How We Can Teach in the Wake of George Floyd
A high school social studies teacher ponders Black Lives Matter and how “unlearning” can help fix systemic problems.
On May 25, 2020, teachers around the nation were sitting in our newly fashioned “home classrooms,” crafting digital lessons for our students. We were looking for ways to navigate the switch from in-person to virtual learning, and wrapping up yet another school year with the usual sense of exhaustion that comes with it.
On May 25, 2020, George Floyd was murdered by Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin for allegedly using a counterfeit $20 bill. Chauvin knelt on George Floyd’s neck for almost nine minutes—roughly the amount of time we take in class for our morning warm-up activity.
On May 25, 2020, our approaches to education were about to drastically change, and none of us had a clue.
In the days that followed George Floyd’s murder, new breath was given to a centuries-old issue, with the help of the 24-hour news cycle. People took to the streets, outraged by the murder and upset by the fact that this particular killing was really only the latest in a long train of white-on-black violence—or rather, system-on-black violence. While we watched from home, we wondered what to make of it all. And, more importantly, we wondered what our new roles in it all must be.
It’s Time to Learn How to Unlearn
Something about this time—and this particular murder of a black man in police custody—is different. Teachers have watched similar encounters before. Some of us have even addressed them in our classrooms. But real action never came. Real urgency for change never took over.
Now the movement has put a spotlight on police abuse, but the underlying issue is systemic, which means that the roots of the problem extend far and wide, to institutions beyond the police force that are complicit in American racism.
Education is one of them.
Teachers must now decide if we’ll continue to be part of the problem, or if we’ll finally use our voices to advocate for necessary change. Right now, many of us in education are embarking on what’s being called “unlearning,” where we work to shed our own personal biases (both overt and covert), acknowledge our own privileges and seek ways to be better allies and partners for our BIPOC friends, family and students.
We’re devouring books, articles, TED Talks, documentaries and podcasts to learn about ourselves and others. History teachers are looking at their curriculums and tallying the frequency with which marginalized groups are discussed (and perhaps more importantly, re-evaluating how often those groups are presented as victims, rather than from a position of strength). English teachers are taking inventory of their classroom libraries and their course reading selections to gauge the level of diversity—or lack thereof—in authorship. Many of us are discovering, possibly for the first time, how our whiteness has created so much darkness for others. We are finding answers, only to create more questions.
We Can’t Confuse a Responsible Teacher for a Neutral One
The first college paper I wrote in my undergraduate education program was in response to the prompt, “What makes a morally responsible teacher?” That’s a big question, especially for an 18-year-old who doesn’t know anything about anything. And, frankly, that’s even a big question for a 30-something-year-old woman in her tenth year of teaching.
While I was writing it, I tried to think of all the things that led me to an education major to begin with: a deep passion for the material, a drive to share that passion in others, a desire to help students see and achieve their full potential.
It all felt so disgustingly cliché.
I thought back to the teacher who changed it all for me: my world history teacher. I thought about the qualities that set her apart from the others. I thought about what she taught, and how. I finally decided that a morally responsible teacher is one who creates an environment that provides students with all the necessary information and tools to come to their own conclusions, without the teacher inserting themselves and their personal beliefs into the mix. What I’m realizing now is that I meant “one who’s neutral.”
For a long time, I thought I was doing right by my students by keeping my personal opinions out of the classroom. I truly believed that my job was to help them learn how to think, not what to think.
As a social studies teacher, I never shied away from contentious topics or debates. I worked diligently to research both sides of every issue we discussed ahead of time, so that I could be prepped and ready to play devil’s advocate, no matter the direction the conversation took. I strove to make safe spaces for my students and taught them to criticize ideas, not people. But reflecting back on some of the debates, some of the conversations, some of the ways students behaved, I find myself wondering whether or not I actually provided a safe space for all of my students.
Did I challenge the unenlightened opinion enough? Did I call out racist or sexist comments for what they really were? Did I call those comments “racist” or “sexist”? Or did I skirt around the issue with vague, unhelpful, “neutral” language? Did I sacrifice a learning opportunity out of fear that I wouldn’t be seen as “politically sensitive” to reactionary ideas, even if those ideas were based on hatred and fear? I honestly don’t remember.
Change Can’t Happen From Inside Our Comfort Zones
This moment was made for social studies.
Geography curriculums include units on cooperation and conflict. World history courses often spend quite a bit of time on “the long 19th century,” during which the basic ideals of democracy and the people’s relationship with their governments took shape. American history courses are centered on the evolution of our democracy, and the protest efforts that have created the world we live in today. Economics courses are founded on the basic questions of distributing resources. Government courses are designed to educate students on civil disobedience, the role of government and how to be an active and engaged citizen. Social studies, as a core subject, really is the place to discuss the marginalized communities.
Our classrooms and our instruction need to start reflecting that more intentionally. We can no longer let ourselves off the hook and justify exclusion for “politically correct” reasons. As we think about what we teach, we are also beginning to have uncomfortable conversations about how we teach.
Maybe the morally responsible teacher isn’t neutral. Maybe teaching is a political act. Maybe one of the best things we can teach our students is how to be fallible—how to recognize the limits of our own knowledge, how to seek to push our established boundaries, how to know when you don’t actually know anything and what to do next.
Maybe the best lesson we teach is one of unlearning.