I’m a Racist Educator, and Here’s What I’m Doing About It

Several years ago, I wrote a blog post about what constitutes good classroom management in urban schools.  When I wrote this post, I had taught in a title I school for 5 years using comprehensible input exclusively as my approach to teaching.  I was a level 5 teacher, the highest evaluation you could receive in Tennessee, and had what most would consider a “strong classroom”.  My students, 100% of whom were black, were compliant, engaged, and on some days, joyful in my classroom.  Everything about what I was doing as a teacher was, seemingly great. 

Then, a couple of weeks ago, I received an email from a fellow language teacher who had read that post.  Her message to me was poignant, elegant, and carried a simple message:  This blog is racist and white supremacist, and you need to take it down.  She highlighted some of problematic language I used in my post and explained why it’s so damaging to speak in the terms I used.  Here’s some examples she pulled out:

“The image that accompanies this post was poorly chosen and highly offensive as it depicts an abandoned and dilapidated building that in no way represents any urban school I have ever seen or taught in. The urban schools I know are bustling with activity and creativity. They are full of gifted, curious students and caring, innovative teachers. This is the image I would like to see represented along with this post.”

In the post (you) state “It is crucial with an urban classroom (or any difficult classroom) to run a tight, consistent, and fair classroom from day one.” While I don’t take issue with the idea of a “tight, consistent, and fair classroom” I do take issue with the idea that urban classrooms are somehow inherently more difficult than any other classroom simply by way of being “urban.” Keep in mind that when people are talking about “urban schools” they are generally talking about schools with mostly students of color.

“ALWAYS teach to the bell.  Down time in an urban classroom equals bad things.” This sounds incredibly offensive again given that “urban classroom” is a clear euphemism for “schools with high populations of students of color.”  One could argue that downtime in ANY classroom can lead to classroom management issues but the way this is phrased singles out students of color as the problem.

To see the blog post to which she is referring, click here: https://comprehensibleclassroom.com/2016/07/28/teaching-languages-in-urban-schools-guest-post/

Admittedly, I had not reviewed or re-read this post in 4 years.  When I received this email, I found it hard to believe that I actually said those things.  I visited the blog, re-read it, and cringed.  She is right.  The blog post is racist and white supremacist, and needs a lot of change. 

But it isn’t just the blog post itself that’s racist and white supremacist, it’s also the author of it – me.  My name is Jon Cowart, former Spanish teacher, now an assistant principal of a title I school, and I am a racist and white supremacist. 

Being a Racist and a White Supremacist:  What it means and what it doesn’t mean

Over the past few years, I’ve learned more and more about what it ACTUALLY means to be a racist and white supremacist.  First, before I turn off any readers, I want to name what it doesn’t mean, necessarily.  Being a racist doesn’t necessarily mean that you are outwardly racist.  I don’t use racial slurs.  I don’t tell racist jokes or laugh when others do.  I don’t explicitly change my thoughts or actions when interacting with people from another race.

What about white supremacy?  Same thing.  No, I don’t have a swastika tattoo.  I don’t have a Hitler mural in my house or a confederate flag flying from my truck.  Also, I don’t explicitly think that white people are superior to others and should rule everything.

Ok, so I don’t do these things.  So why am I a racist and a white supremacist?  This is what took me so long to learn about racism and white supremacy in this country.  Doing outwardly racist things (like described above) would, indeed, make me more of a racist and white supremacist than I actually am.  But the absence of these actions in my life doesn’t negate the fact that I am a white person in the United States, and I have benefited and continue to benefit from systems that were created by racists and white supremacists.  And that makes me complicit in the racism and white supremacy plaguing this country.

How did this affect me as an educator?

I just bought a new car last December.  It’s a 2020 Nissan Rogue, and has a really cool safety feature:  blind spot alerts.  When a car is in my blind spot, a little orange light blinks near my review mirror, alerting me to something that I can’t see.  If I turn my turn signal on while a car is in my blind spot, the light blinks faster beeps loudly, letting me know I’m in potential danger. 

