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