Equity Resources, Podcast Articles | Sep 1, 2019
Some things a teacher shouldn’t be “neutral” about…
By Angela Watson
Founder and Writer
A story came through my Twitter feed recently about a deli owner who was giving a free side dish to any customer who said, “Send them back!”
If you missed the reference, at a July  speech that Trump gave, attendees repeated his words and shouted this refrain repeatedly about four members of Congress who are people of color.
I want you to picture a student who is a person of color, or from an immigrant family, or who might otherwise be the type of human who is targeted by this kind of language. Imagine this student of yours is buying a sandwich at this deli and overhears fellow customers shouting “send them back” and laughing and joking about this, and being rewarded with free food for doing so.
How would that feel to your student? What kind of impact might that experience make on a young person?
Now imagine that student comes to school the next day still feeling shook up or angry about the incident and needing to process it with a trusted adult.
What will this student need from you at this point as the teacher?
Will the student be looking for someone who is unbiased and can help the students “see both sides” of that encounter?
Will the student seek out an adult who will play devil’s advocate and debate their humanity?
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You see — and this is tough for many of us untouched by these incidents to understand — most of the politically charged rhetoric that we hear is not an intellectual exercise. It’s not a theoretical debate. These are real-life incidents impacting actual humans’ experiences on a daily basis.
There is no neutrality when you are targeted for discrimination because of your race, ethnicity, immigration status, or gender, sexual orientation, and so on.
There is no ability to be neutral or stay out of the discussion when it’s YOU and people like you who are being targeted and harmed.
So for us to say our role is to be neutral is to operate from a place of privilege. Not privilege as in wealth — that’s just one of many types of privilege, and one that most educators don’t have. Our place of privilege is choosing not to pay attention to these stories or take a position on them because we are not personally impacted.
I have blond hair and blue eyes and speak American English as my only language. I will probably never have to worry if I will be stopped in my neighborhood by ICE and asked for proof of citizenship. (That’s happening right now[July 2019] here where I live in Brooklyn. Folks are getting on the subway, buying groceries, minding their own business, and live in fear of being approached to provide evidence of their citizenship.)
Imagine experiencing that — do you carry a passport or birth certificate with you to the store? Should you have to? What if it gets lost or “misplaced” by whoever is questioning you? Can you imagine living in that kind of fear on a daily basis as a U.S. citizen?
This is happening right now all across our country. But it’s not happening to ME.
It is my privilege to choose whether or not to stay informed on this issue and advocate for those being targeted.
And the point I want to impress on you as a fellow educator is this: if you also have that privilege, use it to advocate for students who do not.
Let’s go back to that first example about people yelling “send them back” for fun at a deli. If one of your students experiences that, will they feel safe coming to you to talk about it?
Don’t think for a moment that kids from marginalized groups aren’t highly attuned to which adults in the school will be empathetic and who will attempt to stay “neutral.”
Do you think a student will come to you if you’ve tried not to express an opinion on issues of discrimination?
Will this young person want to confide in you if they’re not sure how you feel about racism or immigrants?
This is going to be a hard truth for some folks to swallow, but I’m going to say it anyway, because if it’s a wake-up call for even one educator, then it’s worth any flack I’ll catch for saying it.
If you have kids from marginalized groups in your school and you don’t hear them talking about what’s happening in our country right now, it may not be because they aren’t impacted.
It might be because they don’t see you as a safe person to whom they can express their feelings and experiences.
We can no longer pretend our students are too young to understand and have no idea what’s going on. When I taught Pre-K, I had four-year-olds express fears about police brutality and offering stories about things they’d witnessed. That was 20 years ago–this is not a new problem. Policing methods and how the criminal justice system operates are just two examples of political issues which touch the lives of even the littlest children.
That doesn’t mean we have to directly address those topics in a formal lesson between nap and snack time. Certainly, some teachers will, and that’s wonderful if they have done the self-development work to unpack their own biases, and have the knowledge, resources, and support from their admin and community to do so. This is not the case for most teachers.
What I’m advocating for is simply this, as a starting place: For us, as educators, to question the belief that “neutral” is the only ethical position for us to take, and interrogate whether being neutral is even possible.
Staying neutral is something we’ve all been told as teachers, directly or indirectly: Don’t take sides, don’t push your beliefs on kids.
But we have to unpack that conditioning when we see it’s harming kids and leaving them vulnerable to abuse and bullying. Who benefits most from a “neutral” teacher who won’t condemn discrimination?
Just sit with that question for a bit. Reflect on how it applies to your teaching context and the community you teach in.
Do you have to tell kids who you vote for? No.
Do you need to identify as Republican or Democrat? No.
Should you force your personal beliefs on your students? No.
But you DO need to pay attention to what’s happening in our country, be well-informed about the lived experiences of marginalized groups of people, recognize discrimination, and speak out against it when it occurs.
Or, to put more simply: If someone shouts “send them back” in our schools or communities, we need to take an unequivocal stand and say, “That is not okay.”
This is not being partisan. It’s being a decent human being. Any person of any political persuasion should understand that protecting that child is the right thing to do.
If you feel like you can’t do that and still keep your job, is that a job worth having? If we can’t defend our students and protect them from cruelty, then why even be in education to begin with? What are we doing this for, then?
If we want kids to grow up to be kind, thoughtful, inclusive, and courageous, how can we possibly opt-out of our biggest opportunity to model that?
I want to emphasize that this work is important even if — or maybe especially if — the majority of your students are NOT impacted by discrimination or prejudice.
Are you prepared if one of your students echoes talking points they’ve heard like “send them back”? What if one of your kids makes a derogatory remark related to religion or gender? Are you prepared to notice and respond if and when you hear them?
