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.