Teaching in Philly is hard.
Five billion dollars are necessary to complete all outstanding repairs in our buildings. Teachers reach into their own pockets for classroom supplies, playing the roles of librarian, counselor, and social worker. These stresses are compounded by large classes and bare-bones staffing.
In these conditions, it is too easy to blame students and families.
This blame is misplaced. Systemic racial oppression is the true cause of most problems we face in our schools, and we must play an active role in its dismantling.
Pennsylvania’s schools are funded in a racist way, with black and brown districts receiving less than their fair share of funding. Black Philadelphians experience higher rates of poverty, eviction, and incarceration than whites.
Whether or not we acknowledge it, these examples of systemic inequity manifest themselves in our classroom daily. When students show up tired or angry or hungry or unprepared, we must understand these circumstances in context.
Teachers in Philly’s district schools are predominantly white (67 percent in 2013), while our student body is mainly black (50 percent) and Latino (20 percent). Recently, our teaching force has grown whiter, with an 18.5 percent drop in black educators and a 27.6 percent increase in white educators between 2001 and 2012. In Philly’s charters, the “representation gap” between the percentage of black teachers and students is 44.8 percent.
As white educators, we are overrepresented as authority figures in Philadelphia’s classrooms. This brings responsibility that we should not take lightly.
Passivity and silence in the face of inequity and oppression, especially as white educators who bring with us our privilege, is a disservice to our students.
You might think, “My job is hard enough. You’re saying I need to do more work!” In a way, this is true. However, we have found that engaging with larger forces that impact our classrooms liberates us from some of the stress and feeling of individual responsibility for our “failings” as educators.
Students aren’t our adversaries. As we face a constant onslaught of systemic forces as educators, so do our students — to an even greater degree.
There are tangible steps we should take as white educators to commit ourselves to racial justice.
First, join the Caucus of Working Educators in Philly and educators in more than 20 cities across the country for our Black Lives Matter Week of Action from Monday through Friday. Wear a button, teach a lesson, or have a conversation in your classroom, raise the topic with colleagues or in staff meetings, attend one of our events across the city.
We have three citywide demands to advocate for racial justice in Philly. There are also steps we can take to implement them at a school and classroom level:
- End zero-tolerance approaches to discipline. Our district and networks need to fund the training and staffing necessary for trauma-informed restorative justice in our schools. We can also individually step back from our own punitive approaches.
- Make active efforts to recruit and retain black educators. While our district and networks need to take steps to transparently report and set goals to reverse declines in the number of black educators in our city, we can push our own schools to prioritize black educators in the hiring process.
- Begin anti-racism training for all educators. We want all educators to have training that calls on us to interrogate our own biases and challenge systemic oppression. In the meantime, we can meet as educators at our own schools in anti-racist study groups.
To continue the work locally beyond the week, join the Caucus of Working Educators Racial Justice committee or participate in one of this year’s teacher-led Inquiry to Action Groups, hosted by Teacher Action Group.
By showing our students an explicit commitment to racial justice, we see some of the tension between white educators and students of color dissipate. When we take action, by wearing a Black Lives Matter shirt, uplifting black voices in our curriculum, or taking a moment to reflect on our own implicit bias, we see students who previously exacerbated our tension headaches become our strongest allies.
In order to responsibly do the work of educating Philadelphia’s students, our daily work must begin with an affirmation: Black Lives Matter.
Lily Cavanagh teaches at a downtown Philadelphia charter school. Charlie McGeehan teaches in the School District of Philadelphia at the U School and is the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers building representative. Both are members of Building Anti-Racist White Educators, formed in collaboration with the Caucus of Working Educators and Teacher Action Group.