I have seen some of these very same students walk into another teacher’s classroom, go to the last row of desks, and put their head down. I have seen them sit frozen in their seat, staring at an assignment—when earlier I had heard them make jokes, talk excitedly about the content of their history class, celebrate solving a vexing algebra equation, or shake a test tube with authority, waiting for a result. Their report cards often reveal this disparity in classroom experiences: A’s and B’s in classes where they feel valued and C’s, D’s, or even F’s in classes where they don’t.
When black students’ academic strengths are overlooked, black students are marginalized. They are kept out of advanced courses, given bad grades, and sent to the dean’s office. Over the years, the power that they initially bring to school is siphoned off by educators at every level of the educational system who do not respect, and in some cases do not wish to respect, the intellectual contributions of black students.
Anti-racist teachers take black students seriously. They create a curriculum with black students in mind, and they carefully read students’ work to understand what they are expressing. This might sound fairly standard, but making black students feel valued goes beyond general “good teaching.” It requires educators to view the success of black students as central to the success of their own teaching. This is a paradigm shift: Instead of only asking black students who are not doing well in class to start identifying with school, we also ask teachers whose black students are not doing well in their classes to start identifying with those students.
I spent the majority of my career in the classroom, and I loved it because—to do it well—it required that I call on all aspects of my humanity. Standing in front of my black students, I knew that it was my responsibility to invite them into the classroom and then to see, push, and protect them once they were there. Over the years, collaborating with other anti-racist educators, I co-developed an approach that was successful—and it showed in the students’ attendance, grades, and quality of work.
We read articles and books, and we attend workshops centered around black pedagogy. That helps us examine cultural differences in discourse styles, so we can better understand black students’ analytical approaches in essays. We learn how to integrate oral language into our curriculum, such as adding a debate unit or a poetry-recitation assignment, and to provide ample opportunities for students to work together. And we learn that nothing goes without saying and that praise and direction should be plentiful. In essence, we do what works for black students, which also works for all students.
Educators who are committed to black students use evidence in their own classrooms to find ways to improve. They analyze the assignments handed in, identifying ways in which their teaching reached—and didn’t reach—all of their students. They recognize the brilliance of a black student’s contribution to a class discussion and seize on it. They disaggregate data such as grades and attendance by ethnicity, look for patterns, and problematize their own practice—rather than assume that their students weren’t motivated or sufficiently prepared to engage with challenging material. They ask themselves: Why did Taylor get a C on the final when he earned an A or a B on all of his other assignments, many of them equally demanding? Why is Vince silent in his group? What inspired Hile to write multiple drafts of her essay, each time asking for more detailed feedback? They seek support from colleagues who are effective teachers for all of their students, including black students, because they know that the changes they make to their teaching practice will have an impact on their students’ achievement. All of this makes them better educators.