By Ted McCarthy, Principal of Sutton High School in Sutton, MA and an Inspired Learning Catalyst
The truth is, I didn’t think much about that comment until about a year later. I was having a conversation with a student named “Mike” - he was black - and I asked him why he was having trouble in a particular class. He looked at me and said “Mr. McCarthy - what do you want me to do? They all say I’m ‘their N-word’ and call me ‘their boy’.” If you had polled the senior class that year, they would have told you that Mike was universally beloved, popular, and a great member of the class. But his friends - each of whom was white - felt no pause using a word that has been used to violently target African Americans throughout history. Was their intent to be racist? Most likely - no. Did their behavior and language create a racist environment in my school? Undoubtedly - yes. Mike and I finished up the conversation, and I told him that I would do something about what he told me. If he asked me right then what I was going to do - I wouldn’t have an answer to give him. It was one of the worst experiences I’ve had in my career.
Sutton High School is like a lot of suburban schools. Great kids. Proud traditions. Engaged community support. And almost entirely white. The Sutton Public Schools reflect the community. The town - and the high school - are incredibly homogeneous. What I realized in Sutton is that the issue wasn’t just about the small group of students of color, it was actually about our white students. Our white students had no experience living and working in a truly diverse environment. They had relatively few opportunities to interact with other students whose life experiences were different from their own, simply because of the color of their skin. If we were going to ensure that our school was a place where every student would feel safe and welcomed, and set our students up for success in a world that is far more diverse than the one where they spent the first thirteen years of their educational career, we needed to address issues of race, bias, and privilege directly. We owed it to them to do something different.
Dr. Ibrim Kendi, author of Stamped from the Beginning: The Definitive History of Racist Ideas in America and most recently, How to Be An Antiracist says about the topic of race & racism, “In no other capacity is a problem solved by not talking about it. And yes, it’s extremely hard to treat racism.” Yet, that is exactly what many schools do when it comes to the topic. If asked, almost every person in your school would agree that we should educate our students on issues of race and challenge any previously learned prejudiced or even racist ideas they may hold. However, how many of us systematically and intentionally have programs and practices that do just that? And if we don’t - why don’t we?
In Sutton, we have started to address these issues in a more direct and focused way - and we are seeing the results. We have programs in place that give our students the opportunity to explore these topics in a deep and meaningful way, not just as a side part of a lesson in English or history class. We’ve provided training to our staff so that they can be more aware of issues of implicit bias in their own practice and take steps to make their classrooms more inclusive and welcoming. And our Connections Club - a group of teachers and students that works on issues of social justice in our community, hosted our first Connections Conference where we hosted over 500 students, teachers, and administrators from all over Massachusetts. It was an inspiring day where participants got to learn from experts, and think about how they can make positive change in their own communities. We are hosting even more schools (and more states!) at this year’s conference. Do these steps make us perfect? Far from it. But now I have an answer for Mike if he ever asked me that question.
As teachers, we would never expect our students to know something without us teaching it to them. As school leaders, it’s our responsibility to make sure that our school’s mission is more than a phrase on the website. We don’t need to be experts to start meaningful work to make our schools more inclusive and equitable. Certainly, when I had that conversation with Mike - I was far less aware and educated on issues of social justice in schools than I am now. I was lucky to have great teachers with whom I could partner and learn. No one wants their students to end up as cautionary tales of racism on Twitter or the Internet. More importantly, though, we want our students to be self-aware, empathic, and just. We want our students to change the world for the better, and if they are going to do that they need us to make school a place where they think about and wrestle with things that truly matter.
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