White teachers who take the time to know their Black students as individuals can foster a feeling of belonging that students need.
This past year of protests calling attention to systemic racism and police brutality has no doubt impacted our students, inviting conversations on the experiences of Black students within our classrooms. Many White teachers have been examining the ways in which they can make their classroom environments more welcoming and inclusive to Black students. To bring justice to the center of our work, White teachers can implement strategies to ensure that their spaces allow for Black children to feel seen, valued, and heard. In doing so, White teachers are fostering a learning environment where Black identity is affirmed, creating a culture of care and concern that fosters a sense of belonging.
5 WAYS TO HELP BLACK STUDENTS FEEL WELCOME
1. Pronounce the names of your students correctly. Names are a part of one’s story, cultural heritage, and family history. Honor the identity of your students by genuinely making an effort to pronounce their names. Do not abbreviate or simplify their names. Instead, let them know they matter by getting their names right. If you are unsure, ask the student how they pronounce their name, and you can spell it out phonetically in order to help the class also get it right. Keep trying until you have it down confidently, and ask the student to correct you if need be. These models for the class that it’s OK to make mistakes and shows the importance of using mistakes as learning opportunities to improve.
2. Get to know the Black children in your class. Black children are not a monolith. Through knowing your students as individuals, you can celebrate what they bring to the classroom. Also, be careful not to call them by the name of another Black student in the class. Many students as young as first grade speak to the experience of being called the name of another Black student in their class. This is harmful and traumatic. It sends a message that you do not know who your students are and that you do not value who they are as individuals in your classroom.
3. Present Black history and culture in ways that are affirming—not from a deficit model. When you speak about the Black experience, do not start those conversations from a place of struggle or pain. Black children need to see images and stories of Black joy. The world is heavy enough. Their experiences in school should be where they are affirmed and celebrated, from the stories they read to the images that are placed in the classroom.
4. Present diversity within the Black aesthetic. Often, when Blackness is shown, it prioritizes Whiteness, and students who are darker in skin color are on the periphery. Find images of people that span the Black diaspora and feature dark skin, textured hair, braids, and other styles. This is so important to fostering a healthy sense of identity where all Black students can see themselves represented throughout the classroom and not tokenized.
5. Do not make the Black students be spokespeople for the Black community. When teaching to all the students, do not signal a Black student out to comment or put them on the spot to ask them their feelings and thoughts about issues affecting the Black community. Sensitive historical events, such as enslavement, Jim Crow, and the civil rights movement, and current events, such as the Crown Act, voter suppression, and the murder of George Floyd, will have an impact on your Black students, and it’s important that they not be burdened in the classroom to offer their perspective. Black students are already processing these events and what they mean for them as they navigate their Black identity in the racialized world, a task that is incredibly complex. Creating classroom spaces free of the burden of representation places Black students where they will not just survive but thrive.
One of the most important things White educators can do is de-center themselves as they work to bring meaningful change to their classrooms and teaching practices. Acknowledge that there is work still to be done around racial justice and equity, and commit to doing the work. This work cannot begin from a place of defensiveness or exceptionalism, separating who we are from a system that we have all been socialized to participate in. Instead, recognize that you still have learning and growing to do, and share this with your students. This will serve as a model of what it means to be a lifelong learner, as well as how it is incumbent upon all of us, but especially White people, including teachers, to be engaged in the work of challenging systemic racism and anti-Blackness.
Prioritizing and implementing these strategies into action are essential to creating a welcoming environment for Black students. These actionable steps cultivate a culture of care and concern where Black students know that they are affirmed and valued, regardless of the messages they receive outside of school.
By Ralinda Watts