One question that many school leaders and practitioners are grappling with is how they can best support Black students. A litany of data has highlighted disparate outcomes for them at the K-12 level. We must do better. Teachers can and must be part of efforts to improve classrooms for Black students. Teachers who make a difference are able to move beyond traditional classroom practices to ensure that they feel comfortable and safe in classrooms.
As a former classroom teacher and student, I can attest to the need for extra attention and care to help Black students feel comfortable in historically excluded spaces. Schools explicitly exclude them by way of suspensions and implicitly exclude them through curriculum, culture, and policy. Black students are not the only ones who suffer racial discrimination in school, but in light of the recent protest for Black liberation across the country, it is imperative that Black students receive particular emphasis and focus. School practices must account for their experiences and needs. When we find ways to demonstrate care for Black students, our empathic actions benefit all students.
Here are five suggestions for how we can show care for our Black students:
1. Make sure curricular materials are inclusive and positively represent all Black folks.
We must consider Black students when creating curriculum to ensure instructional materials are inclusive of all Black life. By "all," I mean men, women, LGBTQ+, mixed-raced folks, and those with disabilities. It is not enough to discuss Black people briefly during thematic units on marginalized groups. Their historical exclusion in instructional materials contributes to the lack of care Black students experience in school. Without curricular representation, the contributions of Black innovators, the examples of Black excellence, the struggle for Black liberation, and the diversity within Blackness are absent from curricular materials. Black people must be equally represented across all disciplines to ensure that Black students feel included in the learning environment. As educators, we should ask ourselves:
*Are any of my books written by Black authors?
*Do my books and curriculum materials illustrate the diversity that exists within the Black community?
2. Seek feedback from Black students.
It is impossible for any teacher, regardless of race, to understand the experiences of Black students in our classes, unless they ask their Black students directly. As teachers, we rarely seek feedback from our students, and this prevents us from understanding how Black students may be experiencing our class. Black people experience this country in unique ways based on structural disadvantages and systemic racism. Unfortunately, the experiences in classrooms are no different. It is important to listen to the voices of Black students because they are often those who suffer most in the learning environment.
To show care for them we must seek answers to questions such as:
*What does it feel like to be a Black student in my classroom or in this school?
*Do Black students feel safe in my classroom?
*How can I help Black students experience success in my classroom?
3. Educate ourselves and our students on the nature of racism.
It is difficult for anyone to combat racism, if they do not understand it. Racism is a complex, multifaceted issue that has permeated American society for centuries. Racism is so deeply embedded in American culture that it often goes ignored by those not directly affected. To psychologically and emotionally protect Black students in the classroom, we must develop our understanding of racism and the many ways it presents itself.
As teachers, we can learn more about racism by watching lectures on combating anti-Blackness, attending anti-racist workshops, and reading anti-racist literature. As we educate ourselves about racism, we must find ways to educate our students as well. We must engage in difficult conversations with our students that support the elimination of anti-Blackness in our classroom and school. And we should ask ourselves:
*Do my students understand the racial context of the text, lesson, and/or unit?
*Do my students see me discuss race- related issues?
*Do my students know how to interrupt racism by my example and by examples they've learned in class?
4. Believe Black students.
Many Black students go through school simply not being believed or constantly trying to prove their innocence. Blackness in school is often seen as a sign of guilt, which means that Black children are not often viewed as innocent in the same ways that other children are viewed. Far too often when Black students express themselves in school, they are ignored or not given the same attentiveness as their peers. Black students need teachers to believe them when they speak about how they experience schooling. The information students share should inform future policy around issues such as curriculum, discipline, and overall school climate. Black students need allies who will support them in times of turmoil and back them in conflicts with other adults on campus. Not only must we support them through conflicts, but we need to celebrate all of their successes and progress as well. Black students need to feel trusted, and teachers must show them that their thoughts, opinions, and experiences matter.
5. Build relationships with caregivers.
One of the best ways to show care for Black students is by building relationships with their families. As teachers, we must get to know Black caregivers in efforts to demonstrate our commitments to their children's success. In the book I recently co-authored, No More Teaching Without Positive Relationships, I wrote about the benefits that come along with teachers finding ways to build relationships and collaborate with caregivers. Caring for Black students requires an understanding of the way care is demonstrated in their home lives. It is important that Black students view their teachers and caregivers as members of the same team working hand in hand to ensure their success.
It is not enough for schools to release a formal statement about how they are supporting Black students. Black students should not have to wait until the murder of another unarmed Black person in order to feel like their educators care about Black life. As educators, we have a responsibility to take consistent actions and create environments that are safe for all Black students. What are we waiting for?
Jaleel R. Howard is a former classroom teacher and current doctoral student in the Graduate School of Education and Information Studies at the University of California, Los Angeles.