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Four Ways Teachers Can Support Students of Color


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Listen to my interview with Dena Simmons (or read the transcript):

The difference between teachers and their students has never been so stark. A recent report from the National Center for Education Statistics shows that since 2014, white students no longer make up the majority in American schools. Future projections show the white population shrinking to a smaller and smaller proportion of the whole, and the combined populations of of students from other ethnic groups increasing so that together, they make up a steadily growing majority.

By contrast, teachers in the U.S. are overwhelmingly white.

What this tells me is that the life experiences of most of the people in charge of our classrooms have been pretty different from the experiences of most of their students.

And that matters.

It matters because our work is not strictly academic. Not by a long shot. In order for our students to perform well academically, they need to feel safe, both physically and psychologically. They need to feel a sense of belonging. They need to feel seen and valued for who they are. For our students of color, finding this safe, accepting place is rare, especially if most of their teachers have a dramatically different background from their own. This problem can be even more pronounced for students of color who attend schools where their peers are also mostly white.

This does not mean that all white teachers are racists or that they are deliberately doing things to hurt their students of color. But what IS happening, far too often, is that teachers are doing things that harm these students’ self-perception without even realizing it.

Dena Simmons, the director of education at the Yale Center for Emotional Intelligence, understands this problem far too well.

In her 2015 TED talk, “How Students of Color Confront Impostor Syndrome,” she tells the story of how, as a young black girl, she left the Bronx neighborhood where she lived with her single mother and two sisters to attend a prestigious boarding school in Connecticut. Although she got an excellent education there and followed that up with a series of impressive academic and professional accomplishments, she always felt out of place, torn between the world she’d grown up in and her identity as an accomplished scholar. “Eternal impostor syndrome,” she calls it.

This struggle was made much harder by many of her teachers, in the things they said to her and the messages they sent, messages that basically told Dena that who she was was not okay.

Later in life Dena returned to the Bronx to teach middle school, and she was determined to create the kind of atmosphere she wished she’d had, one that values each student’s unique identity and history. In her TED talk, she gives us a glimpse of how that worked.

Now, we pick up where that TED talk left off, with some specific advice about what teachers can do to help their students of color not just survive, but thrive in the classroom, with a fully developed, strong sense of pride in who they are, where they came from, and what they’re capable of.

1. Teach Students of Color to Love Themselves

“There’s nothing more revolutionary than teaching our young people in general to love themselves,” Simmons says, “and particularly young people of color, because they don’t have to look too far to see negative images of themselves displayed throughout the media. We can teach our young people to love themselves by centering our instruction on their lives, their realities and their experiences, and using their lives as cultural reference to our instruction.”

Here are some things teachers can do to nurture this self-love and pride in their students:

2. Invite Families and Community Members to Become Partners in Educating Students

“When you partner with communities, when you partner with families,” Simmons explains, “students really internalize that they matter. They internalize that their communities matter, and they also begin to understand that they have a role in developing and engaging in their communities. What I learned when I had to leave the Bronx to go to boarding school was that the Bronx had nothing to offer me. How painful it was to think of the place that raised me, the place that I called home was actually not good. And so I had to spend some time reshifting and reframing how I thought about the Bronx, that the Bronx was something to return to as opposed to something to leave. And I think educators, in the process of seeing their communities and their families as assets, begin to shift from deficit-based mindset to an asset-based mindset.” 

3. Expose Students to Role Models of Color

Growing up, Simmons says most of the role models she saw in the media were white. “So in many ways, I would say implicitly I learned to favor whiteness. I learned to think that everything white was better … I think that is true for many people of color.” By making sure all of our students—not just students of color—are exposed to a variety of diverse role models, we help them broaden their own goals and see what’s possible for everyone. 

4. Disrupt the Single Narrative of Students of Color

“I think a lot of times when teachers go back home, and they talk to their friends, the stories they tell about their students only perpetuate the status quo, what it means to be a kid of color,” says Simmons. “These single narratives are perpetuated, and in many ways, I think are problematic because they’re incomplete, they flatten the wholeness of our students.” The concept of the single narrative is illustrated beautifully by Chimamanda Adichie in her TED talk, The Danger of a Single Story, which I strongly recommend you watch to fully understand this idea. 

We are all part of this conversation, with many of us only perpetuating the existing narrative about our students of color in the anecdotes we share about them. So how do we disrupt that? How do we work to change that narrative so society at large begins to see our students of color with more complexity, and so the students see themselves differently?

Small Changes Make a Difference

None of the actions outlined here are simple, and none of them offer a quick fix. But implementing them consistently, with the belief that this work is important, will make your classroom a place where students of color will flourish. 

