teacher is the bad guy who dislikes kids of different ethnicities. Sorry, but I don’t buy that simplistic argument . Did you talk with the other teacher; does the child need to share the teacher attention with other needy students? Simplistic arguments are never entirely simple.

  7. Joanne Fawley 3 months ago3 months ago

    The name of the KKK member on the auditorium in the photo was removed on June 19 after a unanimous vote by the school board on June 16.

  8. Bo Loney 3 months ago3 months ago

    I would add that all differences, including learning differences, need to be acknowledged and valued. Not sent to resource rooms during instructional hours which, IMHO, has a snowball effect on educational outcomes and emotional outcomes. This includes those kids who have to wiggle and talk. Did you know that there are actual brain differences where a child needs to move for spatial awareness? They need to have their identities valued and confirmed as … Read More

    I would add that all differences, including learning differences, need to be acknowledged and valued. Not sent to resource rooms during instructional hours which, IMHO, has a snowball effect on educational outcomes and emotional outcomes. This includes those kids who have to wiggle and talk. Did you know that there are actual brain differences where a child needs to move for spatial awareness? They need to have their identities valued and confirmed as well.

    I feel we need more training and materials on how to recognize learning differences given to our teachers so they can meet the moment and make a true difference in that child’s life. Speech, occupational and other needs should be offered after 3. Not during instructional time. Letting children work at their own pace and adding teacher aides to all classrooms works. One only has to visit a true Montessori to see. It is my opinion that the school system has been operating in a Goldilocks zone for way too long. Don’t be too far on either side of the bell curve or you fall through the cracks.