5 Ways Black Educators Can Work to Decolonize the Classroom
Updated: Jan 10, 2020
Much of the discourse around public schooling in the United States reinforces the idea that the system is somehow flawed or broken. It's important, however, to point out that the system is working exactly how it was intended to work. The original goals of universal American public schooling were to socialize American children to become compliant, disciplined, and upstanding citizens/workers. The education system that these students traverse is very much rooted in capitalist values and centers the white dominant
narrative. Additionally, the legacies of settler colonialism, slavery, and Jim Crow serve as fibers intricately woven into the fabric of our nation and, inevitably, into our educational system. Subsequently, our government’s outright refusal to acknowledge and reconcile with this heinous history has created an educational system of vast inequalities while systematically upholding the dominant narrative in classrooms across the United States. As a consequence, Black teachers have inherited this system, first, as students and, now, as educators.
Our government’s outright refusal to... reconcile with its heinous history has created an educational system of vast inequalities while systematically upholding the dominant narrative in classrooms across the United States
Our people have historically seen education as a means out of our oppression while also recognizing that it has been utilized as a tool of oppression. This puts Black educators in a very curious space. As a result of this duality, I have found that a lot of young Black Americans are not even considering careers in education as many of our ancestors and elders once did. The overall value and promise of education in the Black community has diminished greatly due to the fact that public educational spaces in the U.S. are seen as bastions of inequity and perpetuators of anti-Blackness. Considering all of this, why, then, should any Black person in the U.S. become a teacher or remain in the profession? Well, while I cannot guarantee job satisfaction and worthwhile compensation (I really wish I could), I believe that Black teachers play an integral part, if not paramount, in the work of decolonizing the classroom, dismantling white power structures, confronting anti-Blackness, as well as serving as allies for other marginalized identities within our schools.
I believe that Black teachers play an integral part in the work of decolonizing the classroom, dismantling white power structures, confronting anti-Blackness, as well as serving as allies for other marginalized identities within our schools.
While I do not believe it to be the job of the oppressed to educate our oppressors- at least not for free since we already carry so much of the emotional labor of oppression- I do believe that we need to be visible. If we are going to center our experiences as marginalized people in this country, we need to be seen. In the case of education, if we are going to center the narrative of Black people in our school systems, we need to see Black teachers. We need Black teachers not only teaching Black children but also teaching non-Black children, as well.
As a Black womxn educator in an urban school district in a predominately Latinx and immigrant school, I find myself constantly reevaluating my career path as my frustration with teaching in the public-school system increases. For teachers, specifically BIPOC (black, indigenous and people of color) teachers, public schools can feel like microcosms of the society at large, which can take an enormous toll on our mental and physical health, daily. Nevertheless, while this work is incredibly taxing and, at times, unbearable, I see my role as an educator in the public-school system as an imperative one. I believe that showing up to work is, within itself, an act of resistance. I also know that it is in those informal teachable moments and interactions that I have with my students that I am doing the work of decolonizing my classroom.
In the case of education, if we are going to center the narrative of Black people in our school systems, we need to see Black teachers.
My 7 years of experience in the classroom have informed my practice in ways that formal schooling has not. Based on these experiences, I'm offering 5 suggestions on how Black educators can actively and inactively work to decolonize their classrooms:
1. Stay in the profession
I know it sounds easier said than done but you are so needed. Find a community of fellow Black educators to help support you and your mental health. Do what you need to care for yourself so that you can show up as your truest self. Students need you.
2. Leverage teachable moments
There have been many occasions when I have overheard my students expressing (in English and Spanish) anti-Black, xenophobic, homophobic, transphobic and ableist sentiments. I’ve noticed other teachers pretending to ignore these comments. However, I always address these comments in ways that I think are sensitive to the topics at hand while also being cognizant of the ages of my students. While these conversations can be very difficult, I truly believe this is a major part of the decolonizing work. There is a lot of current scholarship on how to have these conversations with students. I implore you to do some research and to try your hand at having these conversations so that you will be well-equipped to address these issues with your students.
3. Check your own anti-Blackness, homophobia, transphobia, xenophobia, misogyny, ableism, etc
Being Black does not exempt us from upholding and perpetuating anti-Blackness as well as other -isms and -phobias. In order for anti-Blackness to fully work, Black people must uphold it. In fact, in order for any system of oppression to work, the oppressed must also uphold it. We have to constantly check ourselves and our privileges in order to learn and grow from them. As we already know, Blackness is not a monolith. Many of us still hold a variety of privileges such as being male, cisgender, heterosexual, having high income, having a large and connected network of support, etc. When we recognize and acknowledge the intersectionality of our identities and how they either further marginalize us or center us, we are better able to address them with our students.
4. Recognize that we can only do what we can
There is only so much we, as individuals, can do. However, when we play our small part, we are contributing to the greater impactful work of the collective.
5. Get involved
There are groups and organizations around the country looking to support and advocate for Black teachers and the liberation of black folx, in general. Seek out groups that will not only support you as a teacher but also help you to decolonize your syllabus and the education system as a whole.
While this list is by no means exhaustive, I do hope that it will empower you to see the value in being a Black educator and how the visibility and work of Black educators are imperative to decolonizing not only our classrooms but public education as a whole. Be encouraged. Take heart. You’re already doing the work.
Ashé. Asé. Axé.
About the Author
Amanda (pronouns: she/her/they/them) is a 7th year elementary school teacher with a background in policy. She initially started her career in education as a Special Education teacher in Chicago Public Schools, which she is also a product of. She now serves as a teacher of gifted learners in Dallas Independent School District. Amanda concerns herself with centering the narratives and experiences of marginalized people in public education in order to create a truly equitable and just public school system in the US. When she's not being all deep, she enjoys joking on folx especially her niblings and students, reading all of the things, and being a plant parent.