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Dear Teachers: If You’re Not Woke, Stay Out of the Classroom

We can and must do better

Published on: January 11, 2018

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Editor's note: ParentMap publishes articles, op-eds and essays by people of all experiences and from all walks of life. The opinions expressed in their articles are their own and are not endorsed by ParentMap.

This week fourth graders at Our Redeemer Lutheran School in Wauwatosa, Wis., were given a homework assignment that gave some parents and students quite a shock. On a unit about American slavery, the 9–10 year olds were asked to respond to the prompt: Give three good reasons for slavery and three bad reasons. Say what? Three good reasons for slavery? Let that sink in: Yes, a group of 9 year olds were asked to justify slavery in the United States of America in 2018. In case you were still wondering: No, we are not living in a post-racial society.

One African-American boy in the classroom’s response was more woke than his teacher’s assignment and the only correct one at that: “There were no good reasons for slavery.” Mic drop.

But why was the assignment given in the first place? It’s clear from interviews with the boy’s mother that he and his family were rightfully shaken by the incident. It’s also disconcerting to think that on the whole, we don’t know how the other students in the class answered that question. Did they, wanting to do a good job on the assignment, actually try to find three good reasons for slavery? Have they, since this incident has gone viral, had a chance to discuss why they should never have been asked to answer that question?

No, we are not living in a post-racial society.

Kids idolize their teachers. They internalize the messages they receive in the classroom. They spend more waking hours on a daily basis with their teachers than they spend with any other adult figures in their lives. And these fourth graders, at 9–10 years old, are still developing their sense of identity and their own moral compasses.

It’s impossible for any teacher to spend that much time with students and not allow their personal biases to impact what they teach and how they treat the students in their care. No teacher and no person is perfect. But that is why it’s so important that teachers do the work to understand their biases and work to challenge them on a consistent basis in the classroom. That's why I believe if you want to be a teacher, you need to get woke or stay out of the classroom.

For kids of color in this country, this isn’t just one incident. For many underrepresented students, this is just one example of a lifelong struggle to go to school in the face of daily assaults on their heritage, their history, and their very humanity. Sadly, white teachers are a primary source of daily micro-aggressions toward students of color. Just to get an education in this country, many must endure the daily mispronunciation and mocking of their names, the enforcement of racist dress codes and racist and classist practices in IEP and HCC testing.

If you want to be a teacher, you need to get woke or stay out of the classroom.

The teacher who assigned this particular homework assignment has since apologized along with the school. Families say the school responded promptly, working with students most affected and sending a letter of apology to all parents promising this won’t happen again. Still, it’s not enough. Because while many in our nation are arguing it’s people of color who need to move on and get over America’s shameful history, educators in this country are still actively minimizing it’s existence, or worse justifying it.

It's 2018. We can and we must do better.

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