June 21, 2024


General For All

Help! My Students Say I’m Racist, but I’m Not

Illustration of teacher wondering why students say he's racist

Dear WeAreTeachers,
I teach 9th and 10th grade math in Dallas at a school where 90% of the students are Black and Hispanic. In one of my classes, I have two students who laugh very loudly together—so loud it’s a distraction. I’ve redirected them nearly every day since the beginning of the year, but it’s still a daily problem. Last week, I jokingly told them they needed to learn how to laugh quieter, and one of them said that was racist. I pointed out that if I were racist, why would I be teaching at their school? That landed me in hot water with my admin. I’m not racist—at all—and am offended that apparently everyone except me gets to decide what my motivations are. How do I come back from this? —Colorblind

Dear C.,

Early in my teaching, I had to record a video of myself teaching and send it to a new teacher specialist in the district. I really didn’t want to, and when I reviewed the footage, my hesitance was validated. Stepping out of my teacher perspective showed me all the ways I was missing the mark, and how some of my weak areas left my students not getting what they needed.

I felt humiliated. I had two ways of responding. My first option was to be defensive. I could make excuses, blame the exercise, attack the credentials of the district specialist, etc. I could say whatever I needed to make the bad feelings go away.

My other option was to look at it as an opportunity to learn and be better. If I took a beat to sit with the uncomfortable feelings instead of rejecting them, I could remember that this video exercise is not about me but about the people in my classroom, making sure they were honored as learners and as people.

It feels awful to be accused of being racist. But rather than immediately rejecting that notion, what would it look like to sit with it? Not embrace it immediately; not accept it unquestioningly. Just sit and reflect.

Maybe in that moment you would have told the student, “My first reaction is that I don’t understand, but you as a student mean way more to me than my pride. I’m going to learn more about this so I don’t do it again. Sound good?”

Then, maybe you would have done some searching online and read this beautiful essay by Sherronda J. Brown on Black laughter. Perhaps you’d consider how laughter is different across cultures, and that upholding that there is a “right” and “wrong” way to laugh is just one way we inadvertently value whiteness.

Maybe the next day you’d have returned to that student and said, “I learned about why what I said was offensive. I’m so sorry. I’m going to do better for you.”

Listen. I’m not saying this from a place of enlightenment, advising you from atop my “White Person Who Has It All Figured Out” pedestal. I’m unforgivably late to the game, actually, but I at least know enough to know that I’ll never be done unlearning cultural biases and harmful stereotypes, reevaluating my motivations, and supporting efforts to create a more just and equitable world. It’s not so I can be better. It’s so the people who don’t have what I have—a system intentionally skewed in my favor—can thrive and flourish too.

Remember, too, that the impact of your words matters more than your intent. Having good intentions doesn’t excuse the bad teaching my students had to put up with. Believing we’re not intentionally racist doesn’t excuse the harm we bring into our classrooms.

Here are some more resources to get you started:

Dear WeAreTeachers,
It’s my third year teaching 5th grade, and things are going surprisingly well, except for one thing: My principal is constantly correcting me in front of my students. If she’s observing me and I have trouble quieting the class or getting them back on task, she steps in and yells at them. In the hallway last Friday, she took one look at my class and said very loudly, “Mrs. Teague, your class should be walking on the silver line silently with their hands behind their backs.” They complied, but when we got back in the room, my students asked if I was in trouble. How do I tell my appraiser to back off? —Mom, You’re Embarrassing Me in Front of My Friends

Dear M.Y.E.M.I.F.O.M.F.,

Oh boy. This is passive-aggressive … except it’s just aggressive. But two things can be true, though, right? It’s definitely not in best practices for leadership to correct you in front of your students. But it sounds like you might also have some room for improvement in managing behavior (don’t we all?).

The last incident you described is a good segue into a critical conversation. Explain to the principal what happened and what your students said. Then be sure to communicate you’re highly motivated to work on your weak spots before asking for a different mode of communication.

“I wanted to talk to you about something that happened last Friday. After you commented on the way my class was walking, some of my students asked if I was in trouble with you when I got back to the classroom. I know you have a lot of wisdom and I’m happy to learn from your experience. When you see an area that needs improving in the future, I’m wondering if you can either call me over privately or email me to let me know what needs to change.”

If she continues, find an opportunity to correct her in front of her boss! (No. Don’t do that.)

Dear WeAreTeachers,
After 25 years of teaching, I’ve made the decision to leave my school of 16 years. Like many other educators, the past five years have been the hardest of my career. I’ve told my administration but have asked them to keep the news about my leaving to themselves. I can’t bear to think of telling my coworkers though—especially my team that I’m really close with. Should I rip the Band-Aid off, or is it OK to wait until later in the year? —Is an Irish Goodbye Acceptable for School?

Dear I.A.I.G.A.F.S.,

You’ve made a really personal decision that carries an enormous emotional weight. There’s no right or wrong time to tell your team that you’re leaving.

I would encourage you to think about two things, in this order of importance:

First is your comfort level. If right now feels like absolutely the wrong time, don’t feel pressured to announce it. My guess is that it’ll never feel easier, but a time will come when it feels right to tell them.

Second is the procedures and prep work that needs to happen for another teacher to join the team. Because you’ve already told your administration, they at least won’t be scrambling for a new teacher at the last minute. But if your team will be a part of the interviewing process, it might be best to plan to tell them a week or two before interviews so they can have time to process finding a new addition. Other prep work might include making sure your team has any resources, materials, and equipment that you have or typically organize.

There are certainly no rules, but if it helps to set a deadline in your head (or have input from an internet stranger), I think a week or so before the start of spring break might be an ideal time. You won’t drop a stink bomb of bad news just before a holiday, but you still give everyone time to respond, plan, and soak up their last few months of teaching with you on their team.

Do you have a burning question? Email us at [email protected].

Dear WeAreTeachers,
A colleague told me that several of her 8th grade boys wouldn’t stop whispering and laughing. When she asked them what was up, they told her, “We found Ms. Wagner on Tinder during lunch.” I AM MS. WAGNER. One of them must have made an account using a fake birthday to appear in my age preferences. I know this is their mistake and not mine, but I’m so embarrassed and keep cringing thinking of them seeing me on a platform I never intended them to find me on. What should I do? Will telling an AP just bring more attention I don’t want? —Put “My Student Found My Tinder Profile” On My Tombstone