What that blog post reader did for me by sending me that message was she alerted me of my blind spots to my racism and white supremacy.  By referring to my students as “urban”, and claiming that they need control from bell to bell or “bad things happen”, I’m perpetuating language and ideology that is rooted in racism.  By using an image of a run down building to depict title I schools, I’m contributing to the white supremacist idea that black and brown schools are run down and crumbling, when in fact the school I taught in was a brand new building bustling with technology and beautiful colors.  Here’s an actual picture of the school I taught in when I wrote that post:  SoulsvilleCharterSchool

Here are two examples of real life versus what I actually wrote back then.  First, I actually never had problems if I ended class a couple of minutes early.  If I gave down time to my students at that school, they mostly just chilled, chatted, or played cards.  Secondly, that building is beautiful.  So why, then, did I choose a run down dirty building for the image?  The answer is – I had severe implicit biases about teaching in an urban school, despite how much I loved my students. 

These were major blind spots I had, and it’s taken a while for me to come to terms with how damaging those blind spots were to my students.  And, sadly, this is just scratching the surface of how many blind spots I had. 


For the rest of this reading, I want to highlight more blind spots I had and give more examples of how I was a racist and white supremacist teacher.  I also want to share what I did to get better, and what I’m continuing to do get better, so that you can examine your own potential blind spots and make positive change for your students of color. 

The Savior Complex

When I first started teaching in a title I school, I was 22, fresh out of college, and determined to save students’ lives.  I showed up guns blazing, desperately wanting to be Michelle Pfieffer from “Dangerous Minds.”  I viewed my students as sad cases – kids who were poor, afflicted by violence and poverty, and in need of saving.  I viewed their neighborhoods as dangerous and crime-ridden.  My goal for my students was for them to get to college, earn a degree, and never return to their hometowns.

I coached football and soccer, and brought that same energy to the field.  I called and emailed recruiters from colleges far away from Memphis so that my players could get out of their neighborhoods and away from their “bad influences.”  One day, I took a group of them to see a documentary called “Undefeated” about a rich white Memphis socialite who volunteered his time to coach a high school football team.  He took them from worst place to first place in one season.  The documentary was heralded by critics and won an academy award.  There was one particular scene where one of his players gets a full ride scholarship to play college football.  The coach hugs him, cries, and then says “Get out of this city and don’t ever come back.”  I looked at my players who were seated in the theater and said – “this is what I want for y’all.” 

Ok, let me pause here.  I need to say, and I cannot express this enough, I am incredibly embarrassed and ashamed at where my mind was back then.  That documentary, and subsequently my reaction to it, is laced with racism and white supremacy.  No, it’s not racist to volunteer your time to coach inner city youth.  No, it’s not racist to want them to go to college and better their lives.  But it is racist to assume that they need saving.  It is racist to assume that their neighborhoods are these horrible, terrible places that no one should ever want to live.  It is racist to tell them that they should want to leave their neighborhoods.  I learned this way too late. 

After we left the theater that night, we went to get food and I asked these young men what they thought of the movie.  One of them shrugged and said “why do they always make Memphis seem dirty and run down.  I like it here.”  That’s when I started to understand that something wasn’t quite right.  Why hadn’t they reacted the same way I did?  What if … oh god .. what if they don’t actually need saving?    

Fast forward to 2020, and I’ve learned a lot.  I’ve learned that the neighborhoods from where my students come are not in need of saving.  They are rich with culture, family, and love.  They have a lot of perceived problems due to over policing, over reporting, and incorrect portrayals in the news and media.  They have real problems also.  They have been the victims of systematic racism and white supremacy via redlining, gerrymandering, corrupt police policy, underfunded schools, and lack of access to food and healthcare.  They are also still reeling from the effects of generational poverty that have been perpetuated by the war on drugs, mass incarceration, and economic racism. 

Any teacher who shows up, as I did, and declares that these neighborhoods are inherently bad, lost, and in need of saving, is a racist.  Doing this ignores the greatness that exists in these neighborhoods while simultaneously attributing their challenges to anything other than the systematic racism that prevents these neighborhoods from reaching their full potential.  These kids don’t need saving, they need liberation. 

