Teaching race

Clockwise from top-left: Todd Mealy, Georgette Hackman, Alynna Hanson, Brandon Allen and Elizabeth Raff. 

Anger built up inside Brandon Allen as he watched a video of George Floyd plead for his life while a Minneapolis police officer knelt on his neck until he stopped breathing.

“It literally broke my heart,” said Allen, a 2015 McCaskey Campus graduate who recently completed his history-secondary education degree at Towson University and hopes to soon manage a classroom of his own.

It made him think of how he could prevent incidents like this from happening. And for many teachers, the work to defeat racism starts in the classroom.

Educators with ties to Lancaster County said Floyd’s death, and the international protests that followed, were a stark reminder that education — intentional or not — is too often focused on white students and the generations before them that recorded history from their own, singular perspective.

Teachers, they said, must step up and make sure students of color can relate to what they’re learning and feel their voice is heard and appreciated in the classroom. And that means all teachers — not just those of color.

“As white educators, we have to do the work,” said Elizabeth Raff, a sixth grade teacher at Pequea Elementary School and one of 12 finalists — who are all white — for 2021 Pennsylvania Teacher of the Year.

Raff said teachers have a moral responsibility to have tough conversations with students. That’s something she incorporates in her classroom — whether it’s discussing professional football player and civil rights activist Colin Kaepernick or the merits of reciting the Pledge of Allegiance.

Georgette Hackman, a seventh grade social studies teacher at Cocalico Middle School, said teachers play an integral role in shaping classroom communities to mirror how they hope the world can look in the future.

“I can certainly teach my students a more productive form of conversation and acceptance, and one in which each person’s humanity is acknowledged and celebrated,” she said.

Hackman said one way she does that is by diversifying resources used in the classroom. History shouldn’t just be told by dead white people, Hackman said.

Such a task can be hard for teachers trying to make a change, since the nation’s education system has prioritized white students, particularly male, for decades, according to Penn Manor High School social studies teacher, adjunct professor at Dickinson College and author Todd Mealy.

Since schools desegregated and minority students were pulled into schools that catered to whites, students of color have been given the short end of the stick — whether it’s the lack of diversity among teachers or the harsher discipline they face, Mealy said.

“We have a system where we have racism without racists,” he said.

Some teachers pledge they’re blind to color, but that only enhances the problem and unintentionally devalues minority student voices, he said.

Mealy is doing his part. In 2017, he created a race studies course at Penn Manor; he’s the director of equity and instruction at The Bond Educational Group; he founded the Equity Institute for Race Conscious Pedagogy in tandem with his forthcoming book to be released in November, “Race Conscious Pedagogy: Disrupting Racism at Majority White Schools.”

For Alynne Hanson, an assistant principal at McKinley School in York and a 2000 McCaskey graduate, there’s some hope that Floyd’s death will change how students are taught. She said a lot of her white friends have stopped being silent about racial inequality, which is a good sign.

“I really think that teachers and staff members … have to recognize, acknowledge their bias, their privilege, their microaggressions, and I think that people have to stop looking at brown people in poverty as the problem,” she said. “That’s not the problem. Racism is the problem.”