I encourage you to think about possible responses that are appropriate for your teaching context NOW so that you’re not caught off guard. We know instances of harassment and bullying are on the rise in schools all over the country — what will you be prepared to say and do when you witness something like that in your classroom?
Teaching itself is a political act. We have to move beyond the idea of political ideology as something that only shows up in the voting booth.
We need to get real about the fact that teachers cannot disguise their worldview.
Your ideology impacts almost everything about how you see and interact with your students.
It shapes your views on race and gender, for example. If in your worldview, girls and boys have innately different traits and roles in society, you will subconsciously reinforce those beliefs in your classroom.
Your ideology impacts what you think is the role of authority figures. Do they require deference and respect simply because of their position of authority? Can they be questioned? How? Your belief system around power dynamics will impact the very fabric of your classroom community.
Another example: I’ve seen teachers push back on the idea of communal school supplies because they believe kids who bring in supplies shouldn’t have to share with kids who didn’t. They might not make the connection, but that’s because of their political worldview which places the onus on individuals to ensure availability of their own resources rather than on communities to work together to ensure everyone’s needs are met.
Yes, I’m saying that something as mundane as how you respond to students not having a pencil in class is shaped by your belief system.
Your political ideology also impacts what you see as being the root causes of poverty, and therefore how you treat kids and families in underserved communities.
Do you see how my subtle word choice here reveals my ideology? I don’t see these communities as being “bad neighborhoods,” I see them as places that are under-resourced and under-served. This shifts how I talk about them and where I place the onus of responsibility. I know the history of redlining, systemic discrimination, and the government’s role in creating these communities, and therefore, I believe the government should play a role in addressing the inequality it perpetuates.
If your worldview is that poverty exists because some people lack a solid work ethic and should pull themselves up by their bootstraps instead of relying on government handouts which they don’t deserve, well, that’s a totally different worldview, right?
Neither of us is “neutral.”
And our beliefs about poverty will show up in our classrooms, particularly in Title I schools. Our beliefs will create differences in the way the two of us would treat our students and run our classrooms and the assumptions we make about the families we serve.
There are many more examples I could give, but I’ll sum it up this way: Your worldview shapes your classroom management and curriculum choices, whether consciously or not.
There is no such thing as a “neutral” standpoint on issues of human rights or social justice, and it is a function of privilege to pretend that there is, and to simply opt-out of those discussions.
Students may not be able to articulate your position on specific issues, but they can intuit your beliefs based on how you run your classroom, who you include and exclude, whose perspectives you center, and who’s left on the margins.
This is not about what partisan label you apply to yourself. It’s about examining your own belief system and how it shows up in your classroom.
And most importantly, it’s about reflecting on whether your beliefs are pro-student or working against your kids’ best interests.
Unpack your own belief system and ideology and look for places where you might have internalized a worldview that is contrary to what your students really need from you. We can’t claim to be advocates for kids and proponents of relationships and authentic connections with our students if we can’t embrace their identities and fully support them.
I want to emphasize that what I’ve shared here is the FIRST step in being a true advocate for your students — it’s a baseline expectation rather than the final end goal.
Ultimately, we want to work toward engaging in anti-racist and anti-bias practices. It’s not enough to say, “I’m not racist” or “I’m not biased.” The status quo in our systems and institutions is inherently racist and biased. Our power structures and institutions do not function in a way that all people are treated equally.
So, we have to be anti-status quo, and actively anti-racist. That means questioning the status quo and interrupting racism, rather than that just sitting back and allowing inequitable systems to persist.
It means considering how students from historically oppressed groups have their needs marginalized, and working to center them instead.
It means looking for students who aren’t from the dominant or majority in the group in terms of not only race but also religion, or language, or ability, and proactively supporting them in the classroom.
Click the link above to get some book recommendations as well as free anti-bias curriculum resources you can use with your students. You’ll also find a few podcasts and people who are doing equity work so you can follow them on Twitter and Instagram— that’s a terrific and pretty easy way to learn about these topics on an ongoing basis.
Just diversifying your social media feeds a bit, and intentionally following people who have different expertise and lived experiences from you can be so eye-opening. I like to follow educators from different countries, of different ethnic backgrounds, people who share resources about working with neurodiverse kids, and so on to make sure I’m learning from educators who have experiences that are different from mine.
That way, I can make sure I’m not just hearing the dominant narrative about current events or the commonly held viewpoints in education which are often status quo upholders. I have different voices represented in my feed and that helps me to have a fuller understanding of important issues.
Thanks for hearing me on this. I know it’s been an affirming and empowering read for many of you, and an uncomfortable and challenging one for many others. I encourage you to sit with any discomfort you might be feeling because that’s where the growth comes from. Feel free to bounce ideas and reflections off of other educators in our Truth for Teachers podcast community on Facebook or in the comment section below — I’d love to hear your thoughts.
Thank you, Advancement Courses, for sponsoring today’s show. Advancement Courses offers over 200 online PD courses in 19 different subject areas for graduate credit and CEUs for K-12 teachers. And right now, they’re donating 10% of every purchase to fund DonorsChoose projects. You can submit your DonorsChoose project to them for a chance to get funded until September 27. To learn more, visit advancementcourses.com/truth.
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Wow I just finished listening to this podcast. What perfect timing for it. I am so inspired by it!!!! Your words meant so much to me. I am so ready for this school year and my students. THANK YOU.
For a nation built on immigration and the slavery of people either stolen from their own lands and brought here against their will or lured into coming from foreign lands and then forced into building our railroads and transportation routes, while those actually indigenous to North America were stolen from their parents and held hostage in residential schools or murdered and genocided by immigrant colonists, it is absolutely asinine to me that any of us with even an inkling of white skin would think to say, “Send them back” to anyone.