My children of color are in a predominantly white school. How can I be an effective advocate for them?

The College of Education Dean, Dr. Donald Easton-Brooks talks about opportunities of engagement between parents and teachers.

A young girl solves a math problem on a classroom's whiteboard

My children of color are in a predominantly white school. How can I be an effective advocate for them?

The College of Education Dean, Dr. Donald Easton-Brooks talks about opportunities of engagement between parents and teachers.

A young girl solves a math problem on a classroom's whiteboard

Inclusion and integration of culturally diverse perspectives, understanding, and learning within the classroom is important for student success. The teaching profession has come a long way in providing culturally responsive instruction to diverse learners, however, this is not always the case. Youth of color may face challenges in the school system when the curriculum and teaching styles do not integrate diverse perspectives. As a parent, it may be difficult to help your child navigate these challenges.

There are several ways you can help to improve your child’s classroom to be more culturally responsive and help your child to address challenges if they arise. Below is an actual example of a class assignment that reflects a culturally biased perspective.

An assignment in my 4th grade son’s classroom was to learn about immigration by dressing as their ancestors who immigrated to the United States through Ellis Island, which was the main port for millions of immigrants, however, these immigrants were predominantly white from European countries.

The challenge with this assignment is that it left out people of color who arrived by way of forced migration through Trans-Atlantic slave trade cities, Angel Island and border migration. Thus, the assignment was likely to be seen differently from the perspective of student of colors than white students. 

Here’s how we can address these types of situations:

  1. Advocate for your child. In cases such as these, assignments may be unintentionally culturally-biased. Parents can take the time to speak with the teachers and help them to identify when assignments may be geared toward specific cultural perspectives – in this case, with focusing an assignment only on Ellis Island, we ostracize students of color whose ancestors came to the U.S. through other ways. Starting this conversation allows you to help the teacher in being open to understanding cultural differences within the classroom.
  2. Be willing to share with teachers and schools. In order to get schools to move toward cultural responsivity, we must be willing to share our cultures with teachers. By sharing, we can give different cultural perspectives to incorporate into lessons. However, it is important that we are careful in engaging while avoiding participating in stereotypes. For example, by only engaging in conversations about diversity during national heritage months like African American History Month or National American Indian Heritage Month, we allow for our culture to remain separate from everyday instruction. We should instead, aim to have culturally responsive lessons and assignments consistently throughout the school year and having ongoing and open conversation teachers.
  3. Address conflicts. First, it is important that as parents, we try hard to separate our emotions from the situation. Unfortunately, there are situations that present themselves that are difficult to deal with – especially when there are clear forms of racially motivated behaviors. However, if there is a level of uncertainty, as parents, we should help our children see the whole picture and navigate the situation by understanding what the teacher may have meant in the interaction. For instance, in the situation mentioned above, my child felt very frustrated in the lack of representation of non-whites in the immigration assignment. By stepping back and helping my son understand the intent of the assignment, it helped him to better understand how to present his concern to the teacher.

    It is important to help our students know that sometimes we may look at situations differently, because we may not all have the same experiences. Also, as parents, we must understand this to be true. Therefore, as we approach teachers, we have to not assume the teacher is trying to be intentionally offensive. We have to be able to engage in open communication and model to our children effective ways to have conversations around culturally bias situations.

    As parents, we must also be able to look within ourselves and identify our own beliefs and expectations which may be affecting how we are perceiving the situation. Sometimes we can go in to a situation believing that it is racially motivated, especially when our children are the few or only student of color. However, the situation may just be a lack of understanding or simply lack of cultural knowledge or experience in the class. When there are facts to support racial motivation (i.e., racial statements made), again, it is best to try to separate our emotions from the situation, model to our children appropriate actions, and speak with school administrators.

We want our children to be active participants in their learning under the best possible learning conditions – but this can only happen if we are willing to assess and identify culturally biased instruction, advocate for our children and their needs, and engage in ongoing and open dialogues with the school to help them create culturally appropriate settings that foster learning and positive social experiences for all children in the classroom.

Donald Easton-Brooks smiling for a photo outside the College of Education

Donald Easton-Brooks is the new dean of the College of Education. Easton-Brooks came to the University following a high-achieving and record-setting tenure as dean of the School of Education at the University of South Dakota. He is a nationally and internationally recognized leader in the areas of diversity and equity. He is a section editor on "The Handbook of Teachers of Color" through the American Educational Research Association (AERA), and he is author of the just released book, "Ethnic Matching: Academic Success of Students of Color."

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