Truth For Teachers – 4 practices to disrupt white supremacy culture in the classroom

Truth For Teachers – 4 practices to disrupt white supremacy culture in the classroom

Perhaps you have read Dismantling Racism’s list of characteristics of white supremacy culture authored by Kenneth Jones and Tema Okun in 1999 or read the May 2021 update from Okun.

I first encountered their work through training in my district, and once I did, I saw the traits everywhere, even in the most seemingly benign actions.

These traits not only do potential harm to students, but they also harm anyone upholding them.

Since white supremacy culture is the air we breathe, this harm is often unintentional. This list offers language to name each mote and molecule as they enter our lungs. If white supremacy culture can be named, then it can be seen, and if it can be seen then it can be disrupted.

Graphic above provides an overview of the characteristics we wish to interograte, and is from the article What happened when my school began to dismantle white supremacy culture

Graphic above shows alternatives mindsets and approaches from Lydia Hooper’s article Using data storytelling to disrupt white supremacy culture

Disrupt White Supremacy Culture in the Classroom with These Four Practices

Before we discuss how we can name and disrupt white supremacy culture in schools, Okun offers a word of warning about weaponizing these traits against others–or yourself.

The list is meant to guide reflection for the sake of continual learning and growth. It’s not a checklist to prove goodness or badness (this type of reading would actually be a form of white supremacy culture, as you’ll see below).

As you read, check-in with yourself. Are you learning? Are you finding possible next steps in your journey?

If you find yourself wavering into fight, flight, or freeze responses, take a breath. Regroup, come back to the purpose of learning, and find your next steps.

I will not go in-depth on defining the concepts of white supremacy culture as listed, as a foundational read of the text from the authors is at your disposal. My aim is to amplify their work, not replace it.

1. Manage Your Mind.

White Supremacy Culture Traits Disrupted

  • Fear
  • Defensiveness
  • Denial
  • Right to Comfort
  • Fear of Open Conflict

The root of all white supremacy culture traits is fear and its emotional cousins. The rest of the recommendations are working to disrupt different manifestations of fear, so noticing and managing fear is the first step.

The part of the Human Systems Negative Emotion Wheel shown below offers some granularity for emotions that you may be more likely to feel but are technically rooted in fear. These emotions are closely aligned with the traits listed above.

Fear is a natural human emotion. It’s the way in which we sometimes act in response to fear that can perpetuate white supremacy culture.

Essential Questions

  • What emotion is driving this thought or action?
  • What’s the best that could happen, and how can I plan for that?
  • What are the facts? What am I making those facts mean?
  • What can I actually control?

Thoughts and Actions

To manage your mind:

  1. Notice when you are feeling afraid.
  2. Name the thought that is causing that emotion.
  3. Instead of taking action from that thought, practice a thought that helps you feel loving, confident, excited, accepted, or interested and take action from that thought instead.

Here are a variety of examples that I have experienced or heard of from other teachers.

Curriculum

I am feeling anxious.

I keep thinking, “If I don’t keep pace, I will get in trouble with my principal and colleagues.”

I take actions like teaching the curriculum on pace no matter how students are doing on formative assessments.

Instead, I will practice thinking, “Time constraints help me be more creative and selective,” to feel accepted.

I take actions like working with my principal and colleagues on prioritizing and de-prioritizing curricular elements so that I know where and how to spend instructional time.

Instruction

I am feeling nervous.

I keep thinking, “It gets too loud when the students talk to each other and then I lose control and nobody learns anything.”

I take actions like making them work independently in absolute silence.

Instead, I will practice thinking, “Learning is messy and sometimes loud,” to feel loving.

I take actions like plan productive conversations and teach students how to keep themselves on task.

Student Support

I am feeling overwhelmed.

I keep thinking, “This student has so many needs to address right now: mental health, attendance, behavior, reading–all of it.”

I take actions like recommending this student for a lot of simultaneous interventions.

Instead, I will practice thinking, “I wonder what’s working for this student and what this student needs next,” to feel interested.

I take actions like talking with the student about their strengths and successes and then work with the student (and their family) to choose a high-quality intervention that meets what they see as their most pressing need.

Grading

I am feeling powerless.

I keep thinking, “If I don’t grade it, the students won’t do it.”

I take actions like grading everything, spending my nights and weekends getting it done.

Instead, I will practice thinking, “I choose to capture learning, not compliance,” to feel confident.

I take actions like grading only what’s important.

Materials

I am feeling insecure.

I keep thinking, “I don’t have the materials I need to do my job well, and then some students don’t take care of what little we do have.”

I take actions like upholding strict rules to preserve our materials.

Instead, I will practice thinking, “I am thankful for what we do have and excited to see how our community will meet our need for more,” to feel excited.

I take actions like teaching students how to care for our materials and how to conduct a classroom fundraiser.

Caveat: this mind management doesn’t mean that your initial feelings or thoughts are invalid, though there is a difference between the facts and what we make them mean.

Accepting reality is necessary, but working with reality from a positive emotion feels better (and generally leads to better outcomes) than fighting with reality using desperate or apathetic measures.

Furthermore, reacting from afraid emotions can lead to the daily thoughts and actions of white supremacy culture.

