Teachers grapple with facilitating discussions concerning race


Emma Colacino and Claire Goldberg

Following the death of George Floyd last June, Orchestra teacher Nathan Hetherington instructed his students to take 60 seconds of peace to reflect on the event, he said. After the 60 seconds, Hetherington proceeded to check in with each student and asked them to share any thoughts or feelings on the event. After all the students had spoken, the event was not brought up again, he said. “I know that there is a better way to start to have these conversations in the context of Orchestra, I just don’t know what that is yet.”

In all disciplines, discussions concerning race result in a variety of comfort levels for teachers and students. While some white teachers feel qualified to lead conversations about race because of their educational background or experience, others feel hesitant and uncertain. As a result, conversations about race are still not fully integrated into the school.

Despite feelings of discomfort, it is important for people of all races to participate in these discussions, Acting Director of the Office for Identity, Culture, and institutional Equity (ICIE) Ronald Taylor said. Should the space be safe for them, people of color (POC) should feel empowered to share their experiences so that others can empathize with them, and white people should consider how they can use their privilege to dismantle systems of racism, Taylor said. “It’s important to have the action of people that don’t identify [the same way] as me to show up in spaces of power to enact changes that I may not be able to do.” 

For many teachers, leading discussions regarding race is a relatively new task, Hetherington said. “I don’t have a responsible level of expertise in this yet,” he said. “I’ve done some personal work to understand race and its place in my subject area, but I’m still working on translating this into something tangible that can benefit the students in the classroom.”

Within conversations about race, math teacher Benjamin Kafoglis does not want to create a situation where white students unintentionally offend students of color. “As white people, we often say racist things without realizing it,” he said. “I wouldn’t want a discussion to lead to more harm for people in my class — that’s often my greatest concern.”

Theater teacher Benjamin Posner has found that his identity as a white man makes him feel unqualified to lead conversations about race and racism at times. “I’m a total novice,” he said. “It’s uncomfortable for me, because these conversations make me realize that I am complicit at times in perpetuating systemic racism because I haven’t done anything about it.”

History teacher Dr. Ellen Bales, who identifies as white, feels that historical knowledge and expertise can lessen the discomfort around discussions of race in her class, she said. “These conversations don’t rely on the teacher having the identity of the group of people whose experience we’re talking about,” she said. “They rely on the teacher to be scrupulously honest and say there are limits to my knowledge.”

Without a background in the subject, science teacher George Epstein does not always feel like he is qualified to lead discussions about race, he said. For example, after the Grand Jury’s ruling in September to not indict the cops involved in Breonna Taylor’s murder, Epstein did not feel like he had the expertise to lead a conversation about it, he said. “I did not feel like I was necessarily the right person or the correct person to facilitate a full group discussion, at least not on my own.” As a result, his class did not have a group discussion about the incident.

Destiney Green (11) understands why teachers might feel unqualified or uncomfortable to talk about race, but people should try to lean into this uneasiness, she said. “Teachers might find that it is easier to avoid those conversations than to tackle them head on and deal with the discomfort in the classroom or the discomfort within themselves,” she said. “But the only way to solve some  of the problems in our world and in our community is by having these discussions.”

Hetherington prefers to invite students to share how they are feeling with the rest of the class, he said. “I try to think of a way to create a space where my students feel like what they’re going through is acknowledged even if I don’t quite feel ready to lead those discussions myself.”

Despite his concerns of not being qualified or experienced when it comes to discussions concerning race, Hetherington understands the importance of starting these discussions. “These conversations definitely make me nervous, but I also feel that as a teacher, it’s important that I’m not seen as excusing myself from the conversation,” he said. “Not so much for my own social or professional cachet, but as an example to my students.”

In creating spaces to discuss race, Green thinks that while it is important for teachers to create spaces where students feel open to participating, the point of discussions about race is not to be comfortable. “Students are afraid to say the wrong thing or to say something the wrong way, but you need to say those things so we can talk about it,” she said.

When beginning conversations about race, too often the onus of both starting and instructing conversations falls exclusively on POC, Jaden Richards (12) said. “It’s part of the burden that comes with being a marginalized group.” 