Power and Control

Something I’ve examined closely these past few years is how I yielded my power as a teacher inside the classroom, and how that was a reflection of my implicit racism.  Power in the classroom can be interpreted in many ways.  For me, it means who gets to talk, when they get to talk, and how they are allowed to talk.  Power means who gets to choose the curriculum, readings, videos, and class materials.  Power means who has a voice in the classroom.  If an educator is a racist, explicit and/or implicit, it will show clearly in how they yield their power.  While I tried earnestly to give some power to my students, I didn’t go far enough early in my career to really give them the power they needed to be able to own their education, nor did I do enough to identify and dismantle my own racist tendencies to yield my power in an anti-racist way. 

I did some good things.  I used comprehensible input to teach language instead of traditional or “legacy” methods.  This in itself is an act of anti-racism and anti-white supremacy.  Comprehensible Input is the most effective way to facilitate language acquisition, and yet many teachers are hesitant to try it with classes who have challenging behavior.  I also confess that early in my career, I struggled with whether or not comprehensible input was possible for “urban” kids, since it was harder to maintain control.  I debated some nights if I should just make a traditional lesson plan, do some bookwork, and have some quiet verb conjugation time so that I could feel confident.  But I never did. I always believed that my students wanted to learn, and could learn this way, if I continued to reflect and find ways to make it work for them.  For that, I’m proud of myself.  But when I dissect how I went about trying to make CI work for my students, I again cringe. Let me give you an example. 

One of my units was to teach the book Pobre Ana.  If you’re unfamiliar, this book is about a middle class white girl in high school who is upset because most of her friends are rich, and she’s just, middle class.  So, she studies abroad to Mexico and lives with a middle class Mexican family.  During this experience, she realizes how fortunate she actually is back home, because the family she lives with is what she would consider poor.  When she gets back from her trip, she’s “woke”, and organizes a clothing drive to send to poor kids in Mexico. 

This is the book I chose to read with my inner city black kids.  (To my defense, back then we only had like 2 options as Spanish teachers, this book or a pirate book).  So what I could have done is created lessons to compare and contrast life in California with Memphis and Mexico.  I could have facilitated stories about being grateful versus being spoiled.  I could have shown real examples of how beautiful it is to live in Mexico and how rich their culture is.  I could have facilitated some role plays and change the ending to different chapters to depict how we would all react in these situations vs. Ana.  I could have realized how out of touch this book is and instead gotten my students’ input on what they wanted to read and study instead.  But I didn’t. 

Instead, I just focused on comprehension and compliance.  I wanted my students to silently read with me, answer my comprehension checks, and then pass my quizzes.  I doubled down on my classroom management moves, narrated behavior as my students read, redirected my misbehaving students, and issued rewards and consequences accordingly to those who complied or didn’t.  I got observed one day by my principal as my angelic little compliant students read, translated, and answered my questions, and got a 5 on my observation.  Then, after we finished the book, I made the mistake of asking their opinions.  For the rest of the year, my students hated reading in my class.

This was a blind spot for me, but there were many clues along the way telling me I shouldn’t choose this book for my students.  In chapter 1, Ana complains about having to buy clothes from Wal-Mart, and literally in every class a student said “Wal-Mart has sweet shirts.”  Instead of leaning in to those comments, I just assigned consequences for “blurting out” or “using English.”  Yikes…

This is just one of many examples I could share about how I yielded my power in my curriculum.  In later years, I learned my lesson and ditched this book and instead read books with black main characters (I highly recommend Felipe Alou and La Chica Nueva).  The level of excitement and engagement in my students skyrocketed, and I had to “manage” their behavior less because they were so engaged. 

But curriculum selection goes beyond just what you choose to read.  It’s the videos you show them for movie talks.  How many have black and brown characters?  How many of them are not euro-centric?  How many of them have a black and brown character that aren’t stereotypes?  How often do you ask your students for ideas on what to read or watch for class material?

