Working for Racial Justice as a White Teacher

Robert Roth on an anti-racist approach to high-school history

An illustration of a teacher sitting on a stool, drawing pictures of a civil-rights protest on the chalkboard, while students look on. The protesters' signs say "Education and Justice" and "NOW."
Camilo Hunica

Editor’s Note: In 1988, a teacher most commonly had 15 years of experience. In recent years, that number is closer to just three years leading a classroom. The “On Teaching” series focuses on the wisdom of veteran teachers.

One of this year’s largest youth-led Black Lives Matter protests took place on June 3 in front of Mission High School in San Francisco, where Robert Roth taught U.S. History and Ethnic Studies from 2005 until he retired in 2018. Roth was in the crowd, listening to teenage speakers who were urging white people like himself—including white educators, who make up 79 percent of the U.S. teaching force—to step up as allies in the fight for racial justice.

It was a message that Roth has been attuned to for a long time. In 1964, when Roth was himself a teenager, he joined what became the nation’s largest anti-school-segregation boycott in New York City. As a student at Columbia University in 1968, he was a key part of one of the largest college anti-war and anti-racist protests of that era. And since he first started teaching in San Francisco in 1988, Roth has been grappling with what it means to be an anti-racist teacher working in majority Black and Latino schools.

For Roth, in his 30 years in education this meant changing his curricula to highlight the role people of color played in transforming our society; helping develop the ethnic-studies program at Mission High School; working with students and teachers to make ethnic studies a part of every high school in San Francisco Unified District today; and learning from his students and from teachers of color about how to make his classrooms work for everyone, so that all students feel intellectually challenged and engaged.

In conversations in 2018 and 2020, I asked Roth to reflect on how he approached teaching U.S. history as an anti-racist educator. This Q&A has been lightly edited for brevity and clarity.

Kristina Rizga: As part of your U.S. history class this year, you recently taught a unit on the civil-rights movement. Can you talk about the content of this unit?

Robert Roth: The traditional history of the civil-rights movement—the one that you find in most history textbooks—goes from 1954 to 1965. It starts with Brown v. Board of Education and then focuses on Dr. King and Rosa Parks and nonviolent civil disobedience. It ends with the march in Selma, the passage of the Civil Rights Act in 1964, and then the Voting Rights Act in 1965. It is a triumphal story of the successful end to legal segregation, and Black people securing voting rights.

I teach the events that are part of this narrative, but I also teach about the massive protests in the North over police brutality and segregated housing that happened at the same time. I teach that in 1965, after the Voting Rights Act was passed, the Watts Rebellion took place over racist police practices, and that the fight against police violence and voter suppression continues to this day. The Movement for Black Lives is a continuation of this fight, and not just something that started a few years ago. We study Dr. King and Rosa Parks, but we also study Malcolm X, Ella Baker, Fannie Lou Hamer, and the Black Panther Party.  We use resources like the Zinn Education Project and Rethinking Schools to help reframe the curriculum.

History is made by masses of people, not just by three or four great leaders. If all you teach is the history of icons, it doesn’t place any of our students in that history. When students learn, for example, about the Children’s March in Birmingham or the Chicano student-led walkouts in East Los Angeles in 1968, they can see themselves in these movements and can see that young people just like them have changed the world. Especially at a time like today, when Black and brown youth are leading such a powerful new wave of activism, this is so important. History is happening right now, and a history class can be a window into the ways in which the past and present are intricately connected.

Rizga: What do students produce as work in your classroom?

Roth: They do everything! They write essays, work on group presentations, write poems, act out scenarios from the past, imagine themselves as part of any given historical moment, do research papers and reflection pieces, analyze text, and create beautiful posters with their own point of view about what they are learning. They present their work to their classmates, publish pieces to share with other classes, and debate current issues.  Their imagination and creativity always amaze me.

I’m always giving feedback, pushing students to analyze text and not just summarize it, to use evidence to back up their opinions. But I don’t want to thwart their own intellectual energy. I want them to have the space to explore and take risks and to think deeply about a subject, not just memorize a random fact or date. I want the classroom to come alive with their thoughts and their voices.

Rizga: What are some of the most important things you’ve learned about grading and commenting on student work?

Roth: It’s really important to let students know that you will be in dialogue with them about all aspects of their work, including their grades. If a student knows that they are seen and heard, they can handle critique and challenge. But if they feel condescension or disrespect, they will very often tune out. An effective teacher is able to name a student’s strengths, and not just their weaknesses. If the back-and-forth is just negative—looking at what’s not there, picking on what a student doesn’t yet know how to do—then that’s a recipe for disengagement. And in order to understand the student’s strength, you have to understand the student. Where is this young person coming from? What are the ways in which you see their brilliance, their intellect?  What are the areas in which you can define clearly that they need improvement, and how do you engage with them for a year in those areas? This academic dialogue with students is really the centerpiece of a year’s work.

I love to look at student work. I love to see what their ideas are, what strikes them, how they are growing academically. And I want to get right in the middle of their process and muck around with them as we figure out together how to build their skills. That means reading carefully what they write, not just correcting grammar without commenting on their ideas. And it means drawing lessons about my own teaching from their work: What do I have to teach better? What was unclear in what I asked students to do? What concepts do I need to teach more clearly?

When you have a system based on grades, you have to give consistent feedback so that students know how their work is being evaluated. If you’re not in that kind of consistent academic dialogue with them, then you are holding all the power: Students have no idea what you want, and they have few ways to challenge how they are being graded. At Mission High, teachers meet regularly to share student work, and to figure out how to give meaningful feedback to help students grow. And we try, as best as we can, to return work on a regular basis—not just put it in a folder and give it back at the end of a marking period.

