There is no profession or vocation more noble, more powerful, or of greater influence than teaching. Teachers are crucial in the development of youth and the advancement of the society in which we all live. Teachers are critical in laying the foundation that enable youth to feel like they belong and envision a bright future where their hopes and dreams can be realized.
Regardless of your pedigree or where you reside, a teacher’s influence cannot be overestimated. The impact of what they say and do is not limited to the confines of the school building or classroom walls. Their actions and attitudes have the power to build or butcher student confidence and self-esteem, and mold or mutilate how they view their peers, particularly those who are racially or ethnically diverse. Teachers help determine how students treat themselves and others, and shape or shatter the values, norms, and advancement of a just society.
With great power comes great responsibility: We must teach with grace.
The Role and Impact of Teachers
Many children spend more time in school than at home or with other adults. By default, teachers often become the much needed support system that is lacking elsewhere in the life of students. In addition to their job as “educator,” teachers also become the nurse, counselor, confidant, and sometimes the surrogate parent. Many also become the racial role model to which their students aspire; but the type of role model depends on the teacher and the idiosyncratic qualities they evoke.
Here’s the reality: teachers are as racially biased as everybody else. According to the authors of “Teachers Are People Too: Examining the Racial Bias of Teachers Compared to Other American Adults”—a study by researchers from Tufts and Princeton—“teachers’ bias levels are quite similar to those of the larger population. These findings challenge the notion that teachers might be uniquely equipped to instill positive racial attitudes in children or bring about racial justice, instead indicating that teachers need just as much support in contending with their biases as the population at large.” Since race and racism are unavoidable aspects of life, teachers, whether they realize it or not, will help or hinder the ability of their students to effectively function in a racially diverse world.
Teaching With Grace
Most would agree that the greatest teachers view teaching as more than a job. The greatest teachers are just as passionate about their content as they are about the students in their care. They give their personal time to attend games, extracurricular activities, and other events of interest to their students. They put every effort into making sure students master the content. Many often spend their own money to make sure that students have what’s needed to succeed academically, socially, and emotionally.
At the heart of such great teaching is grace, a form of spirituality that exudes respect, compassion, and empathy for others. It’s a form of personal sacrifice that touches students in a way that makes them believe they belong and are valued no matter what others say or do. Teachers with grace appear to effortlessly challenge the status quo and serve as catalysts for change in their classrooms—ultimately transforming the world beyond their four walls.
A graceful teacher will go beyond teaching the curriculum, realizing it is their personal responsibility to transform their classroom into a safe space where they model for all students the skills of being compassionate and empathetic to others, and where they make sure all students feel a sense of belonging. A graceful teacher intentionally seeks out opportunities to learn and reflect on the roots of racism, their own racial identity, their power and privilege, and their explicit and implicit biases. A graceful teacher recognizes how their race and privilege influences their worldview and interactions with people of different races. A graceful teacher continuously models fairness and respect, and helps students internalize these same moral virtues.
Gracious teachers don’t just teach fact and fiction; they also teach right and wrong. This is a moral imperative; if students don’t possess grace, they won’t strive for racial equity. Then the next generation, as those who came before, is doomed to maintain the status quo of racial trauma instead of upending it in favor of racial justice.
Racial Trauma: An Insidious Part of the School Experience
The violence we see outside school is emblematic of the racial trauma found within: a type of violence that is often overlooked in education, but shouldn’t be. It takes on different forms: the name of the school building; the school mascot; the lessons taught, the unaddressed racial tensions and daily micro-aggressions between students and teachers; and the curriculum, especially when “teaching” the whitewashed version of history instead of the complicated, nuanced, and true version.
Take for example, my brother, who was the only Black student in his class: he was asked to lay on the floor with his white classmates to simulate the horrors of the Middle Passage—the sea journey undertaken by slave ships. Students densely packed themselves as close as possible on the cold cement floor as they listened in the dark to the teacher’s dramatic reading from The Amistad. Meanwhile, creepy mood music played in the background, which simulated the shrieks and groans from beneath the bowels of the vessel. Many of my brother’s temporary fellow captives found the simulation of the forced voyage across the Atlantic comical. Thus, mocking the inconceivable horrors of over three centuries of slavery endured by our ancestors.
A few years earlier, my youngest brother—again, the only Black student in his class—was required to participate in a reenactment of a slavery auction block by standing on a box in front of the entire class so his white peers could scrutinize and bid on him. These “lessons” are the epitome of racism and uphold the racist ideology that lead to the creation of chattel slavery in the first place. Decades later, teachers are still under the misguided belief that inflicting such racial trauma on Black students with these heinous mock auctions and simulations are great lessons. The only lessons learned and reinforced are that Black and Brown lives have never mattered in school.
Only a teacher without grace accepts this as truth.
The (Many) Other Forms of Racial Trauma in School
Racial trauma is not hard to find in schools across America.
It’s the invalidation of Native lives with the inaccurate retelling of the mythical story of Thanksgiving; it’s the cross-cultural feast between the peaceful “Indians” (rarely named as the Wampanoag Nation) and the colonizers, a.k.a. Pilgrims. But the Wampanoags are just one of many tribes living in the Northeast. Why does this truth matter? Because Native Americans are not a monolith. Whatever really happened in 1620 had nothing to do with the Birch Creek Tribe of Alaska, the Crow Tribe of Montana, the Kaw Nation of Oklahoma, the Beaver Creek Indians of South Carolina, or the hundreds of other tribal nations in the United States. By ignoring these nuances, we maintain the status quo and deny the complex and rich histories of the first Americans.
It’s students and their adult role models who before, during, and after an athletic event engage in a racist ritual of perpetuating stereotypes by emulating their racist school mascot, painting their faces and bodies red, applying warpaint, adorning themselves in headdresses, waving tomahawks, and running around aimlessly while mimicking war chants. This is more than just historically inaccurate; it also perpetuates school-sanctioned racism.
The above is not just a theoretical example. Sisters Emily and Caroline Joyner shared their story of growing up in Southborough, Massachusetts, an affluent, predominately white suburban community that boasts of great schools. On their blog, they write: “Our education in Southborough did not help our town’s ‘unconscious’ racism. While very well-funded, the town’s school system actively erases narratives of Black, Indigenous, and other people of color. At the elementary school, fifth-graders still celebrate ‘Colonial Day,’ donning white colonial garb and yelling, ‘the British are coming!’ Our high school, Algonquin Regional High School in the nearby Northborough, Massachusetts, had a tomahawk as its mascot, perpetuating negative and hurtful stereotypes of Indigenous people. We never learned about the history of the Algonquin people, yet we were encouraged, in the name of school spirit, to wear inappropriate war paint and headdresses and repeat demeaning racist chants.”
How are Black and Brown children expected to thrive when schools habitually reject their full humanity? What are the lessons learned for White students when teachers and administrators give license to glorify the sins of white supremacy? Where is the grace?
Teaching (Real) History With Grace
Condemning racist acts outside the classroom while being silent about the racist acts within the school and the classroom is hypocritical and complicit. Educators need to lead by critically examining their materials, practices, traditions, teaching methods, and, yes, their personal beliefs of what they really feel about their students, the communities they come from, and the diverse histories they represent. Teachers have a direct role in fulfilling the promise that all children deserve to have a high-quality public education that transitions them from the cradle to college, careers, and citizenship, and not the school-to-prison pipeline.
There is no grace in the pedagogy of denial. The whitewashing and erasure of people and events in our nation’s history is dangerous. When teachers fail to teach all of history—even and perhaps especially the hard parts—we doom our students to grow up uninformed and unable to fight back against the status quo. Nothing positive has come from the failure of educators to teach the legacy of real U.S. history, which starts with the brutal colonization of Indigenous lands, the genocide of Indigenous people, and the enduring effects of the savage brutality of chattel slavery. These failures greatly contribute to the ignorance, intolerance, bigotry, implicit and explicit biases, and even murder that permeates every aspect of our lives.
Grace is when teachers acknowledge that they have no control over who wrote the history they are expected to teach, but also recognize that they have a moral obligation to teach honestly and inclusively. Teaching with grace means confronting the burden of our nation’s past and routinely providing opportunities for all students to scrutinize history, the perspectives included, the perspectives omitted, and why.
A Final Thought
I am a Black woman and I live in Massachusetts. Like the Joyner sisters, I also attended school in a predominately White and affluent community that is recognized for its great school system. Though I graduated several decades ago, much of what the Joyner sisters experienced and shared in their blog mirrors my own experiences. They wrote that it came as no surprise to them when they learned two of their high school peers were directly involved in two different racially-charged events: Devin Brosnan, a white officer involved in Rayshard Brooks’ murder on June 12, 2020; and Matt Colliogan, a white supremacist who was identified in the infamous torchlight tiki rally photograph at Charlottesville in 2017. The spoken and unspoken curriculum has real impact that travels with students far beyond the classroom into the world outside.
We need graceful teachers who know that what is taught and how it is taught can motivate (or not); it can awaken a student’s goals and interests (or not); it can help determine a student’s pathway (or lack thereof) to college, a career, or citizenship in and beyond their communities.
We need graceful teachers who also want to address racial injustice. Teachers who want to join the fight for racial justice and realize that the spoken and unspoken curriculum and daily lessons become the blueprint for how students navigate the world.
When we teach, we must remember to do so with grace.