We are CI teachers.  Take advantage of being a CI teacher and give your students power in their own curriculum.  Some ways I’ve done this are:

  1. Star student interviews –  If you haven’t seen or read about the star student interviews (aka La persona especial) go to Bryce Hedstrom’s website right now and learn it.  (brycehedstrom.com).  It basically takes your students’ lives and interests and turns it into your curriculum.  I started doing this a few years after I wrote that blog post, and it revolutionized my teaching.  My class became a class for black students, about black students, and by black students, and I didn’t even have to lesson plan!  I gave the power back to my students and let them be in charge of their own learning. 
  2. TPR –  Total physical response, in case you don’t know me, is a passion of mine.  It’s also an incredibly easy way to teach any child using an engaging method and you can bring in anti-racist curriculum to it.  When I teach “dance”, I let the students dance however they want to.  When I give TPR commands using pictures and manipulative, I let them decide what those will be.  I don’t have students jump to the door, I let them jump to ______________________, and let them fill in that blank.  They get choice on locations, things, and actions, I just tell them how to say it.
  3. Weekend Chat – If you haven’t seen or tried the weekend chat, get on the blogosphere and learn it.  It’s another way to give power and control back to your students.  Every Monday was reserved for the weekend chat.  I put a couple of phrases on the board, allowed students to write or draw first, and then selected them to share.  They were also allowed to share what they WOULD HAVE done over the weekend in a hypothetical setting, since some didn’t want to share.  I learned SO MANY THINGS about my students and about their culture during these chats.  I learned where they enjoyed spending time with family and friends, where they enjoy eating, what social media apps they like the most, and much more.  I also always shared a little about my own weekend, and we would compare and contrast our own lives.  It’s a great way to bond with your students and also show them that you trust them to have some control over their learning.

Curriculum selection and method selection is just one way you can release some of your implicit biases and control to your students.  It was one of the best things I did in my career and in my journey to dismantle my own racism. 

Power and Control part 2 – What do you value?

In many of my earliest blogs, I use the words “compliance”, “control”, and “discipline” in context of what I valued as a teacher.  When reflecting on whether a particular class or lesson was successful, I tended to view my classes who were quieter, more controlled, and more compliant as my successful classes, regardless of whether or not those classes acquired more language or achieved higher scores on assignments than my others.  Classes that were noisy, blurted out more, or used “incorrect language” always irked me and I always treated those classes differently.  The reason is because I’m a middle class white man, and those aren’t my values.

So the question is, if you are teaching in a school where students have different values, what do you do?  The answer is simple.  Either quit and go work somewhere else, or check your privileges at the door, learn your students’ values, and adapt your practices accordingly.   It is a privilege, as a white person, to enter an all black  or brown space and then expect everyone around you to adapt to your values, rather than the other way around. 

Ruby Payne is an author and educator who expounds more on this idea of value sets for different people.  She writes more along the lines of socio-economic, but it applies equally as well to race.  Her book “A Framework for Understanding Poverty” is a must read for anyone wanting to become an anti-racist teacher.  Here are some highlights that I’ve pulled out of her book that apply to CI language teachers specifically. 

  • Rules of poverty
    • You laugh when you are disciplined; it is a way to save face.
    • Noise level is higher.
      • Non-Verbal information is more important than verbal. 
      • Emotions are openly displayed.
      • The value of your personality is your ability to entertain the group. 
      • Discipline is about penance and forgiveness, not change.
      • The concepts of repair and fixing are not always present.
      • School is seen as a social outlet more so than a tool to better the future.
      • Driving forces of behavior are survival, entertainment, and relationships.
  • Rules of Middle Class
    • Formal register is always used in an interview.
    • Discipline is about changing behavior.  To stay in the middle class, one must be self-governing and self-supporting.
    • A reprimand is taken seriously (at least the pretense is there), without smiling and with some deference to authority. 
    • Choice is a key concept in life.  The future is very important. 
    • Formal education is seen as crucial for future success.
    • Work and achievement tend to be the driving forces in decision-making.

