I grew up in a fairly quiet, conservative neighborhood. It was the kind of place where you didn’t really talk about controversial things. Not because anyone was overtly prejudicial, but because it simply wasn’t done. It was sort of an unspoken rule of etiquette. A mindset we carried from our homes to public spaces like churches, sports leagues, and schools.

All this changed for me in the 5th grade when I was enrolled in the class of Mrs. Janet Williams. Mrs. Williams was an African American woman with a warm heart and a sharp wit. She taught us the usual lessons of math, science, and reading, but also found time to teach us about the Civil Rights Movement. Our class learned about Rosa Parks and Ruby Bridges. We heard about the Little Rock Nine, saw photos of the Freedom Riders, and of course, listened to a recording of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr’s “I Have a Dream” speech.

I don’t remember much from my elementary school days, but I still remember those lessons.

History Catches Up

Unfortunately, teachers like Mrs. Williams are not as common as they should be. Too many of us grow up believing racism is something that happened a long time ago. Quiet communities usually prefer to stay mum rather than discuss controversial issues. Even educators can struggle over how much to discuss within our classrooms. One thing is certain though, there is a price to be paid for apathy.

The shocking deaths of Ahmaud Arbery, George Floyd, and Breonna Taylor have forced a reckoning on the American public. I don’t simply mean the riots and the protests. Some of us are grappling with a sense of shared culpability in the systems we perpetuate. Others are trying to figure out how to keep tragedies like these from ever happening again. Many just want to break something.

I have no solutions to these problems. I’m just as overwhelmed as everyone else. However, I do want to offer a word of encouragement to my fellow educators. To the teacher reading this, don’t shrink from controversy.

Be the Change for Your Students

Whether you realize it or not, you are a champion for your students. They may not realize it either, but your actions will have a profound effect on who they ultimately become. Conversations about racism, or the unjust killing of African Americans, will make both you and your class uncomfortable. Have the conversations anyway. Don’t shrink from controversy.

Because the young black students in your classroom need to know that you see them. They need to know they are not expendable. And the young white students in your care need to understand that they have a responsibility. They need to speak out against the injustices they see and take a stand to defend their peers. This might just be the most important lesson they learn in your classroom.

All We Can Do is Try

Of course, this isn’t just limited to racism. The world is full of controversial subjects that will find their way into your classroom. At some point your students will encounter xenophobia, homophobia, religious intolerance, or any number of evil things which plague our world. Our training as teachers may not prepare us for these hard conversations, but we need to speak out regardless. Every teacher knows you don’t solve a problem by avoiding it.

As we look toward the fall, it’s exhausting to consider this vital responsibility on top of everything else, but it’s also an incredible opportunity. We have the chance to make a real difference in the lives of our students if we don’t shrink from controversy. We can make their school a place where children of all backgrounds are inspired, empowered, protected, and valued. My hope is that you and your students will be able to walk into this new school year with open minds and open hearts. Together, we can build a world of wonder, creativity, empathy, hope, and joy.

All we need is the courage to speak up.

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*Photo by Jake Vanaman courtesy of Wikimedia Commons