It was time to pack up for lunch and I called, “Hands on top.” My students immediately froze, put their hands on their heads, and responded, “That means stop.” Not sure where I learned this, but it’s an attention-grabbing strategy I’ve used for years now. Yet when I used this technique the day after learning that yet another Black man had been killed at the hands of the police, my heart sank. When I started writing this piece, it was the day after learning that Terence Crutcher had been shot and killed. Not even two weeks later and Keith Lamont Scott and Alfred Olango suffered the same fate. It made me wonder, how many times will my students hear, “Hands on top” in a different setting, just because of the color of their skin?
I teach 5- and 6-year olds, so I shouldn’t have to worry about teaching them that Black lives do indeed matter. However, in our current climate, I believe that I have a responsibility to do so.
Perception is reality. Unfortunately, the reality is that even at a young age, my kids, especially my boys, are perceived as a threat. This is not hyperbole. The perceived threat can be seen in disproportionate suspension rates, or the fact that in some of the schools where I’ve taught, there have been significantly more security guards than school counselors.
According to the Civil Rights Data Collection, Black preschool students are 3.8 times more likely to receive at least one out-of-school suspension than White children. This statistic is especially startling considering the fact that according to the data from 2013-2014, Black students represent only 19% of preschool enrollment but 47 % of suspensions, compared to White students who represent 41% of preschool enrollment but only 28% of suspensions. I am not a proponent of any preschool student being suspended, but if we are to use such suspension rates as a benchmark, my word, the contrast speaks volumes. What’s more, the data corroborates that this difference continues in K-12 settings.
All of this data suggests that during childhood, students are already being treated differently based on their skin color. Some might say that perhaps the Black students are acting up more or are doing more to get suspended, but in my experience it is not the behavior that is different, but the response to the behavior.
So how do I teach my students that their lives matter? How can I help them survive outside of the four walls of my classroom? How can I follow the curriculum and teach the unit on community helpers who are there to keep them safe, knowing that we live in a society where people who look like my kids are being gunned down at an alarming rate?
I almost feel that in units where we focus on poetry, I have to teach my students to personify themselves. It seems that Black people are seen as objects, so I have to teach my students to give human-like qualities to themselves so they can be viewed as humans with lives that actually matter. If they encounter the police maybe they need to say, “I’m a student. I’m a brother. I’m a sister. I enjoy taking walks outside.” Anything to make themselves seem like less of a threat.
The burden shouldn’t lie on my students. Maybe the people who are trained to keep us safe need some training on cultural competence. Maybe we need to address the effects of implicit biases, starting in the classroom.
Unfortunately, I don’t know what the answer is. I do know that I’ll continue my quest to make my classroom a safe space where students feel welcomed, accepted, and comforted knowing that their lives matter to me.
A Concerned Teacher Who Doesn’t Want to See My Students’ Names After a Hashtag
2 thoughts on “My Students’ Lives Matter”
Dear a concerned teacher who doesn’t want to see my students’ names after hash time,
You know every time I hear about a black man being shot by a police officer–whether that police officer be black or white, male or female–my brain shutters. Not my heart but my brain. My brain shudders because if you look at the national crime statistics you will find that the majority of black men killed are killed by black men. Police officers are not the killers of black men that they are made out to be. Lately, the media (or more importantly the money supporting the media) have highlighted shootings making it seem as though this is commonplace.
While I will give you the fact that there is absolutely no doubt that black men are seen as “the trash” of society, I don’t believe they are the deer in gun sites of the police. If we want to talk about teachable moments–or just moments–let’s talk about history. I realized the real issue nearly 15 years ago when I visited my high school age brothers and just happened to flip through one of their history books. Do you know the first black face I saw in that history book? No, it wasn’t Crispus Attucks, it wasn’t Martin Luther King Jr., it wasn’t even Malcolm X. It was Janet Jackson. I have nothing against Ms. Jackson but the problem is when she is the first black face you see in a high school history book then you know there is something wrong with that book. As I read through the book I found the history of Blacks was not a major portion of that history book. There were no sections about the Tuskegee airmen. There was no mention of the Buffalo soldiers. There was no mention of Sojourner Truth. There was not even a note about any one of the major black authors today. This is where the truth lies.
Years ago I was making a special 90th birthday card for my grandmother. Part of that card was showing the strength and growth of black people throughout her life–whether they were educators, scientists, public servants, or entertainers. I had grown up in predominantly white neighborhoods and had had the benefit (or so I thought) of a full education. It was a shock to me that I had no clue who Mary Bethune was; I knew nothing about Marian Anderson; and I only knew of little bit about the inventions black men and women have made throughout the history of this nation (and these inventions continue to improve the lives of American men and women today).
My point is this: when black children do not see black faces in their history books in roles other than as slaves then black children don’t expect much. They don’t expect for people in authority to give them any respect; so they don’t respect them. And unfortunately there are so many of our uneducated (and when I say uneducated I am referring to this lack of black faces in history books) black children raising uneducated black children, what we get is what we see today. Young black men and women who do not know that when a cop stop, you stop. When a cop pulls a gun and tells you to halt, you don’t turn and pull a gun or gun-like weapon yourself. That you do not make suspicious movements when a police officer has asked you to stop.
Now I am not blaming black men and women for the shootings that have occurred; although they do carry a level of culpability. What I am saying is society has, for years, “forgotten” the black men and women are police officers, teachers, inventors, doctors and surgeons, pastors, scientists, mathematicians, and so on. When our little six and seven-year-old children are not told the history of their own people we end up with what we have today. The real teachable moment occurs now–when men and women rise up and say listen we want the real history books. We want our children, white, black, Indian, Hispanic, Irish, German, etc. to know that they come from a rich, honorable heritage that is as great and rich and honorable as the next. When we teach this to our children then these little six and seven-year-olds will not respond by putting their
Thank you for your response. I think there are a lot of issues, which means we have a lot of work to do as a society! We have to start somewhere, and the classroom is a great place.