In the second webinar of TpT’s six-part Teach For Justice speaker series, “A Talk to Teachers: Understanding the ‘Why’ and Where to Begin Anti-Racist Work in Schools,” teachers in the TpT community had the opportunity to hear from anti-racist education consultant Jamilah Pitts. Jamilah has a background as an educator, curriculum designer, and writer, and she trains and coaches educators on anti-racist, culturally responsive, equitable, and restorative practices in teaching. During the webinar, she shared powerful lessons about racism in schools, why all educators must work to be anti-racist in their teaching, and steps they can take to confront and reorient their understanding of a teacher’s role in dismantling systems of oppression. If you missed it, be sure to catch the full webinar here.
At the end of her talk, Jamilah answered questions from the TpT community about pursuing anti-racism in education. Here are the questions you asked and the wisdom and advice Jamilah had to share.
Q&A with Jamilah Pitts and the TpT community:
What is one thing that you really want viewers of this webinar to take away with them?
That’s a hard question and also a really great question. I think specifically for teachers, and for educators in general, daring to think differently [. . .] around what it means to be a teacher and what it means to educate. For so long, our ideas on what it means to be a teacher are so opposite from the work that we really need [to be doing] to bring about long-lasting and systemic change. [. . .] Teachers are leaders. If you think about the span of your teaching career, just think about the amount of students that you’ve come into contact with and how you’ve influenced and shaped their minds, what they think, what they do. That is power. If we can think differently, push ourselves to think differently about my role when I show up in front of students, the power and the privilege in that, the way that I am perpetuating something or I am dismantling something — how do we think differently about our role? And, honestly, thinking about if this is the role that we need to be in.
During the webinar, you recommend that teachers begin their anti-racist work with the self — by reflecting on their personal beliefs, mindsets, practices, and biases. What are some specific strategies educators can adopt for self-examination and self-reflection?
I began [this talk] with breath work very intentionally. We all breathe. We can all participate in breath work. [The breath] allows us to pause and to go inward and to connect with the self. There is no way that we can effectively do that without examining ourselves, and then examining the way that we impact and show up in [the] world.
As a former ELA teacher, I think that books are incredibly important. It allows us to engage in discourse and to really open our minds in ways that feel a little bit safer for some of us [. . .]. And I think it’s important to engage in conversations with other people and to immerse yourself in communities where people have different mindsets than you do. And I think it’s really important, particularly if you have the privilege to be in front of students every day, [to] allow them to ask questions, allow them to guide you in a way that leads you to a deeper process of self-actualization and self-examination.
How do I have conversations about racism in education and anti-racist work with my colleagues? How can I affect change in my school?
We are all in different spaces and in different places in this journey. [In] some schools I’ve talked to recently, [educators] don’t want to get fired for engaging in this work, and so they have to think about, “Well, how do I engage in a way, strategically, that is also not going to cause me to lose my job?” And so I think there is some strategy that has to happen there. I go back to the quote by Audre Lorde that I read in the beginning [of this talk], that it is dangerous to not speak. And so it is.
I don’t know that there’s a cookie cutter answer to how you begin to approach the conversation. I would say one thing that is helpful is to think about the lens and the approach of an educator [when entering] a conversation that we know that is going to be difficult: I’m not here to dictate, I’m here to engage in a learning moment.
And I think that for some educators, perhaps it is having a conversation with your administrator one-on-one. Perhaps it is forming a community of like-minded educators who are willing to support and do this work with you so you’re not alone in it. And for some teachers, quite frankly — and I’ve had to be a teacher who’s done this at times — perhaps that conversation and the way that you do this work means you close your classroom door. Or I know that we’re virtual right now, [so] you close your classroom door metaphorically. And you empower your students, and you teach them and give them the space to be able to then join you and support you.
How can teachers share these reflections with their students?
I come back to humility, vulnerability, and transparency. It is okay to say to your students, “Here is where I am on my journey,” and to be honest about that. I think it is more harmful to walk into a space and to position yourself as an expert when we are all still learning, we are all very much on this journey of learning and undoing. I honestly think that it comes back to just being honest and sharing with your students, “This is where I am,” because I think it will cultivate and create the space for your students to know [their] teacher is learning too.
How might anti-racist work in the classroom look different — or need to look different — for students in different grade levels?
I think one of the myths or misnomers about anti-racist work and social justice work is [that] it makes complete sense for secondary students, for older students, who are able to engage in this conversation. But [. . .] if you think about even a child as young as two, they have a notion and they have an understanding of what it means to be unfair. And so the same way that you would pare down content and [. . .] craft your language [. . .] to teach young students their alphabet, to teach them about social skills that you want them to be able to adopt, you can do the same thing for concepts around justice. Because they do have an understanding of what is right and wrong, what is fair, what is unfair. I think that stories are really, really important, but [. . .] also the beautiful thing about teaching is it is an art form. And so how do you get really creative about taking this concept, or taking this aspect of history, and presenting it — just like you do every other piece of content — in a way that all students can access?
Additional resources Jamilah recommends:
- Writings by James Baldwin, including The Fire Next Time and “A Talk to Teachers”
- Teaching to Transgress: Education as the Practice of Freedom by Bell Hooks
- We Want to Do More Than Survive by Bettina Love
- Other People’s Children and Multiplication is for White People by Lisa Delpit
- For White Folks Who Teach in the Hood by Chris Emdin
- Teaching Tolerance
- Abolitionist Teaching Network
- Woke Kindergarten
Where to follow Jamilah:
- Website: www.jamilahpitts.com
- Thought leadership: www.jamilahpitts.com/blog
- Instagram: @msjamilahpitts
Learn more about TpT’s Teach For Justice program.