Before they can lead their own classroom, teachers have to jump through a lot of hurdles.
Those teachers who majored in education during college spend years on courses focusing on the history, theory, and application of teaching, as well as focused coursework on their prospective teaching content. They spend at least a semester of student teaching and after graduating, the vast majority either sit for multiple required certification examinations or submit extensive teaching portfolios to state certification agencies.
For those teachers who did not major in education, their route is even longer; after earning their bachelor’s degrees, they enroll in alternate route certification programs or teacher residencies where they take at least a year’s worth of coursework before sitting for their certification examinations.
These pathways are expensive, rigorous, imperfect, exclusive, and, arguably, necessary and appropriate to ensure all students are taught by effective, prepared, and knowledgeable educators.
But there’s a problem.
A well-prepared teacher can still be a bigot.
A well-prepared teacher can still despise the very children they are supposed to support.
A well-prepared teacher can still refuse to do the introspection needed to identify and mitigate the oppressor that lives within them; the one that lives in all of us.
So how can schools ensure that they hire teachers who are well prepared and anti-racist?
It’s not easy, particularly in districts with high teacher turnover that struggle to hire well-equipped teachers in the first place; but it’s important.
The first step is to ensure that any teacher who is offered a position possesses the content expertise and pedagogical know-how necessary to teach. It is not justice for children to be taught poorly by an anti-racist educator who doesn’t know how to teach.
Getting Beyond Baseline Competence
Once that baseline has been established, we need to ask key questions during the interview process. Here are some examples:
- What privileges do you enjoy? This question can get prospective teachers to reveal whether or not they acknowledge that privileges exist that result in inequitable systems in American society and that they, due to some aspect of their identity, benefit from these privileges. If a prospective teacher struggles to name a privilege they hold, that raises a potential, though not necessarily disqualifying flag, that they have yet to do the work to become an anti-racist educator. If they respond that these privileges don’t exist, they can go do something else.
- How are you complicit in the perpetuation of racism/discrimination? Systemic racism, by its very nature,involves all those who live within the system. One cannot live within a systematically racist society without absorbing at least some racist tendencies or beliefs. If a prospective teacher struggles to answer this question, this could mean they haven’t done the necessary work to become an anti-racist teacher. If they state they are not racist, that is likely a defensive reflex that shows an unwillingness to engage in the work and should not be hired. A caveat with this question, however, is the debate over whether a Black person can actually be a racist. To recognize the view that people of color are structurally disempowered under white supremacy and therefore can only discriminate unfairly (without rising to the structural level of racism), the question can be altered to discuss discrimination instead of racism.
- What are your thoughts on meritocracy? In a society full of systemic head starts for some and obstacles for others, pure meritocracy doesn’t exist. While this doesn’t mean that people in powerful or lucrative positions haven’t worked hard, it does mean that access to these opportunities isn’t universal. If a teacher responds by understanding the problematic nuances that surround the idea of meritocracy, that likely means they have begun to understand the injustices that pervade America’s various systems. If, however, a teacher believes America is a society based on pure meritocracy, it means that this teacher has work to do and may struggle to empathize and support their students.
- What implicit biases do you hold and what do you do to mitigate them? Everybody has biases. There is no shame in this. But we are not controlled by our biases. We have the power to slow down and mitigate the impact of these biases. Any teacher should be able to answer this question. If, however, a teacher cannot, or will not, name an implicit bias, it means they are not capable ot the introspection and refleciton necessary to be a truly anti-racist teacher.
These questions are important because having effective, anti-racist teachers is important, and not just for students of color. All students need to see anti-racism in action day in and day out.
And for anybody who doubts or questions the necessity of anti-racist teachers, just look back into the annals of your own family trees and you will likely find a once-marginalized community. Would you want your child taught by someone who wasn’t ready to commit to fight against that discrimination? Of course not.
Every family, of every background, deserves a committed fighter on behalf of their children.