Let’s dive into a couple of things Payne mentions and discuss their implications for how we yield our power and decisions as language teachers.  The first one that jumps to me is what happens when people from poverty are disciplined.  It is a “rule” to laugh, in order to save face.  Has this ever happened to you?  You give a child a consequence and they laugh?  It has to me, a lot.  What do you do?  Coming from middle class, the rule is never to laugh, but to take it seriously.  So when a child laughs at a consequence, my reaction is that s/he isn’t taking it seriously, so I increase the consequence.  The child continues to laugh, so I kick them out of my class.  This happened all the time, and it’s wrong.  Reacting this way to laughing kid is racist, white supremacist, and classist. When I read this book, I felt awful for all the times a kid laughed when I gave a consequence and didn’t realize WHY he was laughing.  Once I educated myself, I was able to be less racist in my dealings with my students. 

Another aspect of students’ language when punished is register.  In the middle class, we use formal register (polite, complete sentences, yes sir/ no sir), when speaking with authority or responding to discipline.  Kids from poverty do not, and we often times view this as more disrespect.  Ask yourself – has this ever happened to you?  When a kid is reprimanded for misbehaving, s/he says “yeah..  k … whatever … OK!”.  And what is your response?  Mine was to increase the punishment and add on “child continued to be disrespectful,” when in reality, the kid was responding the only way they knew how.  This is a racist and white supremacist practice that we have to stop doing.  If you give a consequence to a kid and s/he says “k”, say “thanks” and walk away.

Next up – noise level is higher.  Have you ever feared doing a TPRS story because the noise level gets too loud?  Me too.  What I value from my middle class upbringing is quiet and order in a classroom.  But I don’t teach in a middle class school, I teach in a low-income school, and the value set here is different.  If you teach kids from poverty, you must understand that more noise doesn’t mean out of control.  It could mean that they are very engaged.  Kids from poverty process things out loud. They talk things through, sometimes loudly while someone else is talking, and it’s completely acceptable and normal.   Class discussions don’t always need to be one person at a time.  It’s not always rude to talk over someone else.  These are their values.  For you, as a middle class white teacher, to impress your values in moments like these instead of adapting and making it work for what you want to do, is problematic.  So when I’m doing whole group CI (TPRS, PQA, picture talk, etc.,) I make sure to carve out time and space for my class to “discuss” the events of our story, argue about, make predictions, and etc. in a way that fits their values.  I allow what I call some “ordered chaos” so they can process how they need to, then I count down, ask for silence, and I usually always get it.  I name for my students when it’s time to “discuss” whole group and when it’s time to acquire the language I’m saying (aka, be quiet).  You need to carve out time for them to discuss like this and be ok with the noise level.   If you don’t, they will take that time anyways, except on their own terms. 

Discipline.  Did you read what Payne said about discipline?  For me, discipline and punishment is about learning from mistakes.  But for kids who grow up in poverty, it means penance and forgiveness, nothing else.  This has huge implications for us as teachers.  It means that we cannot assume that kids will learn from their mistakes without guidance from us.  It means that we need to stop getting frustrated at kids who apologize for making a mistake and then make the SAME DAMN mistake 2 minutes later.  It means we need to teach them how to grow and learn from mistakes.  I do this by teaching replacement language and behavior (what could you have said instead of cussing?  Good, next time, say that.  What are you going to say next time?  Good).  Then, when a student uses a replacement behavior (ex. A student lets me know he’s getting frustrated and needs a break instead of screaming and flipping a chair), name it.  Say “he, last time you screamed at me and flipped a chair, this time, you calmly asked to step outside and get some water and cool down.  Great job.  How did that feel?”  These small moments add up, and kids learn.  We must STOP looking at mistakes our kids make as indictments on their character.  We have to start teaching them explicitly how to use mistakes and poor choices as ways to learn and grow and get better.  That’s how you become an anti-racist teacher. 

 “Many of the greatest frustrations teachers and administrators have with students from poverty is related to knowledge of the hidden rules. These students simply do not know middleclass hidden rules nor do most educators know the hidden rules of generational poverty.”

