To Fight Institutional Racism, Teachers Are Going Back to School


The teachers came from every New York City borough and from places as far-flung as Oregon and Washington, D.C. They were milling around a classroom at Columbia University’s Teachers College when facilitator Natalia Ortiz projected a sentence onto the board and instructed them to fill in the blank.

“When I talk about race and racism…,” it read. After a moment of hesitation, the teachers jumped right in.

Noah Garcia, a teacher in Brooklyn’s District 15, leads professional development on race and equity at her school. She said she found it harder to talk to her white colleagues about race than with her students. For Hector Alvarez, assistant education director at Greater Brunswick Charter School in New Jersey, status as a native Spanish speaker complicates discussions about race — vocabulary commonly used to speak on the subject in his culture might be deemed offensive in the American context. Another educator said that her fellow white colleagues stopped being friendly to her after she tried to start conversations about race. “When you’re socially excluded, that will get you to shut up,” she said.

The group went on to discuss the definitions of institutional, interpersonal, and internalized racism and how they show up in classrooms: the ways teachers assign grades, what history lessons they teach and from whose perspective, who they call on to answer questions, how harshly they discipline different kids for the same behaviors — even the way teachers praise kids for a job well done.

The workshop was part of Teachers College’s four-day Reimagining Education Summer Institute, a conference organized in response to what Amy Stuart Wells, the conference’s lead organizer, calls the “systematic way our educational system has tried to ignore the central role of race and culture” in solving the ills of American schools. Diversity has been a hot-button issue for city schools ever since a 2014 report by researchers at UCLA’s Civil Rights Project determined that New York had the most racially segregated schools in the country. In June, Mayor Bill de Blasio announced the city’s long-awaited new diversity plan, which established modest goals aimed at making schools more racially and socioeconomically representative. But de Blasio’s initiative focused primarily on shuffling students among schools; it ignored teacher training altogether.

As a result, many teachers have set out to find training on their own. This is what drew the attendees to the conference, which featured workshops and talks led by education professors and researchers, anti-racism organizations, and teachers and parents. According to Sahba Rohani, director of community development at Brooklyn’s “diverse by design” Community Roots Charter School, if teachers aren’t engaged in conversations about their own experiences with race and power, they’re in no position to initiate them in the classroom — and that’s where conferences like the Reimagining Education Institute come in.

“If we are not in the practice of talking about our identity and experiences and unpacking it for ourselves, there’s no space for what that looks like in practice for an educator. You need to be able to give teachers time to talk but then say, ‘How does this connect to my practice? To the work I’m doing tomorrow in my classroom?’” said Rohani, who led a session at the conference.

For Deirdre Armitage, it was refreshing to see the ease with which teachers in the room were able to acknowledge the ways race shapes their classrooms. Armitage runs the student teaching program at the College of Staten Island, and her students — like most teachers nationwide — are predominantly white women. They come from middle- and working-class neighborhoods and most, she says, attended private schools for much of their lives. Yet the majority will go on to work in public schools on the island, teaching children of color. And when many of them step into Armitage’s classroom, they still subscribe to the myth of colorblindness.

“The most concerning thing is when [teachers] come into my class saying, ‘I don’t see race. I don’t see class. I see kids, and I’m going to treat all kids equally,’” said Armitage, who has studied the impact of race, gender, class, and sexual orientation on education for thirty years. “Well, we know that equal is not equitable. You do see those things, and we treat kids differently, whether it’s gender, race, or class. There’s all these subtle things you’re doing giving kids messages, and decades of messages tell kids things about themselves.”

Armitage, who grew up in West Brighton and attended public schools on Staten Island — as have all four of her children — requires that her candidates complete their student teaching and fieldwork in Title I public schools mostly on the north shore of the island, where the demographics are more racially and socioeconomically diverse than on the south shore. It’s a policy that has been met with some pushback from students: One claimed his father wouldn’t allow him to drive the family car into neighborhoods on the north shore, while another brought in a doctor’s note that said she “could not travel to the North Shore” — she wanted to complete her class requirements at a school closer to her home in a “better” neighborhood, according to Armitage.

“Once they spend time in the school they’re afraid of, they’re incredibly turned around and think, ‘Wow, this neighborhood is not what I grew up thinking it is,’” Armitage said. “Every time that happens, it makes me feel like, ‘OK. This is a first step.’” The next step, she says, is reining in any savior complexes, a phenomenon where well-intended white people behave as the authoritative last hope in the liberation of people of color, whom they treat as passive victims.

Armitage begins lessons on such topics as early-childhood pedagogy with discussions about how race, gender, and class have come to bear on the American educational system since its inception, from racist housing policies that shaped school zones and led to inequitable funding to the various times when access to education was withheld altogether from children of color. By the time students leave her class, they often request that other professors approach their subjects in the same manner.

It’s a conversation Armitage says is needed badly on Staten Island, New York’s whitest, most conservative borough, but one that is also home to many immigrants and people of color — and many schools that are racially and ethnically diverse.

“The stereotypical voters angry at the last eight years of Obama, they live here. They teach. This is a very real challenge we are facing. You have Blue Lives Matter [supporters] teaching kids of color,” said Armitage. “So you have this tension. My [students] ask about ‘All Lives Matter’ and I’m trying to explain this. It’s a tough climate, and that’s why this work is imperative.”