2. Cultivate a Learning-Centered Classroom.

White Supremacy Culture Traits Disrupted

  • Perfectionism
  • One Right Way
  • Objectivity
  • Either/or and the Binary
  • Worship of the Written Word

Essential Questions

  • How much of our work and talk is about learning?
  • How will the next day’s lesson be impacted by what students did today?
  • How are multiple perspectives encouraged and sought?
  • How much am I learning as a teacher every day?
  • Which learning pathways have been privileged and included as “normal”? What else is possible?
  • How are mistakes treated in the classroom?

Thoughts

  • We are here to learn.
  • There is a multitude of viable learning paths to lead to the same understanding.
  • Mistakes are some of our best teachers.
  • Learning from differences is a golden opportunity.

Actions

  • Plan the bulk of instructional minutes for learning (rather than performing/showing what is already known).
  • Use formative assessments to guide the next day.
  • Prioritize evidence of learning in the grade book (for more ideas, check out this podcast episode/article).
  • Try a variety of supports for students and learn from them what they need.
  • Use a variety of learning spaces (e.g. online, flexible seating, community resources, etc.).
  • Cluster student desks in groups/partners for frequent discussion opportunities.
  • Use the problem-solving guide mentioned in this podcast episode/article on classroom meetings to help students learn and practice necessary behaviors.
  • Engage in Professional Learning Communities (PLCs) that emphasize teachers learning together.

3. Share Power.

White Supremacy Culture Traits Disrupted

  • Individualism
  • I’m the Only One
  • Power Hoarding
  • Paternalism
  • Qualified

Essential Questions

  • How much is the class dependent on my orchestration?
  • Where have my preferences and experiences been centered in the classroom and treated as the majority?
  • To what extent do I collaborate equally with students, families, teachers, and administrators?
  • Do I ever find myself thinking that I am the martyr, superhero, or savior of my students?

Thoughts

  • There is a wide network of people who care about the students in my class.
  • It can be fun and enlightening to do things in ways I never considered before.
  • I share the responsibility of my students’ success with lots of people, including the students themselves.
  • Every student teaches me about teaching.
  • Working with others enriches the experience of the students in my class.
  • Every teacher is someone’s favorite teacher.

Actions

  • Include students in classroom decision-making, including curriculum, instruction, assessment, spaces, and management (classroom meetings are a good place to conduct these conversations).
  • Approach supports as acts of inclusion. Especially as students age, they should have some agency in the types of supports they experience. Consider supports that students can opt into. If they turn you down, listen to the student. Generate meaningful supports together.
  • Allow students to select their best work to be graded. For more ideas, check out this podcast episode/article.
  • Plan with a colleague and/or an aligned curriculum. Be willing to try someone else’s ideas in order to counteract your own biases and preferences.
  • Set up a self-running classroom (Angela Watson’s module in the 40-Hour Teacher Workweek is great for this).
  • On issues that are creating problems, create a range of acceptability and let the rest go. For example, I pick a couple of grammar issues that I will comment on for an assignment. The rest are for another day.
  • Be willing to admit when you need help and then ask for it.

4. Protect Time for the Right Work.

White Supremacy Culture Traits Disrupted

  • Progress is Bigger/More
  • Quantity over Quality
  • Urgency

Essential Questions

  • What’s the rush?
  • What really matters?
  • How much is enough?

Thoughts

  • “There is always enough time for the right work.” (from adrienne maree brown’s  Emergent Strategy)
  • There is no hurry.
  • Deadlines are arbitrary.
  • Time is a construct.
  • Fewer things, better. (Check out Angela’s podcast or book with this title.)
  • Done is better than perfect. (This may seem counterintuitive–that finishing lots of imperfect things leads to quantity, but there is a law of diminishing returns on taking forever to finish something. Rushing or procrastinating are fighting with time. Accepting the limitations of time and moving on is not).

Actions

  • When possible, reduce the curriculum using a priority pacing guide, adding back as time/necessity dictate.
  • Use routines. Stick to consistent blocks that build over many days (e.g. read-discuss-write every class period. This is the bulk of my work building literacy-rich classrooms across the content areas).
  • Use sponge activities so that no student feels too rushed to finish a task. For example, I typically start a class period with 10 minutes of independent reading. On the days I want students to read something silently, I give them 20 minutes to complete a short common class reading and then transition to their independent reading book.
  • Grade what students did finish in a certain amount of time with no punishment for what they didn’t complete. Hint: put whatever’s most important at the start of the assignment.
  • Use timers to help students learn about managing time, not to force students to hurry.
  • Set grading deadlines a week or two before your grades are due to the school to create space for both you and your students.
  • Grade as few items as you can. Check out this article from Angela.
  • Teach fewer texts and/or fewer concepts. If you think students will get bored (a fear worth challenging), use variety in the instructional strategies. This makes space for multiple learning pathways instead of doing a ton of things one time in one way.
  • Try a few supports for a student for a few weeks before abandoning them to try something else. Check out this podcast episode “To Solve for All Kids, Start with One.”
  • Focus PLCs on the most important work. Check out this article on effective data meetings.
  • Declutter the classroom to amplify what’s left. Check out this podcast from Angela.

Next steps

If you’ve read this post and want to get started with disrupting white supremacy culture by managing your mind, cultivating a learning-centered classroom, sharing power, and taking time to do the right work, I’m so glad you’re here.

Start with my free resource. You’ll find a self-assessment to help you learn about yourself and take your next steps. There is a planning sheet to support your journey with any of the four practices for disrupting white supremacy culture. By approaching this work with emotional management, deliberately seeking to learn and act, you can sustain it over a lifetime.

Download it here.