The purpose of school is different for kids from poverty.  Payne’s research show us what a lot of us already know – that kids who grow up in poverty use school as a social outlet, not necessarily as a way to improve their lives.  Why?  Well, she argues, school has failed a lot of kids from generational poverty.  They have shown up, done everything they are supposed to do, and still aren’t on grade level compared to their white counterparts.  A lot of this has to do with opportunity myth, which states that we (white teachers) lower the bar for kids of color because we don’t think they can achieve on-level work.  If you have time, click on that link and read it, it’s a fascinating and horrifying body of research.  Regardless of the reasons, kids from poverty view school as a social outlet.  So for us, it means we need to change some things we do and say.  We need to stop ridiculing kids who seemingly “don’t care” about their schoolwork and instead we need to show them how school can benefit their lives.  We need to encourage students to try and learn in a way that doesn’t assume they view school the same way we do.  And, lastly, we need to stop implementing practices that limit their ability to be social in school.  That’s why they show up!  Let them have time to talk, to socialize, and to build relationships.  Hell, YOU ARE A CI LANGUAGE TEACHER, make your class social.  Let kids talk about their lives, their hopes, their dreams, and more.  Let them show you their social media in class, and turn it into a story.  Let them play telephone in the target language and gossip with each other about pop culture.  This is why they show up, and you can take advantage of this and make it your curriculum. 

Payne’s book is large and extensive, and I’ve only scratched the surface of what she says.  I highly recommend you pick up a copy and read it. 

Power and Control part 3 – my face palm moments

Two of the things the reader of my blog post mentioned in the email she sent me was how appalled she was that I give consequences for posture and sleeping.  Yep, I did that.  And yep, that was racist. 

Again, where I went to school, you don’t slouch and you certainly don’t sleep in class.  It’s considered rude and disrespectful to the teacher, and I certainly got consequences for it.  So as a teacher, I brought in these white, middle class values and vomited them on my black students.  I demanded their backs be pressed against their chair and feet flat on the floor.  I also viewed sleeping as a slight, and used the middle class language of “you are throwing away your future by sleeping.” I picked and fought many battles over these things for years until I learned that it was horrible practice.  For one, who cares about posture if kids’ eyes are on you and they’re paying attention?  I only cared because of my values and my desire to be in control.  But sleeping?  I can’t believe I viewed sleeping as anything other than what it was – tired children.  There were many reasons for my kids to sleep that weren’t my fault or their fault.  They worked jobs, took care of siblings, took 7 classes, were over-tested, etc.  To give blanket punishments for sleeping like I did was malpractice.    

I figured this out years later.  I realized that I didn’t teach at my own high school.  I taught in my students’ school.  Their school, not mine.  I changed these policies around sleeping and posture.  For posture, I told my students “as long as I see your eyes,  we’re good.”  For sleeping, I would … gasp … talk to them.  “Hey, why are you so tired?  Need some water?  Want to go take a walk?”  And magically, talking to students in a respectful manner yielded great results.  They learned that they can’t sleep in my class not because they’d get a consequence, but because I truly wanted them to learn.  They appreciated me taking time to understand the why, not judge them, and give them options for how they wanted to re-energize.  And, it was less racist of me. 

Blanket Girl.  Ok this is just a random, quirky story that happened in my first year of teaching, but it’s important.  It highlights how my need for control and power (which was rooted in my racism and white supremacy), took a small issue and blew it up.  I had a student, a young lady, who was always complaining about being cold. This student was pretty compliant, but some days bordered on apathy.  She was quiet, rolled her eyes a lot, and never thought I was funny (I … am … funny).  Well one day I saw her in the hallway in the morning walking around with a SpongeBob blanket. I was standing next to a colleague who said “wow she really brought a whole blanket with her,” to which I replied “she better not bring that in to my class.” 

See, I wanted my class and my students to look a certain way. I wanted their desks cleared, laps cleared, and nothing in their hand except when I told them.  My pet peeve was phones under the desks, girls putting make up on in class, or kids in general fidgeting with things.  So when 4th period came around this girl entered my class with her blanket, I assumed it was going to be a problem.   She sat at her desk, draped her blanket around her back, and began working on the Do Now.  I asked her quietly, several times to put her blanket in her backpack.  Each time, she replied, “I’m cold”, and continued to working.  After the 4th time, I wrote her an office referral for insubordination, and she was removed from class. 

