Voices in Education

Prioritizing Empathy and Anti-Racism in Schools

  • SHARE:

Will we as educators blaze a new trail or continue on the paths of injustice? An open letter to my colleagues.

Dear Fellow Educators,

I don’t have to tell you, the demands on us are great. We juggle planning and grading; we strive for our students to show academic growth; and perhaps, most importantly, we push ourselves to create inclusive classrooms where our students can do more than become just founts of knowledge -- spaces where they can grow in empathy and compassion towards one another. At times, these lofty aspirations can feel daunting. But I wholeheartedly believe that if we truly want to see a better, more just world, the work begins now -- and with the children that we teach each and every day in our classrooms. After all, they’ll eventually be the citizens, artists, innovators, and policy makers of tomorrow. So we must ask: will we be complacent and let them continue down the current paths of injustice we see within our country or will we empower them to blaze new trails of growth, healing and justice? 

How do we start on a new path?
Such a goal, or even moral responsibility begs many questions, mainly: How can it be done? 

The reality is that the work of promoting empathy and tolerance begins the moment we, ourselves, are ready to face it and tackle it with as much passion as we put towards improving their scholarship. It starts when we as educators are willing to lean into the difficulty and discomfort of social teaching and embrace the complexities that surround topics like race, equity and social justice in 2020. Children need far more than academic prowess to succeed in the world. It’s our job to help them navigate social situations and to dismantle the systems that make it difficult for students to understand and show love and respect towards one another.

Accept implicit bias to create change 
First and foremost, before we can confront intolerance with children, we must confront it within ourselves. For me, being a member of the LGBTQIA community and in an interracial marriage, I believed that I completely understood the challenges of being a member of a marginalized group and that I wasn’t capable of subscribing to painful stereotypes. This thinking stayed the same until I began participating in training with my colleagues where I listened to the experiences of other educators, and even shared my own. It’s imperative that we learn from one another, collaborate on solutions, and most importantly, take the time to engage in necessary conversations around racism and the inequities that exist in America’s education system. I now accept and better understand implicit bias because, whether we like it or not, we live in a world that feeds us harmful and often dehumanizing ideas and generalizations about specific groups. So we must recognize and dismantle our own unconscious biases because they affect our perceptions of our students. Dismantling these falsehoods (or at least noticing that they exist and working towards undoing them) gives us the ability to break down the cycles and systems that discriminate against and oppress many of our students.

Normalize diversity to thrive in a multicultural world
After beginning the work within myself and accessing valuable resources, I spent much of this past school year with the notion that we cannot simply celebrate diversity, but we must also normalize it. Normalization for children helps them grow into adults who accept and thrive in a vibrant, multicultural world rather than fear it or resist it. We can hope that children who are taught how to be open-minded, collaborative, and accepting become adults who possess these same characteristics. When multiculturalism is recognized and prioritized in our classrooms during children’s most formative educational years, naturally the ability for them to empathize and practice anti-racism is done sooner than later in their lives. It’s unacceptable for college or the workplace to be the first space where a person faces, learns about and works alongside someone of a different race, sexuality or belief system. 

Change thinking and remove ingrained systems
Making the commitment towards equity and anti-racism at school involves a shift in thinking, changes in practice and removing policies and systems that create barriers. Our journey is one of continual growth, learning and improvement. As a first step, we can actively diversify our storybooks, read-aloud texts, and canons of literature to reveal the lives of Asian, Black, Indigenous, LGBTQ, Jewish, Latinx and Muslim characters. We can acknowledge annual holidays outside of the Christian tradition. And we can evolve our teaching practice to include digging into (rather than avoiding) open conversations when we witness bullying and microaggressions; validating the opinions and emotions of students when they experience both the joys and trials of their individuality; participating in different alliances and student unions for the students that don’t feel represented within the school community at large; talking to our students and families about their school experiences; communicating with school administrators about improving school policies around equity and providing teachers opportunities for continued professional growth and learning.

Expand diversity learning throughout the year 
The best part of this work is that it’s not “seasonal,” but rather all-encompassing. Specifically, the teaching of Black history must not start and end in the month of February and should not be limited to the topics of slavery and the Civil Rights Movement, just as Asian, Latinx, or LGBTQ history is not linked to an isolated month of the year or to one notable individual within that specific culture. Further, the best education around these cultures highlights the historical obstacles, but more importantly, the joys and triumphs too. Similarly, it doesn’t have to exist apart from your academics as a separate entity -- it can be intentionally woven into your academic lessons to both supplement and enrich them. Always consider and offer your students alternatives to the prevailing, dominant narrative because this is often the white narrative which sometimes carries incorrect notions of supremacy that are tied to systemic racism. 

To achieve equitable systems in the world, start in the classroom
With all of this in mind, I accept and do this work the best that I can and with as much energy and fidelity as I can bring given the highs and lows of a typical school year. Even with the challenges, I would argue that if we want equitable systems in the world, we must create equitable systems and conditions in our classrooms first. Intentionally becoming a better model, initiating more anti-racist interaction, and creating room for all of your students to bring something personal and valuable to the table are easy ways to get the changes started. We must accept that we as teachers are agents of change in the minds of students, parents, colleagues and the community. I’ve seen how even a small shift in our practices can make a monumental difference. We as teachers must own our impact, embrace this work and break away from the systems that diminish the diverse students we serve. With that power, I invite you to join me so that we can know better, be better and do better by all of our students together.

Nicholas Manning

Nicholas Manning Educator, Writer and Illustrator Instagram: @iteachpgh

Nicholas Manning is an educator, writer, and illustrator based in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.  Nicholas received his Bachelor of Arts degree in English from Saint Vincent College, and he is certified in the subject areas of English, social studies, and visual art.  Over the last decade, Nicholas has taught within the public and private sectors, illustrated two children's books, and advocated for both creative and equitable learning experiences for his students.

Join the PBS Teachers Community

Stay up to date on the latest blog posts, content, tools, and more from PBS Education!