Speak Up at School
You’re an educator. You want to make the world a better place. You want to create a school environment that is safe and welcoming for all students—and you don’t want to let moments of bias pass silently. But what to say?
The best way to avoid being stymied when the moment occurs is to prepare. Simply telling yourself that you are someone who will speak up goes a long way toward shifting from inaction to action. So say to yourself:
- I am a person who will speak up against bigotry.
- I will not let hate have the last word.
A next step is to develop ready responses that will work in a variety of moments.
- That offends me.
- I don’t find that funny.
- I’m surprised to hear you say that.
These phrases allow you to speak up against bias in a simple, straightforward manner. Sometimes they may open a dialogue. Other times, they simply allow you to challenge bias and take a vocal stand against it.
Simple questions also are a good way to interrupt everyday bigotry.
- What do you mean by that?
- Why would you say something like that?
- What point are you trying to make by saying that?
Questions place a burden on the person who made the remark. When faced with having to explain a “joke” or support a stereotype, people sometimes find themselves at a loss. Follow up with a simple “Tell me more” to help the person move toward a deeper understanding of why the remark is offensive. If the speaker falls back on something such as, “C’mon, I was just being funny,” then you can use one of your ready responses, such as, “I don’t find that funny.”
Practice the phrases aloud. Memorize them. Have them ready for the next moment.
“The most important thing is to say something,” says Deb Nielsen, a middle school teacher in Durango, Colo. “Don’t let these kinds of put-downs pass. Put yourself out there, and you will make a difference.”
Nielsen offers her own set of standard responses:
- Did you mean to say something hurtful when you said that?
- Using that word as a put-down offends me.
- Using that word doesn’t help others feel safe or accepted here.
Keep these in mind as well:
How do you say it?
You know you’ll speak up. But what about tone and temperament? Veteran educators say it’s best if you remain calm and thoughtful. Don’t react with shock. Mostly, just be yourself. Be firm. Be confident. Know that you are doing the right thing. There is no need to shame or humiliate the other person; that tack too often works against you, galvanizing the behavior instead of changing it. Humor is risky. Sometimes it can defuse a tense situation. Other times, though, it can send a mixed message. Was something about the bigoted comment funny? Are you laughing at (and potentially shaming) the speaker, and will that backfire?
Assess the risk of speaking up.
You may be branded too sensitive, too “politically correct,” too something. You may feel the sting of rejection. You may fear retaliation by hostile students or colleagues. This is especially true when challenging someone in authority. So consider your safety in any moment when you may choose to speak up. Is now the best time? Could I handle this in a different way, later, that would be safer? Is there someone I trust—a colleague, a peer, a mentor—to whom I can speak about this, to help me prepare for the next time it happens? Try not to let unwarranted fear silence you, but do consider the consequences of speaking up—and weigh them against the consequences of not speaking up.
Understand the dynamics of change.
It happens slowly, and sometimes not at all. People can hold on to prejudice with tenacity. But know this: Speaking up offers a powerful force for good, and it is felt by all within earshot. If you speak up, others may follow— and others after them. You may inspire people to find the courage to speak up themselves, in a later moment. Don’t gauge success solely by whether the person you are addressing changes; change is happening all around you, and the ability to marginalize bias is a sign of success.
Don't undermine your efforts.
If changed behavior is what you are after, keep that goal in mind—and let it shape your response. Calling someone a “racist” may feel satisfying, but it also may reinforce that person’s bigotry, and be counterproductive. You may never change this person’s behavior—a tough realization in anti-bias work—but that doesn’t mean you should strengthen their cause by behaving badly yourself. “I’m not going to call another teacher racist,” says Tracy Oliver-Gary, an AP history teacher from Burtonsville, Md. “That just throws up a brick wall, and anything else I say will be lost.” As the old saying goes, be the change you want to see—and impart this idea to your students as often as possible. Keep in mind, too, that your students struggle with the same issues you do, and more.
Prepare Your Students
This guide aims to help people in school settings handle moments of everyday bias—when and how to speak up. But if all we do is speak up after the fact, we will forever be responding to the problem. So, at the outset, we want to put in a plug for prevention.
This work starts in preschool and kindergarten and carries right on through to high school graduation. It also begins on or before day one of any school year, when you consider how to build community within your classroom and how to develop ground rules or guidelines for communication.
Ask yourself, “What climate do I want in my classroom and my school?” Then ask yourself, “What can I do to promote that kind of atmosphere?”
Consider these ideas:
Language and Context
Students at all grade levels need language and context to help them become people who speak up against bias. Share with them the ready responses from the previous chapter. Or, better yet, brainstorm to come up with a list of their own, then keep that list posted in the classroom. It’s something you can refer to during the year.
In age-appropriate ways, discuss why some words hurt. Building context (historical, psychological, literary and so on) around such words helps students better understand their power to hurt.
Teachers who provide such language and context tell us that it often spreads outward from the classroom, into the halls and cafeteria, where they overhear students using language developed in the classroom to speak up against intolerant remarks.
Seasoned teachers tell us that classroom community is at the heart of anti-bias work. Help students build meaningful relationships within the classroom, and they will be ready and able to speak up against intolerance for themselves.
Develop ground rules for communication, with student input, at the outset of the school year. Post the rules prominently, and use them as a touchstone when an issue arises. By creating language together (“We want everyone to feel safe in our classroom.”) when a put-down is heard, you have that language ready: “I’m betting not everyone feels safe in this classroom when you say something like that, Marcus.”
Teachers who do this work at the beginning of the school year say that it pays off all year long in improved classroom behavior.
It pays off in other ways, too. Researchers have found the single best way to eliminate bias is by having students of different races, ethnicities, abilities and socioeconomic backgrounds work together on successful projects. So by creating classrooms in which that happens, you are doing the upstream work of preventing future incidents.
Modeling Behavior for Your Students
Dan Rubin, a high school language arts teacher in Las Cruces, N.M., encourages teachers to respond quickly and unequivocally when a student seeks help with a moment of bias—especially one in which the student felt powerless to respond.
Rubin shares an example from a time when he served as advisor to the Gay-Straight Alliance (GSA) at his high school.
At the beginning of the year, he asked GSA members whether they had any issues or concerns to share. One student described a moment that had occurred near the end of the previous school year. He told Rubin that one of his teachers had pulled him aside as the class was leaving, when the room was nearly empty. The teacher had told him, “I know a church that can help you with your ‘situation.’”
The student told Rubin that he felt stymied, uncertain how to respond, so he had said nothing.
Rubin immediately informed the principal via email. The next morning, the principal sent out an all-staff email reminding teachers that it was against district policy to discriminate against any student based on his or her sexual orientation. The text of the specific policy was included in the email.
The email concluded: “Let me give you fair warning—whatever your views may be, telling a student this is absolutely STRICTLY prohibited in our educational setting.”
Getting Students in the Frame of Mind
Students who want to speak up face the same issues that you confronted as you prepared. When you encourage them to speak up, remember to
- tell them they can do it.
- discuss the importance of tone and temperament.
- consider their safety.
- be patient and believe they can make a difference.
- keep their eyes on the behavior.
- avoid labeling people.