Race, Talk, and Teacher Space

by Center for Urban Education

The recent series of deaths of unarmed Black people at the hands of the police has spurred concern and conversation both inside and outside of school. While few researchers present ways for teachers to incorporate in-class learning opportunities that respond to racial injustices[1], we acknowledge that what teachers talk about and do in their classrooms are often influenced by their worldviews. Therefore, we were interested in (a) understanding if teachers believed discussions of race were appropriate for the classroom, (b) whether they felt prepared to engage in race conversations, and (c) what informed their beliefs about the importance of race talk with and among students. As part of this investigation, we found no established survey tools designed for capturing teachers’ beliefs and feelings about discussing race with students in the classroom. For this reason, we designed the Teachers’ Race Talk Survey (https://pitt.co1.qualtrics.com/jfe/form/SV_cIsNBHIZlAfqx6t).

The Teachers’ Race Talk Survey (TRTS)[2] is an exploratory data collection instrument CUE designed using the University of Pittsburgh’s Qualtrics software for the purposes of capturing how teachers report beliefs and feelings about discussing race with students in the classroom. A 33-item survey, the TRTS begins with nine demographic items, including teachers’ race, years teaching, and students’ racial demographic. Twelve closed-ended items, such as “I believe race is an important topic to discuss in the classroom,” aim to get a general sense of teachers’ beliefs or feelings by offering a forced response option of  “yes,” “no,” or “not sure.” Each closed-ended item is followed by an open-ended response prompt that asks participants to elaborate on their closed-ended responses.

Our sample selection began locally with current and former teacher education program students and local educational networks throughout Pittsburgh, including teacher education programs with access to current and former students. Nationally, the TRTS team invited all 62 AAU public and private school Deans of Education and/or Directors or Coordinators of Teacher Education Programs. The Literacy Research Association also posted the survey to its distribution list. The non-random sample of teachers in our initial TRTS sample is affiliated with AAU institutions, the University of Pittsburgh’s School of Education, and the Literacy Research Association. Further, participants self-selected into the study by voluntarily completing the survey. Therefore, what we have learned from this study, thus far, applies only to pre- and in-service teachers in this sample and not to broader teacher populations.

As Professor Rich Miler stated in an interview with The Atlantic[3], teachers (in this study) reported that they believe race is important to discuss with students in their classrooms, but teachers do not feel prepared to do so. While these teacher responses are telling, we have also learned how teachers rationalize their reported beliefs. For instance, in a co-authored manuscript, Alvarez and Milner[4] showcase how teachers’ race talk symbolizes aspects of color-blind racism by viewing police violence on unarmed Black bodies as either a natural occurrence of disobeying the law or by minimizing the role that race plays. Much of what we have learned from this facet of our research in the Center for Urban Education points to the need for rethinking how we center race in education and especially in how teacher education programs prepare teachers to teach.   

Though Milner has offered strategies for teachers who are interested in incorporating discussions about race in their classrooms[5], it is imperative that we recognize the need to bolster the system in which future teachers are prepared. Additionally, we have found through our work with the TRTS that administrative and parent support are critical drivers of teachers’ decisions to discuss race in the classroom[6]. In other words, teachers may be more likely to engage in productive, justice-centered race talks when they (a) feel prepared and (b) believe they have support of school administrators and parents. Based on our analyses, this means a greater emphasis should be placed on centering race in teacher education, educational leadership and community engagement. The findings from this wave of research will inform future phases of the Teachers’ Race Talk Survey. We recently secured funding to conduct TRTS interviews in cities across the country where incidents of police violence triggered investigations by the Department of Justice (e.g., in Baltimore with Eric Garner; in Cleveland with Tamir Rice; in Ferguson with Michael Brown). Our goal is to gain a deeper understanding of what drives teachers to engage or not engage in race talk with their students.

While this work scarcely addresses the bigger issue of racial injustice, it begins to help us understand what role teachers can play. Consequently, questions continue to emerge; for instance: what do students have the opportunity to learn based on the decisions that teachers make[7]; how can teacher education programs deepen future teachers’ understanding of the salience of race; and what do teacher educators need to know in order to adequately prepare future teachers to engage race head-on? 

[1] Cassily and Clarke-Vivier (2016) shared #FergusonSyllabus, one way to shape curriculum around the unrest following the shooting of unarmed Black male, Michael Brown in 2014. Similarly, Berry and Stovall (2013) modeled how curriculum could use the killing of Trayvon Martin to center race in teaching. These examples of curricular transformations build on accounts of police violence by stressing the criticality of teachers’ beliefs and consciousness toward rejecting status quo practices that allow racial inequity to persist

[2] Milner, H.R., Delale-O’Connor, L.A., Murray, I. E. & Alvarez, A.J. (2016). Teachers’ Race Talk Survey https://pitt.co1.qualtrics.com/jfe/form/SV_cIsNBHIZlAfqx6t

[3] https://www.theatlantic.com/education/archive/2017/01/how-teachers-learn-to-discuss-racism/512474/?utm_source=eb

[4] Alvarez, A.J. & Milner, H.R. (in review). Exploring teachers’ beliefs about race and police violence.

[5] http://hepg.org/blog/ten-teacher-recommendations-in-facilitating-conver

[6] https://www.huffingtonpost.com/entry/59d1281be4b0f3c468060f98

[7] Milner, H.R. (in press). Cultivating problem solvers in shifting cultural contexts. Educational Leadership, p. 88-89. In this contribution, Milner addresses race talk as a null curriculum.