Rizga: How do you build relationships with your students?

Roth: First, have a sense of humor. A high-school teacher is working with teenagers. If you don’t have a sense of humor, forget it. Having said that, the core of my relationship with students is about their academic success. Yes, many students will connect with me about challenges in their lives or just to talk, and my door is always open. If I sense something is wrong, or I learn about a struggle outside of class, I will reach out. And if I hear about a student’s success in another class or something that they’ve done in the community, I’m all over it.

But the center of our relationship is about school. I’m cautious about invading their private space if they’re not reaching out to me. But they know that I care about their success, that they can talk to me at any time about the class, about their grade, about their other classes. And that I will take their work seriously, remember what they did on the last project, highlight their achievements, and never give up on them.  That’s the core of it.

Rizga: What advice do you have for white educators who, like you, work mostly with Black and Latino students and want to develop an anti-racist teaching practice?

Roth: Everything we’ve been talking about this entire interview relates to anti-racist teaching. It’s about respecting our students, engaging with them, giving young people the space to show their own intellect and scholarship, and having all of this inform our practice as teachers. I’ve been teaching for 30 years, but I always look to learn more from my students, from their parents and guardians, from their communities, and from my colleagues of color. I have never forgotten that their lives are very different from mine. I have been schooled continually to listen and to learn and to actively support and fight for the leadership of people of color. As a teacher, I am always attentive to cues from my students about what they need, what kind of relationship they want to build with me as a teacher.

You’re not just the teacher of students of color; you are teaching within Black and brown communities that are being marginalized and gentrified in places like the San Francisco Bay Area. Many of our students are undocumented and have had harrowing experiences getting and staying here. When there is a challenge to DACA, it impacts so many of them and their families. And yet here they are, each day in class, hanging in and doing their work. As a white educator, I think you have to see all of this and feel it and stretch yourself across boundaries.

Rizga: What are some of the key moments in your career that contributed to professional growth?

Roth: Early on in my teaching career, I was part of an educators’ network called IRISE, which was led by Black teachers throughout the Bay Area. IRISE challenged teachers to reflect on their work with Black students; to study the pedagogy developed by Black educators like Asa Hilliard, Theresa Perry, and Noma LeMoine, to name just a few; and to be change-makers at our own schools. I’ve tried to do that throughout my years of teaching.

I’ve also been teaching partners with many teachers of color, including Pirette McKamey, who is now the first Black principal at Mission High, and who has been the touchstone for my development as an educator throughout these 30 years. That study, those relationships are so fundamental for white educators who want to grow as anti-racist educators. Anti-racist teaching involves more than changing curriculum. It demands a deep, heartfelt love for the students that we teach. You have to develop relationships with students that are very deep and that transcend just their years in high school. I don’t think there’s a formula, but you have to approach all of this as a lifelong journey.

As for curriculum: It’s an exciting time to be a history teacher, because the teaching of history is being challenged more than at any time I can remember. That’s why President Trump has gone out of his way to attack sites like the Zinn Education Project and the 1619 Project. The white-male supremacist narrative about U.S. history is beginning to be turned on its head, and anti-racist history teachers are confronted with rising to the challenge. How do we help students make sense of this period? How do we teach about the origins of policing in the U.S.? How the prison system exploded as a system of social control against Black people in the period following Reconstruction? How do we address the rise of anti-Chinese racism in this period? How do we make time to cover something like the Mendez v. Westminster case, because it shows so clearly the connections between Black and Latinx movements? Or the ways in which the coronavirus has impacted Native people on Pine Ridge Reservation?

Rizga: Which fundamental changes to the overall system would make educators more effective?

Roth: For one thing, there has to be a priority on the education of Black and brown students: More resources, higher pay for teachers in schools that serve these communities, incentives for experienced and successful teachers to stay in these schools. I think that education programs have to recruit teachers of color and be much more attuned to anti-racist pedagogy that has been out there for a long time.

Teachers should not have to teach five classes. They need more time to look at student work, to meet with colleagues, and to revise curriculum. This is all about how much money a society is willing to devote to the education of children. In a city like San Francisco, where there is so much private money, the school system is always facing budget cuts. How can that be? Veteran teachers who have honed their craft and been successful with students need to be given time to mentor new teachers.

I think that the whole standardized-testing system, which has been a billion-dollar industry, is a cruel joke. There needs to be a much more holistic system to evaluate schools, keep educators accountable for the outcomes of Black and brown students, and not just show us differences in income, race, and access. I’ve watched these tests be redesigned for 30 years, and they are still doing the same thing: showing you differences in opportunities and then replicating disadvantages.

Rizga: What advice would you give to new teachers coming in now?

Roth: I would say, “Hang in there.” It’s an incredibly rewarding journey. The first few years are going to be more than hard, but they will also be so exciting. Find some mentors that you trust, really get to know your students, and don’t give up quickly. You can’t become an effective teacher in two years. You have to go through the bumps, and each year the rewards get greater.

Teachers are glorified on the one hand, but on the other hand, disrespected and not seen as scholars or thinkers—instead as people who just deliver information and get along with kids. Researchers at a university get more of a voice about teaching than a teacher who’s been doing it for decades. Because of all of these things, there is a lot of pressure for young teachers to leave. But it’s an incredible job, and there’s incredible joy to it. Stick with it.

This article is part of our project “On Teaching,” which is supported by grants from the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation, the Spencer Foundation, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, and the Panta Rhea Foundation.