The next day, I saw her walking towards my classroom with her blanket again, and I told her in the hallway, “go ahead and put your blanket in your locker before you enter class so that we don’t have any problems.”  After some arguing, she finally yelled some profanity at me, threw her blanket down, and stomped off.  This earned her a day of suspension. 

Y’all … this was … so stupid.  I cannot begin to tell you how much I regret this moment and many moments similar.  This all happened not because of a blanket, but because of my need to control situations, be the authority, and demand that people follow my rules.  This girl was a fine a student, polite, and never had any issues until I made this an issue.  She missed a day of school, not because of her, but because of me. I don’t really remember what all happened in the days following this, nor did I ever speak with this student about this situation again, but it still haunts me.  This was me being on an unnecessary power trip because I assumed this young black girl would not be able to be in class, be comfortable in her blanket, and learn all at the same time.  I ask myself a lot, if this was an all white school and a kid did this, would I have acted the same way?  I’m afraid of the answer. 

The Karen Teacher

This leads me to thoughts of the “Karen” teacher.  First off, I apologize to anyone named Karen who has had to deal with this ridiculous meme.  For what it’s worth, I wish there was a non-name way to describe the “Karen” teacher. I know many Karens, all of whom are wonderful and great people.  But alas, I need to call this something that readers can understand.

The “Karen” meme comes from the stereotype of the angry middle class white woman who always demands to speak to the manager over the slightest inconvenience.  The “Karen Teacher” is the version of this who is, well a teacher.  I was a Karen teacher.  The blanket girl story demonstrates that.  But there are other ways I was a Karen teacher and I want to share these examples with you so that you can start to identify these trends in your own school and begin to dismantle them.  Here are the qualities of the “Karen Teacher” and things you can do instead. 

  1. Always needing to have the last word – This is problematic as a teacher, especially if you teach teenagers.  This happens when you have an argument with a child, assign a punishment or make your point, and the child says something back to you.  It’s human nature to respond with “what did you just say?  What was that?  Why don’t you say that louder.”  Then the back and forth begins, usually leading to a more severe consequence for the child. This is rooted in authoritarianism, racism, and white supremacy, especially when done towards a student of color by a white teacher.  It’s so problematic on so many levels, and we must stop doing it.  Kids are kids.  Kids from poverty are wired to have the last word, to laugh at authority, and more.  We are the adults.  We are adults who CHOOSE this work, and it’s our responsibility to maintain emotional constancy.  When episodes like this happen, say your piece, and WALK AWAY.  Whatever the kids has to say or mumble, let them.  Walk away, give space, and give the kid a chance to rebound from whatever just happened.  When we don’t do this, the argument escalates until we have to either call an administrator or, worse, call and SRO.
  2. Being really quick to call an administrator or an SRO – Another aspect of the “Karen” teacher is that they are really quick to pull the trigger and call for removal of a student by an administrator or an SRO.  Studies show that white teachers are way more patient with white students in situations like this.  We give more slack and more opportunities for white kids to self-correct before going up the consequence ladder.  For kids of color, white teachers are way too quick call for help and ask for removal.  This has a damaging cumulative effect on kids of color and is the first step to the school to prison pipeline.  They miss class, their grade goes down, they begin to internalize being the “bad kid”, and before you know it, their behavior spirals out of control.  All because they … brought a blanket to class.  Don’t do this.  Instead, use the behavior management cycle.  Use non intrusive management strategies that deescalate behavior and focus on restoration rather than punishment and removal.  If you don’t know these strategies and want some practice on them, sign up for my monthly classroom management course at www.joncowartteaching.com.  Do whatever it takes to learn these things, just stop calling for student removal for small misbehaviors. 

Conclusion

I’m not really sure how to close out this blog because this work is ongoing.  I’ve been a racist and white supremacist for 33 years, so I’m not going to unlearn these things in just a few years.  I’m constantly learning, growing, acknowledging my implicit biases, and striving to be better every day.  I deserve it, my students deserve it, and you deserve it as well.  I know it’s easy to flinch and get defensive when someone says “you’re a racist”, but I’m here to tell you, it’s ok.  I’m a racist, and I’m doing things to get over it. 

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