Colin Kaepernick and his activism that began last football season has not only polarized the NFL but also our nation. A simple act of kneeling during the national anthem to protest police brutality and racial injustice created such a powerful ripple effect and has shown a global impact. This season, other players continued Kaepernick’s protest, eliciting a number of both allied and racist thoughts and beliefs from the mouths and wallets of fans, team and business owners, and the media. Although the current political climate in the US (fostered by the current president) is more inundated with bigotry, racism, ableism, and anti-Muslim hatred than ever, protests and activism by Kaepernick and other athletes seemed to strike a different chord. America’s foundation rests on white supremacy and athletes’ continuing protest reveals this very ugly and large stain.
As an educator, I deeply respected the impact and power behind Kaepernick’s protests and the political agitation he created for the NFL, its fans, and other US citizens. While there are many educators working to create schools that are anti-racist, safe, and inclusive, not enough of them are taking a political stand against the racism, hate, and injustice that occurs too often in our schools. As an educator, I want to continue to be an activist who purposely disrupts the status quo mindsets and systems in our schools while encouraging other educators to move to do the same. It would be awesome to have more educators become activists and collectively #TakeAKnee by vocally and visibly protesting racism, injustice, and inequity in education. Below are some ways you as an educator can do just that:
Address our biases: Educator bias can hinder a student’s ability to feel safe in a classroom, making it difficult for the student to enjoy school or certain classes. For many students, educator bias causes lasting damage in academics and beyond. We must protect all students by actively working to combat our biases and foster a safe learning environment. We need to check our own biases about students, stop working with deficit mindsets, and/or quit playing the racial blame game (i.e., referring to those kids) with regards to learning and student achievement.
Restorative Teaching: Discipline has a Latin origin meaning to teach or learn. Unfortunately in schools, we have moved from actively teaching students to navigate societal behavior norms and respect for humanity to enforcing authoritarian rules and regulations that stifle and dehumanize students and remove their autonomy. The stats on school discipline practices are staggering especially as they are applied to Black and Brown students. The school to prison pipeline is real and dangerous for our students, our schools, and our society. Educators who discipline out of love with intent to restore and preserve relationships have a much more positive impact than those who discipline with the intent to control or exert power. Restorative practices should be used by educators who want to combat the inequity of disproportionate punishment faced by students of color in our schools. Educators should move from punitive and vengeful disciplining of students to showing mercy and forgiveness because we want our students to learn but also feel love and experience success.
Mindset Change: More educators need to change their mindsets in their approach to equity work in schools. Some educators have bought into the notion that teaching students is like warfare, as common phrases like “in the trenches” are thrown around. We uphold oppressive learning environments in the name of “grit” and “rigor” instead of liberating and empowering students through changes in our instruction, classroom culture, and teaching practices. Educators should examine how our teaching practices can negatively impact students and possibly perpetuate these harmful mindsets that are common in schools. The necessary mindset changes I speak of here are more than just being kind or nice, but require dismantling practices and structures that continue to harm and oppress our most vulnerable students. Justice-minded educators often have moved from mindsets that create harmful ideas about and within our learning environments to actively disrupting these unjust practices, ideals, and systems in their daily work.
Be anti-racist and culturally relevant. Educators teaching status quo content and curriculum will find that these are not inherently culturally relevant or anti-racist. Rather, educators must actively seek to be anti-racist with their teaching and allow time and space for more culturally relevant learning activities for our students. The ability to create a learning environment rich, robust, and successful for all students requires educators to not only know their content, but also understand that most content provided to students is whitewashed and myopic. Educators should always afford students authentic opportunities to explore and examine curriculum in a diverse and broader view. Our schools and classrooms must value inclusivity, actively be anti-racist, and become safe spaces for diversity to flourish, grow, and become the norm for our students.
Make time for critical thinking and collaboration: Aside from these words being a part of buzzword bingo, both critical thinking and the ability to problem solve collectively are essential pieces of a successful learning environment. Offering students opportunities to regularly engage in collaboration and critical thinking is crucial in schools. Provide your students with multiple opportunities to solve problems in groups, have healthy discourse, and work together to understand multiple perspectives and amplify student voice and choice. It is through these collaborative problem solving activities that we empower students, teach them to navigate working well with others, and also allow students to exercise their agency in learning situations. When student voice, problem solving, agency, and choice are key pieces of a learning environment, you are helping to create a more equitable learning environment and experience for all your students.
Doing the work in schools to #TakeAKnee is difficult and risky, but also rewarding. The rewards might not be fanfare or glamour, but instead can be a lasting and meaningful impact on the lives of students. Despite his detractors, haters, and naysayers, Kaepernick has selflessly done the work to bring racial injustice and police brutality in this country to the forefront. He and his efforts should be applauded rather than vilified because he sacrificed his career to create a sharper awareness and positive change in the world. More educators must now join this race and pick up the baton. I implore more educators to be vocal and address, discuss, and combat racism and social injustices that plague our schools and society through consistent actions. Until we all do a better job of this, we are perpetuating the cycle of status quo and do our youth a disservice.