For Joanne Barber, a second grade teacher at Crestwood Elementary School in Kent, last year’s Black Lives Matter protests presented an opportunity for her to teach more about race.
“I am willing to be that teacher that has those hard conversations,” she said. “I would be doing a huge disservice to my students if I didn’t give them information that they could see themselves in.”
For Barber, teaching students about racial history is just as important as reading or math.
Her class starts with defining social justice and talking about slavery, which led to institutional racism and implicit bias. Barber also weaves race and equity into every subject. Whether it’s learning about scientists or mathematicians of color, sharing social justice facts or reading about civil rights movements, every day in her class is filled with race education. She also provides resources and other useful information for her students’ families in case students have any questions.
This approach to teaching is something Barber frequently talks about with her colleagues around the Kent School District. She said the teachers often discuss how to help kids navigate difficult conversations and push through discomfort in discussing race.
One of her friends, Manuel Cadenas, a teacher at Kent-Meridian High School, said he tries to lead class discussions with honesty.
“I hope to keep it real. Like the scholars, I need a break from ‘keeping it together,’ ” he said in an email.
While teachers aren’t required to discuss racial equity, specifically, they can still choose to include the history of race or social justice in their own classrooms. The Washington State Board of Education recently announced plans to add an ethnic studies graduation requirement.
Bethany Spinler, the principal of Bellevue Big Picture School, said she is unsure if there are required teaching standards on race.
Although teachers aren't required to teach about race and equity in their classes, they do go through mandatory diversity training, which covers implicit bias, anti-discrimination, inclusion and cultural responsiveness. In the Bellevue School District, teachers are required to attend one full day of training every three years, according to the teachers union’s collective bargaining agreement.
Some local school districts have taken additional steps to bring in more equity-related topics in other classes like science, English and history.
“In Bellevue, we have been working very hard in grades 5, 8 and 11 to de-center the traditional ‘white’ perspective and to center the voices of people of color,” said Patricia Shelton, a curriculum developer in the Bellevue School District.
Shomari Jones, an equity specialist in Bellevue, has worked on this by removing books with the N-word, including The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, To Kill a Mockingbird and Of Mice and Men from the high school class curriculum.
“There were so many instances of students feeling further oppressed by being in a classroom space where these books were being read aloud,” he said. “[These] have continued the racial trauma and racial stamina necessary for a negatively impacted student to endure when attending school.”
Jones has also spearheaded the Break Out of the Margins (BOOM) and Sistahs Having Outstanding Uniqueness Together (SHOUT) programs for students in the Bellevue School District to further uplift student's voices. BOOM and SHOUT were held virtually in early June. Both programs are geared toward students of color, but students of all backgrounds are welcome.
At Interlake High School in Bellevue, social studies teacher Johanna Fischer says her class talks about Europeans starting their “explorations,” how laws changed to intentionally discriminate against African Americans and “how race is a social construct.”
She also used the BLM protests as a steppingstone to implement more discussions about race and equity on top of conversations that were already part of her curriculum.
“I was already trying to be intentional about integrating discussions about race and equity into my classroom prior to the BLM protests last year, but of course it brought a new level of awareness for many people,” Fischer said.
She has also kept conversations going about current events, including those that explicitly involve race.
While she is bringing these issues to light, Fischer isn’t sure how or whether they’re being infused into other classes at Interlake.
“It is my professional opinion that a teacher who does not feel comfortable/informed enough to discuss something like institutional racism and privilege with their own friends or family should not try to do it with students, as it will likely cause more damage than good, even if they have good intentions,” she added in an email.
While some teachers may be intentionally avoiding talking about race, some may not feel equipped to approach the topic.
After more than a year of teaching remotely because of the pandemic, Karen Ho, a first-year biology teacher at Bellevue Big Picture School, isn’t sure how to start these delicate conversations with students she’s barely met with in person. Being online for most of the year has made it harder to connect through shared racial experiences, she said.
“An element of shared experience is gone, and I want to make sure that our BIPOC classmates don't feel singled out,” Ho explained.
For Ho, there’s also the issue of online learning, where a huge sense of community is suddenly missing for her class.
“Extended quarantine and remote learning have made classroom community building extremely challenging, so my students aren't [collaborating] as much as they usually do, so these conversations don't feel as robust,” she said.
As an Asian American, Ho said she has also been stressed and exhausted worrying for her family amid many reports of anti-Asian violence.
“I've never before in my life been worried about my mom going out on a walk by herself, but my sister and I apparently BOTH and separately bought her personal alarm systems,” she said in an email. “It's never been something we've ever had to think about before, and the fact that both of us worried so much that we both bought alarms for her makes me feel really sick.”
Ho said she also hasn’t quite mastered how to teach students to be a good ally and is not sure how she feels about being the person a lot of people turn to as an expert on social justice issues.
“I'm just a normal person trying to make sense of things for myself,” Ho said.
Lucy Braginski is a student at Bellevue's Big Picture School. She wrote this story as part of part of a school project and student internship with Crosscut.