In Their Own Words: Students Talk About Racism and What They Need from Teachers

By Stephanie Filio

Students Talk About Racism

Our students are our greatest primary sources, and they offer us more information than we can gain from any professional development session. The only way for us, as adults, to know what students feel, need, and hope to see from their educators is to ask them. That’s exactly what a colleague and I set out to do to better shape the training we will provide teachers when we return to school.

The following quotes* are transcribed from a roundtable discussion with several amazing eighth-grade students who were troubled as they watched the murder of George Floyd and subsequent protesting in the weeks that followed. The students are incredibly introspective and honest. They are our hope, our future leaders, and our “what’s next?” as we fight to break down systemic and institutional racism and bigotry of all kinds.

How do recent these events make you feel?

Ward: As a student, these events make me feel a different number of emotions. I don’t know how to explain it. I can’t really pinpoint it to one emotion. It’s mad, it’s sad, it’s a little bit of fear because I’m a young Black man. I don’t want to fear for my life. I don’t want to have racist cops come and look at me different types of ways because of my skin color. It happens now, to be honest, and it’s hard for me because I don’t want to feel scared and I don’t want other people to feel scared.

Christina: I don’t want to be afraid that my brothers are being harassed because of their color. It’s like we have to protect ourselves, because the people who are supposed to protect us are not doing their jobs. It’s not all of them, and it may be only a couple of them who ruin it for everyone, because not all police officers are that bad. But the ones who are make everyone think that we have to protect ourselves. That’s not how it’s supposed to be. If that was the case, then there would be no police officers, there would be no firefighters, there would be no government. Because we have put our trust in these people, I think they should do their job. Instead, young people are having to have conversations like this!

Iyan: To be honest, when George Floyd died at first I feel like I was just like, “It’s another Black man dying.” It just felt sad. Then I thought everyone would agree with me, but I went on Twitter and I looked at the comments and it was a bunch of people trying to dig up dirt on George Floyd instead of looking at the main problem. It’s disgusting to be honest.

I feel like there really needs to be some change, because I think there are good people in the positions of being police officers, but I think it’s a system that is against us. That’s just how I feel. We make up 13 percent of the population of America but we fill more than double that of the prison systems in America. We are not all (or majority) criminals, but I feel like they target us to bring us down and it’s like, it’s against us.

If we were in school, would you expect teachers to bring these topics up or should we wait until you guys bring it up? How would you envision that happening?

Christina: One thing that I think students need from teachers is overall communication and understanding. I think that comes from not only teaching, but listening. It’s not always in what students say, but observing them and their facial expressions (the way they walk, the way they talk). Listen and observe.

Understand that I am not mad at you. We are not mad at the teachers. But we have situations at home—and that’s not just people who are Black. It’s about understanding that we’re not always mad at you. Anger doesn’t always come from school, but a lot of times something at home. You know, our parents are on us about different things, and we have stuff to do, and it’s overwhelming.

And all of this current stuff is overwhelming because we know that our lives are not, you know, as equal as the public may say. They say “we are giving Blacks equality,” but they’re not. It’s like they’ve brainwashed themselves until they think that they are treating us equal, but they’re not. Some people care, and some don’t want to care. Some don’t even know they’re doing it; they’re just trained. You know, when you’re born, you’re not born a racist. You have to be taught that. So we’re mad at that.

Communication is not always a lesson from the curriculum. You know, just have a 20-minute lesson where you talk about how you feel. Like, “Let’s get this under control because I want you to trust me and I want you to know that I’m not one of those people. I’m here for you.” And communication and understanding are key because I just think that that’s what most kids need. Not everything is good and Gucci at home, so when we get to school, it’s kind of like, “Okay, I can be free. I can let loose.” We should feel that safety at school, and one way that we can feel safe at school is with understanding from teachers when they speak and when they need to listen when something needs to be heard.

What do you think is missing from your education that would help you and your peers better understand situations like this? What topics do you want to learn about?

Mya: In order for us students to better understand what is really going on, teachers should not sugarcoat anything. We should just get the truth. Especially as we get older, we should know what is going on in our society because we need to be ready for what is going to happen. Like, with everything that is going on right now, I feel like this would have been a better situation if people would have understood what was happening, if they hadn’t had it in their head that this isn’t a sugarcoated world of cupcakes and rainbows. Because, really, it’s hard to live in. We need to understand what is going on so that we can know what to do in these types of situations. Then we can also get together instead of being divided and separated. Because history is repeating itself over and over again, we should already know what to do.

Iyan: I feel like the history that they teach us leaves out a lot of Black history. I feel like they should really teach us how White people treated us. Even if it has to come down to graphic pictures, because people don’t understand why we feel this way and why we are tired of stuff happening. Again, they are sugarcoating history. In order to understand what is happening today (and why we feel this way), people have to really include what actually happened and how America was built with our hands. Because we shouldn’t have to earn people’s respect now, because of what we have done for our country in the past.

Michael: One topic I would like to learn is, what were we before (or other than) slaves? I wish they would include more information, like, Black history is not just us as slaves.

Looking at the article on Jaylen Brown, who is a young NBA star and is part of today’s youth, what are some of the things that he was able to do as he was trying to bring about change?

Mya: He was saying that as a young Black man, he needs to be a part of the community that he’s from. He said that as a young person, people have got to listen to our voices and we have got to be heard. That really stood out to me because I feel, like, we are going through what they’re going through too! Even though we are young, it does not mean that we don’t have our own perspectives, good heads on our shoulders, and important words to say. We need to speak up and know what we are talking about so that older people will listen to us so we don’t go unnoticed. We are this country’s future, so it’s like we have to do what we have to do to grow and become the future leaders of this country.

*Quotes and names used with permission.

Stephanie FilioStephanie Filio is a middle school counselor in Virginia Beach. She received her undergraduate degree in interdisciplinary studies from the University of Virginia and her M.Ed. in counseling from Old Dominion University. In a discussion with one of her UVA professors about her desire to stay in school forever, her mentor wisely responded, “If you want to be a lifelong learner, go into education,” and so she found her place. Prior to her six years as a school counselor, Stephanie worked in private education, specializing in standardized tests, test preparation, and future planning. She writes about her career and hobbies at her blog, Weekend Therapy, and can be found on Twitter @steffschoolcoun. Stephanie also enjoys spending time with her books, crafts, and family.


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3 Responses to In Their Own Words: Students Talk About Racism and What They Need from Teachers

  1. Patricia Bentley says:

    I am glad that the children are given an opportunity to express their feeling about major concerns.

  2. Pingback: Check My Kids Out!! | weekend therapy

  3. I was a substitute teacher from 2003-2009, and as a black man, I agree with this whole post.

    http://www.ChristopherFitzgeraldTV.wordpress.com

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