Too often, individuals respond to accusations of white privilege with defensiveness, believing it to be a personal affront. Fifth-grade teacher Emily E. Smith effortlessly understands otherwise.
Smith has always been a wonderfully unconventional teacher—she founded The Hive Society, which puts classroom emphasis on current events and uses unique mediums to teach students about the world, such as TED talks. She was also recently the recipient of the 2015 Donald H. Graves Award for Excellence in the Teaching of Writing.
In her acceptance speech for the award, she spoke about a defining moment in her career that made her reconsider everything she knew as an instructor—“Things changed for me when…one of my kids bluntly told me I ‘couldn't understand because I was a white lady.’ I had to agree with him. I sat there and tried to speak openly about how I could never fully understand and went home and cried, because my children knew about white privilege before I did. The closest I could ever come was empathy."
Rather than taking her student’s comment personally, Smith decided to reconfigure the way she taught her classrooms, providing her students with opportunities to empathize and understand a diverse array of perspectives.
She had her students specifically study literature written by people of color, such as Sandra Cisneros, Gary Soto, and even contemporary writer Ta-Nehisi Coates. More importantly, she allowed these texts to inspire discussions about race and the way it currently functions in American society. She also encouraged classroom discussion on current issues, such as the Syrian refugee crisis, and helped her students understand the narratives of these displaced people are not so dissimilar to many of the students’ immigrant backgrounds.
This may seem sophisticated for fifth-graders, but from the way her students took to the material, it is clear that given the opportunity, even young children can approach and embrace more complex topics.
Smith’s excellent style of teaching should serve as an source of inspiration for teachers around the United States, considering the majority of students in K-12 are now children of color.
She put it best herself: "I can’t change the color of my skin or where I come from or what the teacher workforce looks like at this moment, but I can change the way I teach. So I am going to soapbox about something after all. Be the teacher your children of color deserve. In fact, even if you don’t teach children of color, be the teacher America’s children of color deserve, because we, the teachers, are responsible for instilling empathy and understanding in the hearts of all kids. We are responsible for the future of this country."
Banner Image Credit: Twitter, @EmilyE_Smith