When Whitney Weathers’ son came home with a pretend gun in his hand after a playdate with a white friend, clueless to the George Floyd murder and protests, Weathers immediately said to him, “Oh black boy, you do not get to pretend that you have a gun in your hand.”
Her son, 9 years old, already knew why. “It’s because people will kill me,” he told his mother, adding, “Mom, I don’t know why they don’t like us.”
Weathers, an assistant principal at Manual High School in Denver, is one of many educators facing multiple challenges as protests sweep the nation following the killing of George Floyd, an unarmed black man, by Minneapolis police. Compounded with the disproportionate impact of COVID-19 on black and Hispanic communities — the same communities bearing the brunt of police brutality — many educators of color are balancing working from home while caring for their families, losing loved ones, and the trauma and exhaustion that come with navigating systemic racism.
William Anderson, a teacher leader at Manual High School, said he’s “just trying to deal” as events unfold.
“People act every time that this is something new that’s happening. What you mean, ‘Can I believe that it happened?’” he said. “It happened like two weeks ago, and before that, it happened two months ago.”
He explained that a basic understanding of and empathy toward the impact on black individuals who have witnessed 400 years of injustice is largely absent from the conversations he’s had with his fellow educators.
“It would be nice if people within our profession could use more of their common sense — the fact that I’ve had so many colleagues ask me, ‘How does it feel?’” Anderson said. “Think about how you would feel if you saw that happen to your niece, brother, son — especially if this was the umpteenth time that this happened.”
Chad Mazza, assistant superintendent at Somerville Public Schools in Massachusetts, said he’s trying to give teachers flexibility in their schedules. And specifically for students of color, Mazza and his team plans to facilitate town hall conversations to learn how the district can best provide support based on their needs.
But while really listening to the black community without interjecting with an opinion is important, Weathers said public, group-setting conversations can be burdensome. “Stop asking black people to grieve publicly,” Weathers explained to her non-black colleagues in a meeting. “And stop asking black people to listen to the grief of non-black people in a professional setting. Why are you asking me to display my feelings when I don’t even know how I feel?”
Weathers has made it a point to check in individually with all her black male educators and express her support.
For educators, Mazza’s district will provide professional development around social-emotional learning practices and increase supports already in place.
“Giving teachers, paraprofessionals and all of our workers strategies for self care will assist,” Mazza said, noting the district has built mental health sick days into its contract. “But we also know that we have to be very flexible.”
“I think we need to be really clear and explicit about what happened,” American Federation of Teachers President Randi Weingarten, who is white, said in a webinar Wednesday. “Because it needs to wake up people of my skin color, who can’t hide in the inconvenience of the fact that those of us who are white have had more privilege than those who do not.”
Anderson said it helped that his administrator, a white male, not only acknowledged the issue, but also recognized the variety of feelings people carried with them as a result of current and past events.
“He recognized that he doesn’t have the answers to this problem and doesn’t have space to speak on the problem,” Anderson said, adding his administrator adopted a hands-off, listening approach to how he could best support the schools’ educators.
“Rather than him acknowledging it and [saying] ‘let’s keep it pushing,’ he was hearing what was being said. [He] was being understanding enough to say that this probably isn’t the best time for us to do what was planned so we’re going to table it for a better time.”
Weathers said she’s struggling with empty empathy from her white leaders and coworkers, some of whom have expressed interest in marching in the recent protests.
“What I need is for a white leader to say to me: I have participated in the systematic racism in the following way, and I commit to stop doing these things,” she said. “If you don’t start firing white teachers who continually mistreat your children, then you’re just getting steps in on your Fitbit.”