ASK TEACHING TOLERANCE

Advice From the Experts

TT answers your tough questions.

Confederate flag stickers on a locker in the school hallway
Illustration by Sonny Ross

In my school, I regularly see students wearing Confederate flag paraphernalia. The student handbook forbids students from wearing offensive clothing and, although the flag is offensive to me and others in the school, students are still allowed to wear it. Do you have any suggestions for approaching my administration to address this?

It is certainly a good idea to bring these concerns forward. The Confederate flag is widely seen as a hate symbol even though some people defend it as heritage. That it might be someone’s heritage is beside the point: The dress code prohibits “offensive” clothing and presumably doesn’t require that it’s offensive to everyone. As long as it’s offensive or threatening to some students, that should be enough.

To address your concern with your administration, consider sharing stories of other school districts that have grappled with this decision. Some do it in response to community concerns, others only when they’re threatened with lawsuits.

You will also want to find allies. You’re probably not the only person who objects. It’s always a good idea to have evidence that the flag is widely perceived in your community as a divisive symbol.

Next, consider supporting student voice. The most powerful approach might be one that is led by students. If your students are offended, perhaps their friends are, too. Help them lead the charge. YouthinFront.org is a good resource.

Finally, have a written statement or letter to share not only with the school board or superintendent but also with the press and community on social media sites.

Student sitting in desk with eyes all around
Illustration by Sonny Ross

How do I best address the needs of the one or two students of color in my classroom when discussing racial issues so they don't feel the burden of representing their whole race? Some of them report that they feel every eye turn to them when we discuss race or read about certain events in history. 

It is important to remember that students are not representative of their race, and it is not the responsibility of any one individual (regardless of their race or ethnicity) to be expected to educate the entire class on race. Start with setting discussion norms for your classroom that include letting students know they will be talking about sensitive topics throughout the year. These early norms can also be co-created with students so that they take real ownership and hold each other accountable in an even more meaningful way. Focus on building relationships with and among students so that difficult conversations are easier to have. 

One idea is to have pre-conversations with kids who might feel uncomfortable when addressing these topics, inquiring about how they would like you to address the topic in class. Make a habit of sharing positive images and narratives of people of color throughout the year so that, when students engage with these images, it is not in a negative manner. 

We often talk about people and their culture as though everyone within that culture thinks and believes the same things. Instead, show the rich diversity within a culture. Start with small pairings or groups of students for discussions like this. If you do a whole-class discussion, set some shared expectations for how a particular issue should be addressed, and remind everyone of the norms you’ve already established. Assure students that any mistakes will be met with empathy and safety, and encourage the class to ask, “How?” and “Why?” 

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