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Aurora Public Schools Superintendent Rico Munn.

Aurora Public Schools Superintendent Rico Munn. (Photo by Andy Cross/The Denver Post)

Great teachers are experts at difficult conversations. Here’s their advice to America on talking about race.

Every day, teachers lead conversations that most of us are too afraid to have. Whether the topic is race, police violence, or guns, the best teachers are skilled at helping mere humans — young humans! — have difficult conversations with openness, honesty, and respect.

So as Americans struggle to talk about racism this week, who better to ask for advice than teachers? We spoke with seven educators across the country and compiled their suggestions below.

We hope this list is just the beginning. Comment with your thoughts, or send us an email.

Start by understanding yourself.

Jaishri Shankar, teacher in Kingstree, S.C. for the last three years:

These conversations have to be founded in your relationships with students. It’s uncomfortable — and it’s tougher if you’re coming from a distant place and you don’t already have a good relationship with your kids.

Another piece is understanding yourself and your identity. I am an Indian-American woman and the identities of most of my students have been African-American. Many share an identity with victims of police brutality … I’ve learned my role is to listen and learn.

The instant that stands out the most was the killing of Eric Garner. One of my students lived around the corner and she’d frequently come over and we’d sit on my porch and just hang out. We had just been talking about police brutality right before he was killed.

A couple of days [later] the audio was released, where he’s saying, ‘I cannot breathe.’ I looked around and I realized they could not care less about the layers of the Earth that day. What was more important was turning the classroom into what my kids needed. That day they didn’t need to know the layers of the Earth. They needed the space and time to process what was happening and what it means to them as students of color.

Defy your fear.

Jade Anderson, first-grade teacher at Memphis Business Academy:

Don’t be afraid. Your students want to hear what people are saying. They look up to you, they admire you.

I think we are afraid to talk about social issues, but the kids do understand. Be bold and be honest.

Acknowledge what’s going on.

Tyrone C. Howard, associate dean of equity, diversity, & inclusion and director, UCLA Black Male Institute:

I’m often surprised when things occur and teachers don’t say a word. They say, I teach chemistry, or what does this have to do with algebra. What exemplary teachers do is acknowledge it. Kids see these things on social media, and on the news media. And so the teachers create a space. They help them separate fact from fiction.

Teachers can provide a real sense of calming, and provide a real space for students to share what they’re feeling and thinking. When students are feeling scared for their own safety, they can provide that space.

And teachers have to inform themselves. They [have to] know what’s happening, so they can have a conversation. Not that they need to take sides, but so that they can help students make meaning.

How we get more teachers to get to do that is the million dollar question. We all just need a lot of understanding. This is a time for healing and empathy and love. And it sounds cliché, but we’re in a precarious time, and students need us more than they’ve needed us in a long time.

Move from sorrow to action.

Faith Benson, teacher at Wright Middle School in Nashville, Tenn.:

I think the first priority as a teacher is to talk about it.

When I go into the classroom after things like this happen — the events over the last week — my first priority is to make sure I am not retraumatizing my students. [This week] teachers acknowledged what happened but they did so in a way that really avoided the harsh details.

The ones who already knew about it, had been talking to their families about it — it was a gentle reminder that this is still important. Even though we’re in school, if you want to talk about it, you can. … If you’re ready to talk about it in the academic way, I think it’s important to carry it through academics.

My first year of teaching I saw the value of bringing things like this into the classroom. That year it was the death of Michael Brown. But the mistake I made, I kind of left my students … just thinking, ‘Wow. Things are really bad.’ And the important next step is yeah, it’s really bad. But here’s how you can become an advocate.

It’s kind of a tough place to be in, where you so deeply care about what happens in the world, but the world is telling you you’re too young to make a difference.

Remember: everyone lives in a context.

Rico Munn, superintendent of Aurora Public Schools in Colorado:

I’m a black man in America. That has some context in these stories. I’m the father of a young boy. That has its own context. And then I do think about it as an American and how it affects the children in my community.

The schools are part of the community. These aren’t school issues. These are larger societal issues. And schools tend to be a reflection of our society.

I think in any classroom setting, our teachers and teachers everywhere need to be aware of the experiences of their students — both individually and collectively. Good teaching takes those experiences and helps put it into context. Good teaching helps students understand the world around them, and how they can effect change in the world around them.

Push for evidence.

Rich Milner, Helen Faison Professor of Urban Education at the University of Pittsburgh:

What happens with students is they tend to adopt whatever their parents do on particular issues. What the educational system can do is really provide a space for students to think about and question their views on particular issues.

Play devil’s advocate, so there’s not just one narrative that is provided in the classroom. And really push students for evidence. Really early in their development, teachers should encourage students to substantiate their views.

The best teachers don’t always have the conversations only when there’s a catastrophe. They create the kind of classroom from the very beginning that is open to discourse and conversation. They position themselves as learners, not coming in as the arbiters of all knowledge. They express views, ask questions, situate their desks and chairs in ways that allow for a more communal conversation. Teachers also empower and equip students to lead the conversations on their own.

The thing is about deep self-reflection. Not just thinking about others, but starting with the self.

Resist the temptation to shut down.

Noelle Ford, high school Spanish teacher in Baltimore area:

Trayvon Martin happened when I was teaching, and what we did in my class, we read current event articles from five different media sources and we talked about bias, and they had to go through what is a fact, what happened.

I think it’s extremely important to have conversations. But it’s stronger when the students have those conversations between themselves, rather than me telling them what to think.

I taught for three years in South Carolina … It was a pretty diverse school. So things can get tense. We had the Emmanuel shootings [in Charleston, SC] happen when I was teaching. We had a lot of racial tension.

The first year I struggled to allow my students have honest conversations without it being guided by prejudice. But we strived as a team and a community to constantly have those conversations about tension. It’s better to bring it to light versus shutting it down.

Want more Chalkbeat? Check out What four recent conversations about race and policing looked like in classrooms across the country. You can follow us on Facebook, too.