In the third installment of TpT’s six-part Teach for Justice webinar series, the TpT community was joined by Scott Thomas, Director of Educational Services at an Intermediate School District who also served as the former Executive Director of Magnet Schools of America and Equity Coordinator in a large suburban district in Minnesota. He was also the principal of two racially and economically diverse elementary magnet schools. Throughout his career, Scott has dedicated himself to pursuing equity and justice in school systems, by providing professional development to other educators, advocating for expanded opportunities for students of color, and more. In the webinar, Beyond Foundations: Putting Anti-Bias/Anti-Racist Education Into Practice, Scott shares advice for putting three theories to practice — anti-bias education, culturally responsive pedagogy, and racial literacy — and addresses questions from the TpT community on these topics. Discover all his advice in the webinar recording here, and keep reading for his answers to your thoughtful questions.

Questions for Scott Thomas from the TpT community:

What are some tactful methods to discuss racist tendencies with fellow teachers? What can teachers do if they feel alone in this work at their school?

That’s a great question. A friend of mine said to me before, “You can never look into someone’s heart [. . .] and determine if they’re a racist. Who are we to decide that for them?” So I’d ask that you lead with love and seek first to understand. That’s actually one of the strategies in that resource I mentioned about speaking up at school. Seek to understand by asking for examples. Ask for clarification: “What did you mean when you said that?” That can help give you evidence and data to inform your next steps. [. . .] Everyone can learn, including the people who may not even recognize that there is a problem, just as you, in your own experience, may have been in a place where you didn’t know that there was a problem. So give them grace, hear them out, seek to understand, and then consider your next steps after that.

How can teachers encourage and build anti-racist classrooms in communities with very little diversity?

I think that a lot of teachers feel like they’re in this space — that they may not have a lot of visible diversity and that diversity is really only defined by the kids of color in the classroom. As I mentioned earlier, we really need to create windows and mirrors for our students because we live in a diverse and rich society, and we really have an obligation to prepare our students to live and thrive in this diverse society. So make sure that your classroom materials and your curriculum use lots of different types of names and experiences and life perspectives to really show your students that there is great and rich diversity within the world so they’re comfortable with it, so that when they encounter it for the first time, they’re not surprised and have a negative reaction. Really this is a place where we can foster lots of positive interactions with people who are different, even though they might not be present in our schools. And I would say we have a real obligation to do that. Check out the learning plans that you can create on Teaching Tolerance, because it’s full of resources you can actively search.

What would you consider to be the first step to develop school-wide anti-racist behavior, both inside the classroom and outside of the classroom?

So school-wide — that means that we’re working across our grade levels and we’re talking and working with our administrators. If that hasn’t been done yet, then maybe you’re that person who needs to step up and say, “I will be the one to lead this conversation.” 

I believe that it begins with setting expectations right at the door. If you had come to my school, you’d see a sign that says, “All are welcome here.” And it will tell you all the different types of people who are welcome here and really name them — people of different faiths, religions, family structures, LGBTQ, immigrant status. All are welcome here. Placing that sign at the front of the door sends a clear message to everyone what the expectations are. But what happens after they walk in that door really is important. It has to align. Are all people welcoming here? [. . .] What does this mean for our school if all people are welcome here? What does this look like in our classrooms? Really set the expectation from the beginning, but also revisit those expectations. 

What can or should this work look like now during this pandemic, when many educators are not returning to brick and mortar school buildings?

This COVID experience has a way of completely distracting us from other important work. We have a real opportunity with the COVID experience to reshape and reform our schools and bend them towards justice and equity. So I’d say this should not be an opportunity that we miss out on, and we should really have justice and equity at the forefront of our minds as we’re planning for the year, as we’re planning our classrooms. Even though your classrooms may be virtual, how are you creating the conditions of safety? How are you using the climate and culture domains of anti-bias education? Take a look at those and think about actions that you can take as you’re structuring group work, as you’re thinking about assignments, and as you’re creating choice and voice. You have a lot of opportunity to do things differently than you may have done in the past.

What would you say to folks who have already taken social justice or anti-racist trainings in the past? What are their next steps?

We all have a tendency to maybe overestimate where we are in our growth and development. At the same point, when we’ve had trainings, we have to ask ourselves, “Have we put what we’ve learned into action?” Oftentimes it’s a “sit and get,” and we don’t actually put things into action. So that’s the first step. Are you someone who has put what you’ve learned around justice and equity into action? If you are that person, then maybe it’s time for you to lift your voice and to share your learning experiences with others. By doing that, it really helps you refine your message and your belief system. And it really can ground you in your practices, but also open you up to a whole host of other new learning experiences. So, just because you may have had those trainings or experiences before, it doesn’t mean you’re there yet. That’s for sure. But you have to continue to unpack, and at some point, begin to lead.

What is the one thing that you want everyone to take away from this webinar?

I think there are two things. One is: do something. Use one of these resources [see below], download it, unpack it, read it — but take action. And the second, which really comes from John Hattie’s work, is: know thy impact. Know the impact that you have and know that small actions and large actions have a huge impact on students. So whether you choose to take action, whether you choose to not take action, has an impact. Know what it is and maintain that sense of urgency. Not just because George Floyd was killed, but because someone like George Floyd will be tragically killed tomorrow. How can you interrupt the systems of inequity and injustice that are taking place in our country and taking place in our schools every day? You have an impact, and you need to disrupt what is currently taking place.

Resources Scott recommends: