From ACSA Leadership Magazine, November/December 2018
“You speak English pretty good! You don’t even have an accent!”
This was said to me.
I am a 45 year old man, 43 of those years spent in America. I have a doctorate degree and have worked in public schools for the last 24 years as a teacher and school administrator.
And what if I had an accent or had difficulty understanding English? My father, a naturalized American citizen, was belittled and harassed by a US Customs agent at the San Francisco International Airport for not understanding a regulatory question that was muttered to him. He was returning from a trip overseas this past summer and recalls feeling humiliated and disrespected.
This happens all the time in our society and I am grateful that I’ve only experienced a more mild form of prejudice and intolerance. We’ve all seen and read the recent headlines of heinous crimes against people of color. Unfortunately, the ugly truth is that the numbers of hate crimes have increased for four straight years since 2014 according to the FBI. However, you don’t need to be a victim of a hate crime to be affected by the current climate in America. Prejudice takes a toll, a psychological toll on its victims and it impacts all of us in schools. Our colleagues. Our communities. Our kids.
The good news is that we can do something about this in our schools. If there’s any place in America where we can create change for a better society, it’s our schools. So, what are things that we can do in schools to combat racial prejudice and promote understanding in a multicultural society?
First, we need to start with us educators.
Ask a colleague of color if they have ever experienced prejudice or racism. If they say they haven’t, then ask them if they’ve ever felt out of place in any setting because of their race or ethnicity. Try to understand and just listen. It may take a while to build that trust but, in the end, it will build a bridge. Once you build that bridge, you can start having conversations about how to make your school and district a safe place for all people. What if you don’t have many colleagues of color?
Diversify your district. This one’s for human resources and district leadership. Hire qualified people of color. If your district is comprised mainly of white educators, then it is imperative that you search for educators who have different experiences and backgrounds. It will benefit your school, district, and community on many levels. Your school community will benefit from different perspectives on programs and policies. In the end, your students, whatever their race or ethnicity, will benefit from seeing a person of color as their teacher or principal. It not only prepares them for the real world but allows them to have positive experiences with other people outside of their own culture.
Check your bias. We all have bias- whether it’s conscious or unconscious. It’s good to reflect and explore how this impacts us as educators and what we can do to minimize the negative impacts of our own prejudices in our classrooms and schools. You’ll be surprised to how much unconscious thought impacts your actions. There are many resources and programs to help districts navigate this issue.
Immerse yourself in the community. Most of our staff at Barrett Ranch do not live in the neighborhood of our school. However, it is important that we know and understand our school community so we plan events in the neighborhood- school meetings in the community library, fundraisers at local restaurants. What if you extend that reach even further? You can shop the local businesses. Go to the barbershop. Go to the grocery store. Even if you don’t see any students or parents in the neighborhood, you’ll already have a better understanding of who they are by experiencing a little of their world outside of school. And, if by chance you meet some of your school community, you will start to build a connection and trust that will only add value to the work you do in school.
Travel. If you can, pack your bags and go some to a foreign land. I don’t mean go to Cancun and hang out by the pool for a week drinking margaritas. I mean immerse yourself in a new culture. Meet the people, eat the food, try to negotiate the subtleties of the culture, and learn some of the language. Experience how disorienting, scary, and frustrating it can be for an outsider. If there’s any take-away from your experience abroad, it will give you a small sense of empathy for your students and families who are experiencing the same thing in your school.
If you can’t travel the world, explore different cultures through art, food, and entertainment. Visit an Asian or African art museum in a large city near you. Make reservations at a Vietnamese restaurant. Watch a foreign movie or read an international book. The bottom line is that you are opening yourself up to a different perspective that can help you understand the world and your school community a little better.
What about the parents and students?
Assure the parents and kids of color that they are valued and respected. Make it clear to the entire community that you value diversity and everyone is welcome in your school and district. However, saying it is not enough. Do things. Put on a World Fair to showcase the diversity in your school. Bring in parents of color for Career Day. Encourage them to volunteer in your classrooms. Engage with them at pick up and drop off. Sometimes a smile or a welcoming handshake can make a huge difference.
Be sensitive. Understand that parents and kids of color may be experiencing prejudice and intolerance in their daily lives. There is psychological toll that can be detrimental if one is constantly worried about being deported or constantly perceived to be a threat. Feeling like you don’t have a place in society or in a school can be painful. School should be the one place that is a safe haven for all families.
Don’t make assumptions. We use to have our English Learners parent meetings at the same time as our Title I (Free and Reduced Lunch) meetings. That stopped when we realized how offensive that was. We can’t make assumptions about our families of color. Learn about the families and kids and really get to know them. Their stories are different and complex and it takes effort to really get to know our families beyond generalizations.
Teach tolerance and empathy. The greatest gifts we can give our kids are the skills and ability to thrive in a multicultural society. They’ll have a better chance of being successful if they start learning about other perspectives from an early age. Ensure that classrooms and school libraries have books that reflect a diversity representative of not only your school community but the world. Demand that curriculum is inclusive and perspectives represented in social studies, art, and literature. Plan for kids to work together as a community and promote shared values such as respect, kindness, and courage. Include families in this work. Read books like Sara Ahmed’s, Being the Change, and work with students on lessons centered on social comprehension and empathy.
Whether it is combating unconscious bias or hate, we don’t have a chance of changing the world for the better if we don’t address it in our schools. In fact, doing it in schools gives us the best chance of success. We owe it to our communities to do a better job. We owe it to ourselves, our colleagues, our community, and most importantly, our kids.
Don Vu is the principal of Barrett Ranch Elementary School in the Dry Creek Joint Elementary School District in Northern California. His school is the recipient of the 2018 Exemplary Reading Program Award from the International Literacy Association and the 2017 Celebrate Literacy Award from the California Reading Association and the Placer Area Reading Council.
Don has been an educator for about 24 years. He believes that school is where the seeds are sown in building a better America.