As a white teacher in Chicago, Annie Sheehan poses questions she asks herself — and thinks other educators should ask — about curriculum and instruction.
June 11, 2020
Annie Sheehan is a 2nd grade teacher at Chicago International Charter School West Belden.
This past fall, I was in the office with a middle school teacher who was printing inspirational quotes for a wall in her classroom. She explained to me that she was only choosing quotes from non-white people, with a particular focus on women, for the board. When a student asked her why this was the case, she had a perfectly straightforward response:
“Y’all hear enough from us.”
I am aware of my race nearly every single day I walk into my classroom. I am aware of the way I am surrounded by colleagues who share my skin color, yet I am an outlier from all of my students. I am aware of my race during my conversations with my students, my conversations with their parents and often a translator, when I teach history or reading lessons, when I choose a picture book to read aloud. I am constantly, achingly, aware of the way my race inherently makes it impossible for me to be a perfect teacher. Not that there is such a thing, anyway. But it keeps me from even getting close.
White teachers make up an estimated 80% of the teaching force in the U.S. White students make up 32% of Chicago Public Schools, and less than half of the population of elementary students in the country, according to 2018 Census data. This means many students will go through the early years of their education without encountering a teacher who mirrors their own racial identity and background. I do not look like a single one of my students, and I am a part of the vast majority of female educators in America. In terms of my physical being, I do not bring a lot of diversity to the table.
This puts a rather large responsibility on my shoulders. I teach 2nd grade — a crucial part of students’ lives where they are developing their identities, exploring and learning about the world, and becoming their very own people with their own opinions and ideas.
Most of them had never heard of the civil rights movement before this year and were fascinated by Martin Luther King Jr. and Rosa Parks, gasping at the notion of black people being forced to vacate their bus seats for whites, asking me in disbelief why anybody would ever shoot someone like King. To them, those events seem like a whole other universe, grouped into a schema of the past made up of dinosaurs and George Washington.
While they are confined to their homes for the time being, I am sure many of them have seen the most recent news surrounding George Floyd’s death and fear they may be struck by the devastating realization that it doesn’t seem like times are too different after all. And how do I tell them, as a white person, that things are different? How would I know?
It is in the description of my job, as an educator, to educate my students.
But it is my responsibility, as a white person more generally, but especially as a white educator, to educate myself — to talk to people of color, seek out their perspectives in the news, in film, in politics; to find literature that helps me address implicit bias that subconsciously underlies each decision I make; to understand the role that I play in all of this.
It’s my responsibility to think critically and thoughtfully around all aspects of my teaching pedagogy and instruction, asking: who are the characters in our books? What story do they tell? Who is being represented in the stock photos on our PowerPoints, the clip art on our worksheets? Am I assessing my students on their ability to demonstrate an academic skill, or am I faulting them for lack of experience that mirrors my own? These questions have to surround every single thing I do, each lesson that I teach, otherwise I am simply perpetuating the white narrative that surrounds many aspects of our education system.
Every single white teacher needs to ask themselves these questions. I am no expert, nor am I pretending to be one, but I am asking it of myself and others to do our very best job of taking a critical eye to the curricula we are handed and consistently showcase a multitude of perspectives in the way we teach the future leaders of America.
This cannot just be our focus for the time being, but must be part of a long-term plan that we take with us into the start of every single academic year. Repeatedly, we must bring up these questions with ourselves and our colleagues, to create an education system that acknowledges the racism in our country and equips our students with the tools to demolish it. That is the way we can, and we must, contribute to changing the story.