Anti-racism training can be difficult for those in less conservative parts of the city as well, says Laura Shmishkiss, co-director of Border Crossers. “The danger can be for people who think they’re ‘woke,’ when in fact we’re all perpetuating racism all the time,” she said. “We are interested in racial equity, which integration can possibly lead to but may not. We have to look at how we as individuals perpetuate these systems.”

Educators say they’re encouraged by the recent surge of interest in racial-literacy training. Border Crossers employs seven full-time staffers and sixty trainers working in New York and Dallas, and since 2014 they’ve trained thirteen thousand city teachers. Shmishkiss attributes the increased interest in part to the enhanced media coverage of violence against black people in recent years. “We have been getting calls from school systems saying, ‘We want to be able to talk about this with students and don’t know how,’” she said. “I think schools are starting to give it more attention.”

Border Crossers offers training that ranges from their flagship six-hour starter session, where teachers develop strategies to address instances of racism in their classrooms, to a customized cadre of repeat workshops on such topics as unconscious bias and racial-identity development. Experts say approaching racial-literacy training as an ongoing project is the way to go.

“This isn’t the type of learning that can be a one-off,” said Natasha Capers, coordinator for the New York City Coalition for Educational Justice (CEJ), a parent group that advocates for an end to school inequities. “You can’t learn everything you need to know about cultural competency in four easy sessions.”

While de Blasio’s Department of Education has yet to address diversity training for teachers, in February City Council Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito allocated over half a million dollars to bring a training program called the Critically Conscious Educators Rising Series to about 360 teachers in 180 schools. The program focuses on privilege, race, and class in schools. Additional funding was pledged to send about 250 new teachers to anti-racism training at Border Crossers.

But just a few weeks before the start of a new school year, Capers says, the money has yet to show up.

“City Hall is sitting on it,” she said. “So the question has to be raised if the mayor really believes in his diversity plan. This is where the rubber meets the road and you have to do the work.” Capers added that CEJ has reached out to the mayor’s office numerous times for an update and that the response was “crickets.” When asked whether the money had been disbursed to the Department of Education, Robin Levine, the Speaker’s communications director, said, “We are working with the administration and a number of organizations to move forward with this program.”

Meanwhile, educators work on the day-to-day challenges of trying to promote an open discussion of race and racism in a world where no one wants to admit to either. Ortiz, a former public school teacher and now a trainer and program manager with Border Crossers, says she often struggles to help teachers differentiate between doing something racist and being a racist — a distinction that can free educators to talk openly about their shortcomings.

“What happens is there’s this whole thing around ‘Oh my god, you called me a racist,’ this defensiveness,” Ortiz said. “For us, it’s less important who is and is not a racist. It’s whether you’re understanding how racism created a system that hurts, damages, and kills people, and how you have benefited from that system.”

In a different session later that week, that lesson unfolded in real time. Rohani led a group of about thirty through exercises designed to help them develop their own training to take back to their schools. One included watching a video by Jay Smooth, a DJ and blogger known for his cultural commentary, on how to tell someone they said something racist.

“The most important thing that you’ve got to do is remember the difference between the ‘what they did’ conversation and the ‘what they are’ conversation,” he says in the video. “The ‘what they did’ focuses strictly on the words and actions and explaining why what they did and said was unacceptable.” Talking about what someone is, he says, is a “rhetorical Bermuda Triangle” that ultimately lets people skirt responsibility for their actions.

Afterward, the group filled out identity maps, worksheets that participants complete with adjectives they use to describe who they are, in their own eyes. Lelia Spears, a pre-K and kindergarten teacher at Janney Elementary School in Washington, D.C., shared some of hers out loud. She’d come to the conference with a group of fellow teachers from Janney, in search of help designing anti-racism teacher training for their school, which is predominantly white. “One of the only places where kids are talking about race is on the playground,” Spears told me. “That’s the biggest reason why I was drawn to go.”

Included on the Georgia native’s identity map were “woman,” “mother,” and “Southern” — a tag she says she felt was intensified by her presence in New York City. Race politics in the North, she said, didn’t seem that much different from in the South. But watching Smooth’s video encouraged her to speak up. “Traveling through the South as a white person is different [for me] than for other people,” Spears told the group. Later, she told me that she’d initially reacted defensively to what she saw as a characterization of the South as, above all else, racist. But she quickly realized that image was rooted in centuries of history.

“Clearly there are places in other parts of America that have racism as well, but history is such a grounding force in racial literacy. I can be in New York and Atlanta, and both places have racism but it feels very different to people who have a different history [from my own] in those places,” she said.

It was a heavy moment. “That video helped me share that I experienced racial-literacy growth in that room,” Spears said. “My first thought was ‘I’m such a racist.’ Labeling it as something racist I said and can learn from was really helpful. [It] was a way to say, OK, I can separate something I did from something I am.” This distinction, experts like Ortiz, Smooth, and Rohani say, helps teachers work on identifying, taking responsibility for, and correcting racist behaviors that harm children, instead of getting stuck in arguments and anxiety over labels that don’t ultimately stop the harmful words and actions.

The city has a long way to go if it hopes to alleviate segregation, offer the same high-quality opportunities at every single school, and truly make schools open sanctuaries where all children see themselves reflected in their lessons, teachers, and peers. And, no doubt, part of the mission to give every kid a fair shot must include teacher training to help educators prepare for this future.

“We want to make sure all our students have the highest quality of education, but also the highest level of dignity and respect,” added Shmishkiss. “The more we’re able to provide training that can open consciousness, that over time does start to have a ripple effect. So this is where we’re starting.”