An Open Letter to Teachers in the Wake of Charlottesville

My Fellow Educators,

The country needs us to be brave. Teaching is, and always has been, a political act. Teachers are an essential part of passing on this country’s values and stories to the next generation. What we decide to bring in and what we decide to leave out tells our students what is important.

Standing up against racism and bigotry is important.

The events in Charlottesville this week can not be left outside the classroom. Our young people need to know that bigotry, racism, and hatred will not be condoned or ignored.

Some of you are starting classes in the next few weeks and these events will be on your students’ minds. Some of you will be starting any day now. Our students need to know that they will be safe in our schools and you can help them.

Your students of color may be concerned for their safety or the safety of loved ones. Your students of color may be angry or sad. Your white students may run a range from frustrated, to embarrassed, to confused, to sympathetic to the white supremacists.  There may be risks in addressing such a charged issue so early in the school year before you have classroom cohesion. These are risks worth taking.

As educators we have a unique and specific opportunity to interrupt cycles of racism and oppression. It’s part of the job and to ignore this national situation only serves to bless it as status quo – too uneventful to even discuss. That is a message that I am unwilling to send to my students.

I don’t pretend that this will be easy and in some communities you may be risking reprimand or angering parents and members of your community. I also recognize my privilege in working for a community that supports, and calls for, educators being involved in antiracist work. That privilege and my role as a district administrator give me even more responsibility to actively support an antiracist agenda.

So what do you do?

I’m going to imagine scenarios where you choose to teach about the events in Charlottesville in the first day or two of the school year. I also want to leave this open-ended enough incase another event occurs between now and the start of school and you are forced to bring that up too.

Secondary – (grades 6-12)

I don’t think it matters if your students are in 6th grade or 12th grade, you should be able to leverage the mainstream news reporting. I argue that your main mission is to ensure your students safety in the school setting and then expose possible misconceptions and misunderstandings about the nature of the events while providing some historical context for events like this.

My first step would be to reassure every single student that you are there to ensure their physical and psychological safety. Ensure them that you condemn white supremacy and every student in your class is equally worthy of love, dignity, and respect.

Instructionally, I would begin with an open ended check of prior knowledge to get your baseline. I would then move on to sources like Reuters that provide extremely factual accounts to set a baseline in case students have not heard much before coming to class. It is likely that many of your students will already have opinions before they come to class.

As a social studies teacher, I also feel an obligation to contextualize this current situation within a history of white nationalism, white supremacy, and racism in this country. My go to here for support is Teaching Tolerance, the educational arm of the Southern Poverty Law Center. They have a huge bank of lessons that will help you structure your investigation and interrogation of bias. It’s worth looking through to see which speak to you. You can also sort this database by grade level and topic to find the one that will fit.

It might take a few days and while there might be a voice in your head questioning your ability to get through the curriculum I argue that taking this time to demonstrate your caring and support for your students’ identities will pay off throughout the school year regardless of your subject area. A student who is afraid for their physical or emotional safety will not learn trigonometry, history, or chemistry.

If you are not a social studies teacher you may want to check in with someone in your social studies department to see if they can give you a bit of a crash course in the history.

Elementary – (grades K-5)

I think teaching about this at K-5 would be much more difficult and I would expect students to come in with more confusion and emotion. I would also expect that any pushback you experience would be magnified with this age group amid cries of ruining children’s innocence and concerns to that effect.

While you might need to tread lightly, I still do not think you can ignore current events with young children. There is plenty of evidence that children’s racial identity and understanding of social hierarchies begin to develop before they reach kindergarten. As such it is just as important to deliver messages of inclusion and equality in the elementary classroom as it is with adolescents. One could even argue that it is more important since patterns are less solidified at earlier ages. That also makes things stickier.

As with the secondary classroom I would focus on beginning with a message of the importance of everyone being valued and loved in the classroom. I would bring the students together with a message of unified community that honors and respects our differences while also identifying the ways in which we are similar.

I would likely bring up the events, but I would refrain from using video of the events themselves. I would summarize based on mainstream reporting. Most of the videos I have watched include images of violence and hateful language that I would not want to expose young children to. That said, I would continue to educate myself as much as possible so that I could empathetically and carefully respond to any questions students may have. It is also possible that even very young children will have seen images from the news and they may come in already upset. The best thing you can do is support yourself with information and support your students with empathy.

If you narrow the Teaching Tolerance database to K-2 and Race&Ethnicity you will find 16 lessons that bring up race in developmentally appropriate ways including examples of anti-racism. There is some overlap with the 3-5 band along with additional options.

On Educational Activism:

I understand that I am specifically calling for an activist teacher and that activism in teaching can be frowned upon. I also argue that there is no neutral here. Teaching itself is active. Simply “calling balls and strikes” is a fallacy in this field. One cannot stand in some safe intellectually removed middle ground in matters of oppression and hatred.

Every single choice is political. Do you include Malcolm X in your Civil Rights unit? That is political. Do you swap out a Shakespeare play for August Wilson? That is political no matter which way you decide. Maintaining the status quo is a political act. Whether you choose to discuss Charlottesville or choose not to discuss Charlottesville you are making an inherently political choice.

I would rather stand on the side of justice and compassion than the side of oppression and hate.

If public educators are charged with protecting and growing every student in their classroom it is therefore critical to adopt an activist stance because your classroom has students who experience oppression.

I also argue that this requires administrators (like myself) to proactively support teachers. Administrators at the building, district, and state levels need to stand arm and arm with their teachers to protect students. There is no alternative. I will say unequivocally that I support educators in promoting social justice in schools. Supporting oppression and hatred, even through silence, is unacceptable and indefensible.

Last fall I had the opportunity to bring racial identity legend Beverly Daniel Tatum to my district and she gave us an important metaphor for understanding the importance of representation. Dr. Tatum urged us to ensure that every student shows up regularly in the class picture and in showing up we need to make sure that our students look good in that picture. We are the adults and it is our responsibility. These events in Charlottesville are an opportunity to remind our students of color that their lives matter in the classroom.

There is no alternative and I have great faith in your capacity for empathy and compassion. Time to activate that power.

Gabriel McCormick
Teacher, Teacher of Teachers, Administrator


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