You can find Dena Simmons on Twitter at @denasimmons. If you enjoyed her TED talk above, check out her other two, It’s 10pm. Do you know where your children are? and What to do if your student comes at you with scissors?

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  1. Tara Brown says:

    Thank you so much for this post! Great imformation! I appreciate everything you do to help our days go smoothly! Thank you for all your help and hard work!! 🙂

  2. Barbara Paciotti says:

    When I read “Teach Students of Color to Love Themselves” I remember the first time I complimented a student on her beautiful skin color–it was a rich mahogany that took my breath away. She grinned and said no one had ever said that to her before and I was amazed at that. From that day forward she always had a smile for me, yet this student wasn’t even in any of my classes. It taught me that we can teach students to be proud of their heritage, and we can also make them proud of what makes them unique in whatever way they are!

  3. I teach elementary instrumental music. As with all children, these affirmations you addressed really matter. Our children of color don’t hear/see them enough, as you posited. One of the most frequent gentle classroom suggestions I give my students is regarding eye contact: It matters, because it conveys self-awareness and respect for the person at whom we are looking to whom we are speaking or listening. I often say, “Look at me,” when I am speaking to a child about classwork or behavior or a new fingering. Thank you so much for this valuable reminder.

  4. This is a fabulous article, and I’d love to share it with our facilitators and coaches of Critical Friends Group work since we try to bring equity to the forefront in our work. Will you format this as a PDF that we can download and share, please?

    • Hi, Luci! This is Holly Burcham, a CoP Customer Experience Manager. At one point Jenn did have a PDF plug-in, but it just caused too many problems.
      We apologize, but the best we can do is have you click on the tiny printer under “What to Read Next.” Another window will open…a printable version of the post. Go into your browser menu to “print” (top right corner on Chrome), but choose the option to save as a PDF where it asks for the printer destination. Hope this helps!

  5. Darryl E. Reynolds says:

    Great article and actionable tips to raise awareness and remedy the challenges that we face in this area. I really loved her transparency in stating how she learned to think that everything white was better. Her transparency helped me to identify this flawed thinking in myself and to take actions to think differently. I also liked that she stated that this type of thinking is pervasive in most people of color. This article helped me immensely. Thank you to the author and Dena Simmons for sharing your views and perspectives.

  6. I teach at an international school in Panama and I found this podcast very helpful to me as I relate to my students. Thanks for this!

  7. Cari Higgins says:

    Can anyone recommend a book, other than To Kill A Mocking Bird?
    I have two Sudanese students in a predominantly white class. The stereotypes in that story bother me and it really bothers me that they are going to have to sit in a class that reads the story aloud and will experience the awkwardness of hearing the “n” word.
    I get that “it’s history.” But surely there’s a great non-fiction book out there that would help these young men feel proud instead of embarrassed.

    • Hi Cari! Thanks for writing in. I’m Holly, Customer Experience Manager, and I adore TKAM. Here are a few things that might help:

      First, last May, Jenn had people write in and suggest books to use in the classroom. You can see the list HERE and dig through to find something that works for your situation.

      I also found THIS PAGE recently offering TKAM read-alikes. I don’t think any are nonfiction, but maybe there’s something that will work.

      As a bit of an aside, HERE is my favorite teaching resource for this novel from Facing History and Ourselves. There’s even a section about how to teach your students to be respectful of the language which–I believe–will come in handy no matter who’s reading it.

      Lastly, CommonLit has a set of free supplemental readings to go with the book, too!

      I know this is more than you asked for, but I hope it helps!

  8. Jeff Martin says:

    Thank you for the helpful and relevant suggestions. I am a teacher in a majority white, rural school. As a white, male, Sociology teacher I am always interested in how “school” is perceived by my students of color. What are their experiences and how does this shape behavior and interactions within the majority culture. I have appreciated the honest conversations I’ve had with students in this regard and it had led me to make some changes in how I approach my students. Your advice in this article is good and worthwhile to implement for ANY teacher who had the opportunity to teach in a diverse setting. Thanks.

  9. This article resonates deeply. As a teacher of color, I recognize the importance of implementing all that is suggested in cultivating relationships with all students and especially my students of color. The movement toward more teacher of color representation in the classroom has never been so important. I remember one of my students sharing that she was nervous because I was her only teacher of color up until that point in her academic experience did not include a teacher of color. All in all, your message is important to share. Thank you for this information.

    • Cheryl Dipietro says:

      Cultivating relationships especially with students of color? Please explain?

  10. leah callahan says:

    Very practical help for supporting students that don’t look like me. I can’t walk in their shoes but I can support their journey.

  11. Toni (Thomasing) Meyerkord says:

    What amazing gems to consider when connecting with students of color!

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