Connections: Linking Talented Educators
Connections: Linking Talented Educators

How to Talk to Students About Social Justice

June 4, 2020

1000w Baruti Kafele talking with students

By Principal Baruti Kafele (NJ ’09)

Protests and civil unrest are sweeping the nation as Americans react to the killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis. We asked school leadership expert and author Principal Baruti Kafele (NJ ’09) how teachers can help students process what’s happening—and what school leaders can do to make sure their educators are prepared for the dialogue.

There’s social unrest all over our country right now. Students are seeing it on TV, but some, depending on where they live, are in the midst of it. And there are all sorts of conversations going on at home.

The conversations in black homes aren’t new—they may be tweaked for the specific focus on George Floyd right now, but the larger conversation about racism and how to maneuver around it, through it, overcome it, that’s a normal black family living room conversation. A home that’s not black may also be talking about George Floyd. But for a non-black family, racism against people of color may not affect them or their children directly, so they’re not necessarily talking about this on a regular basis.

For teachers to talk with students about George Floyd and the current unrest, they have to be comfortable and equipped to talk about social justice. An African American teacher, especially a male teacher, is likely to dive into this conversation immediately with students, because it’s part of their lived experience and they’re passionate about it. For white teachers, it depends on their politics, the politics of their schools, their comfort level and their relationships with students.

1000w Baruti Kafele speaking 2

In my workshops I often ask white teachers who work with students of color to tell me about their experience with black people prior to entering the classroom. For several of them, their black and brown students are the first people of color they’ve actually had sustained relationships with. Facing this makes the teachers uncomfortable, but it puts both teacher and student at an extreme deficit. For the first few decades of their lives, the teachers have only seen black people from a distance: on TV, at the mall, on the field. Pop culture does not always provide an accurate definition or description of who their students are. At this juncture, they really do not know their students.

[During the pandemic, I’ve been holding a weekly Virtual Assistant Principal Leadership Academy via Facebook Live. Last week (see the video below), I scrapped my planned curriculum and focused on one very timely question: Is social justice education an inherent part of your practice and your school?] 

School is out for the summer in many parts of the country, and COVID-19 has kept kids out of actual classrooms since March. But there’s a silver lining for educators who care about their students. If they had built meaningful relationships with their kids before schools closed, technology (assuming students have access, which I know is not a given) has allowed them to sustain those relationships. Those relationships have moved from the classroom to the laptop, but they’re still there.

To teachers who aren’t yet comfortable engaging with students about social justice, here’s my advice: Let them talk. Open the floor and listen without judgment. Let them disclose what they’re feeling and thinking. Be the facilitator. You don’t know what you’re going to hear, but let them speak their truth.

And we’re not just talking about students of color. It’s equally important for white students to have these conversations about social justice. I have had occasions where I have met with small groups of white teachers for discussions centered around race and diversity, and I started the discussion by asking them what they saw when I walked into the room: a presenter, or a black presenter? Most of them eventually admit that they see a black presenter. I’m the exception, a black man coming in to teach them, so they notice my color. That needs to change. White kids get most of their cultural education about black people from music and TV, and those images don’t accurately represent us. When white students become adults and someone like me comes into the room, that has to become normalized, not an aberration.

If I were in the classroom now, in a global pandemic, with what’s happening around us, no way would I end discussions and lessons with my students when the school year ends. No union or board of education would sanction it, and I wouldn’t be paid for it, but I would tell parents that I want access to their children every week of the summer until school reopens. I want to gauge what they’re feeling and living through. Two or three days a week for an hour, I’d be teaching, inspiring and empowering them. Teachers, if you love these children and are concerned about what happens when school is closed, keep school open through your laptop. Talk to them instead of watching TV. Let the children on your computer be your story.

1000w Baruti Kafele social justice quote

HOMEWORK: Principal Kafele suggests that teachers and administrators consider the questions below as they work through how to connect with students about social unrest.

  1. What is social justice education? What does it mean to me? Is social justice a part of my repertoire?
  2. What purpose does social justice education fulfill in my classroom or school (assuming it exists)?
  3. If social justice education does not exist in my classroom or school, why not? Social justice should be part of every aspect of the curriculum: math, science, social studies, language arts, etc. It’s an infusion, not an isolated add-on.
  4. Can my students, particularly students of color, articulate, intellectualize and explain the injustices that surround them, separate from their emotional reactions?
  5. Do I have (or does my staff have) the necessary cultural competency to engage students in issues of social justice?
  6. What professional development do I have access to (or provide to staff) to help develop comfort and confidence in engaging students in issues of social justice?
  7. How knowledgeable am I (or is my staff) on issues of social justice? Black people aren’t surprised by police murders of unarmed black men—they’re angry, of course, but not surprised. But there are definitely people out there who are watching the protests on TV and questioning the level and volume of social unrest.
  8. For administrators: How competent am I at incorporating issues of social justice in my overall instructional leadership of my staff? Is it something I pursue and prioritize, or is social justice unimportant compared with test scores? I would argue that the social justice conversation will elevate the academic one, by opening a wider door for talking about equity and social-emotional learning.

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