With America’s racist underbelly exposed under the Donald Trump presidency, classrooms have become another battleground for the nation’s soul. Race-based incidents in schools and active re-segregation attempts for some school districts come amid a media and political landscape where these issues have made it to the top of the executive branch.
Within that framework, teachers are expected to teach kids and have the knowledge and the tools to respond to issues of race, ethnicity and identity in the classroom. New York City school teachers need more help in that realm, according to a report from the NYU Metropolitan Center for Equity and the Transformation of Schools (NYU Metro Center).
Titled “Is NYC Preparing Teachers to Be Culturally Responsive?,” the report, authored by Jahque Bryan-Gooden and Megan Hester, surveyed 382 local public school teachers and identified how willing and capable they were of raising and responding to issues to race, ethnicity and identity in the classroom and how willing they were to adopt the ability to do so while expanding their teaching capacities.
The report also included information from University of Pittsburgh’s Dr. H. Richard Milner’s national survey on the topic and a survey from the Education Week Research Center.
According to the report, 89 percent of teachers responded “agree/strongly agree” that race and ethnicity issues are relevant to their students’ educational experiences, and 93 percent of them would be willing to modify their lessons to connect with students from different racial and ethnic backgrounds.
The AmNews asked one of the report’s authors if the teachers’ willingness to learn was lip service.
“I think it’s genuine; yes, our eyebrows were raised when we noticed that teachers rated themselves higher than their colleagues when asked how prepared they are to intervene in conflicts that arise due to race and ethnic tensions,” said Bryan-Gooden. “But that’s common human behavior. It’s called the halo effect. People are more likely to want to rate and perceive themselves more favorably than others, for the purpose of outshining others. But aside from that, what do teachers gain from falsely claiming they’re interested in modifying their teaching approach and attending professional development?” Bryan-Gooden also said that white teachers at nonwhite schools have a special responsibility.
“It also says something when even respondents affiliated with affinity groups are saying things like, ‘Race cannot be ignored in the teaching of U.S. history or economics. Full stop,’” Bryan-Gooden said. “Also, ‘As a white educator in a majority nonwhite school it would be irresponsible to not modify the curriculum to connect with and address my students’ backgrounds and lived experiences.’”
The report showed that 87 percent of teachers “agree/strongly agree” that it’s a teacher’s responsibility to help students develop the skills to understand, analyze and respond to race and ethnicity issues. Seventy percent of respondents said that the Common Core framework could incorporate race and ethnicity into the curriculum.
One Manhattan middle school science teacher told the authors of the report, “I would like to do this but have never received any support or training on how to modify the science lessons to connect with students’ racial and ethnic backgrounds. I’m not even sure what that would look like and if it would be possible to do on a daily basis.”
Another Bronx high school art teacher told the authors, “I always try to include my student’s culture and heritage, but I do not always feel I have the best tools or am the best person to do so.”
An English teacher in Brooklyn told the authors that she was “…part of a group of teachers at my school that’s working to create spaces for teachers to discuss race and culturally responsive teaching. I do modify my lessons when possible but still struggle with how best to do so, especially when also preparing students for the Regents.”
But the desire to engage in issues of race and ethnicity remains with many teachers, according to the report and to Bryan-Gooden.
“In the short responses we noticed that a lot of the teachers that are already doing this work say they want to explore topics of race and ethnicity in a way that teaches students about systems of power and privilege,” Bryan-Gooden said. “For example this teacher’s short answer: ‘I already do but it’s difficult to find materials for Entering/Emerging SIFE ELLs that deeply analyze white supremacy/colonialism historically and globally without it being just about “diversity” and “acceptance” or dumbed down.’”
Twenty-five percent of the respondents to the report said they rely mostly on the internet and fellow teachers for guidance on discussing issues of race and ethnicity in the classroom. Only 10 percent of respondents said they used the DOE’s professional development to acquire information on this issue. A majority believe that professional development and training on how to integrate these topics in the classroom would help.
The report’s conclusion suggests that New York City’s public school system needs to help teachers properly address race, ethnicity and identity topics in their classrooms. Reflecting on a student population that is 83 percent students of color and with more than 60 percent of teachers being white, the report suggests it is high time to properly prepare teachers for whom they’re teaching as much as what they’re teaching. Bryan-Gooden believes the DOE could do more to help the teachers meet their students in the middle.
“There are already attempts to bring more nonwhite teachers into the classroom, such as NYC Men Teach,” said Bryan-Gooden. “While representation is incredibly important, that does not mean we should place the responsibility of educating white teachers on teachers of colors. Additionally, we all hold bias, even teachers of color, so white teachers and teachers of color are in need of continuous and quality training. This is more than just an issue of race, students hold multiple identities, so by thinking we can place teachers of colors in front of students and solve all of our issues blatantly ignores intersectionality.”