Guest Author: Students are the Missing Piece of Antiracist Education

By Susie Smith, Guest Author

Susie Smith is a middle school math teacher at Spark Academy in Lawrence. She is a Teacher Collaborative Anti-Racist Teaching Peer Leader and a founding member of the Student Voice Team.


Following the murders of George Floyd, Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor, and many others, the country turned a critical eye on itself to ask the question: how did we get here? Again. For some, this display of overt racism was appalling. For others, it was infuriating but familiar. Once more, over the summer and as the school year commenced, most of the country recognized the need to examine our roots.

Most people believe themselves not to be racist. This is especially true for educators – no teacher joins the classroom with the hope of oppressing or harming children. But is it enough to just not be racist? Even if our educators are not explicitly, overtly, or consciously racist, does that mean that they are doing enough to interrupt racial inequities?

As Dr. Beverly Daniel Tatum explains, racism is not always an active attitude but can include a passive existence. Racism is like a moving walkway:

       -  Racists walk forward with the walkway (take conscious action).

       -  Non-racism is like standing on the walkway and not doing anything. There is no deliberate action, but you still end up in the same place.

       -  Antiracism is making the conscious decision to walk in the opposite direction. This is the only way to not end up at the same destination. Antiracism is the consistently positive and proactive struggle to create more equitable systems through undoing, dismantling, reflecting, and reforming.

Schools across the country are realizing that non-racism isn't going to cut it anymore. We have to walk the other way: we are turning towards antiracism in the name of hope, freedom, and truth-telling for each of our students.

In the transition towards active antiracism, schools have repeatedly overlooked one vital point: we are often disenfranchising the students we are trying to serve. In our conversations about antiracism, is it not crucial to hear from the students who have experience in the classrooms? Research is valuable, and teacher input is imperative, but excluding student voice in conversations about the student experience is marginalizing the very voices that need to be at the center of our thinking and planning. Yet across the country and throughout history, students are so rarely welcomed into discussions of reimagining teaching and learning.

Even amidst the resurgence of energy for change in education, students are still fighting to have their perspectives included. Students in Paducah, Kentucky, have been protesting for weeks, calling for the resignation of their superintendent and school board members after a picture was discovered of the superintendent in blackface. Students in Baltimore and across Texas are using the momentum of the movement to call for an antiracist curriculum, equitable access to resources, and mental health support for students of color. Students in Southern California are lobbying their school board to fund a more diverse literature experience in schools. Students are stepping up and speaking out across the country in hopes of creating a better education system for themselves and the students that come after them—a system that acknowledges the full humanity of each student.

These students' civic action is impressive and inspiring, but upon closer examination, the entire situation is disheartening. Students are the purpose of education. Yet, to have their perspective represented, students are taking to the streets instead of talking to their teachers. Why is it that in order for student voice to get recognized, it must happen outside the school? Antiracism is meant to create an equitable system within schools for all students, but most antiracism discussions are leaving out the voices of students. How are we creating systems where all students are aware of their worth and power when our work towards that system disregards students? Students need to be in the room where it happens. If antiracism is meant to make students feel seen, heard, understood, and respected, our efforts are far from successful. Our students are not just the future; they are the most valuable part of the present. We need to make them partners in our progress forward.

In many places this is already happening. Through my work as an Anti-Racist Teaching Peer Leader with the Teacher Collaborative this past fall, I collaborated with the Rennie Center in their recent Back-to-School Educator Forum. Rennie previously published a 2019 report on examples of student voice across Massachusetts with guidance on how to include student voice. I’ve had the opportunity to work with many organizations, like Student Voice and the Prichard Committee Student Voice Team, that also provide examples and resources for seamlessly and systematically integrating student voice. I’ve watched schools transform themselves by including students as full partners instead of passive recipients.

Incorporating student voice is not as daunting a task as it may sound—some little changes can make a big impact. Here’s what you can do moving forward:

       -  Ask students what they want to learn about. When was the last time that the students chose what subject to examine using mathematical concepts or the topic to read about in their English class? Changes in individual classrooms can have profound impacts on students, so our work can start small.

       -  Audit your school! Take a formal and data-informed approach to analyzing student voice in your school. Create essential questions and gather data about student input. How frequently are students asked to collaborate or contribute? Disaggregate the data: are you equitably listening to students? What happens after students share their experiences? Here is one example of what can come out of a school audit.

       -  Institutionalize avenues for student voice within your school. Are there structures in place for students to share their thoughts? How accessible are they? Are they well-broadcasted? Consistent?

       -  Advocate for student representation. Advocate for students to have a place on school-based decision-making teams or on your local school board. Check to see if there are barriers to this representation—if there are, work on removing them.

       -  Request professional development. Educators won’t magically learn to perfectly incorporate student voice in a meaningful way overnight. Ask your school or district to provide or fund professional development for all staff about authentic student voice.