Students of color are often the only participants of these discussions, Krish Gandhi (9) said. “I participate in these talks more than others, because I personally experience racism, and therefore I have more to share.”

To try to alleviate the burden on students of color of beginning conversations about race, Kafoglis said it is important that he starts and facilitates them. “Especially since racism fundamentally is a problem of whiteness in many respects, it’s really the responsibility of white people to figure out their role and figure out how to address these problems,” he said.

As a way to create a space for white students to proactively figure out their role in conversations about race, Kafoglis co-runs a white student affinity group with French teacher Caroline Dolan. “Whiteness is a thing that white people need to figure out,” he said. “I envision this as the place where white students can come and be a little messy while trying to figure out their identity as a white person.” 

The group aims to learn and practice antiracist approaches and techniques through looking at texts, participating in role-playing activities, or just debriefing about personal experiences, Dolan said. “It’s a space where we can work on accountability and practice things that we’re working on as white people to try to be a more supportive member of our community, knowing that it is a predominantly white institution.”

Jonas Jacobson (12) joined the white affinity group after the Black Lives Matter (BLM) protests over the summer to take time to reflect on his identity. “It has helped me think about what I can do to make Horace Mann a more equitable space, and that starts with knowing who I am,” he said. “While a lot of affinity groups are for comfort and community, the white affinity group is more for understanding and growth.”

Having multiple spaces to discuss race is important because these conversations should not be confined to any specific class, Dolan said. “Problem-solving how to address systemic racism doesn’t stop at an English class,” she said. “It doesn’t stop at a history class. Those are things that we’re feeling in every single part of our society, and those impacts are going to be felt no matter where you are or what subject you’re teaching.”

For the past few years, Dean of Faculty Dr. Matthew Wallenfang has been looking for a way to have discussions about how race plays a central role in his AP Biology course. “I’ve been wanting to incorporate race beyond what biology teachers traditionally do, where they might, for example, only discuss skin color as a polygenic trait to explain why you see a spectrum of skin colors,” he said. 

To delve into the topic more, Wallenfang decided to teach the book “Superior: The Return of Race Science” by Angela Saini in AP Biology, which discusses the ways in which science has been misused to support racist ideas, he said. The class reads and discusses a chapter for homework each month.

The book has inspired some of the best conversations in that class all year, Wallenfang said. “The number of students from all different identities who wanted to contribute to the conversation was really encouraging to me.”  

Assistant Athletic Director Amy Mojica also discusses race within her health classes; however, conversations about race are relatively new to her. “I had the white privilege of never having to address race growing up,” she said. “So in my adulthood I have been putting in the work to be able to get the skill set to have these conversations, almost like playing catch-up.”

Topics in her health classes can be relevant to the discussions about current events, Mojica said. For instance, the insurrection at the Capitol coincided with her class’s mental health unit. “We had the opportunity to dig in deep with how we were feeling and discuss all of the events — both political and racial — that are affecting our mental health,” she said.

Health class already holds tough conversations, so the course is the perfect environment to hold discussions about race, Mojica said. “In health class, pretty much all topics are sensitive — from addiction to nutrition — so you need to get comfortable leaning into discomfort in this class,” she said. “For me, it’s just about creating a space to do that and then being willing, as a teacher, to try to help guide these conversations.”

While racial underpinnings in health are overt, the racial implications of math and science classes are more indirect, Epstein said. “When you tell stories about famous scientists, we’re not acknowledging the vast works of diverse groups of people whose contributions were overlooked.” 

Within the field of mathematics for much of history, only white people were given the tools necessary to succeed, Kafoglis said. For example, while many attribute the Pythagorean theorem solely to Pythagoras, there were many people who had similar ideas before him. “And yet, that’s how it’s known.”

Arts and photography can also be used to spark conversations of race, photography teacher Aaron Taylor said. The photos of the BLM protests displayed in Fisher Hall played a role in creating these discussions. “Having those images on campus was a really great reminder of the good work that students do and how they can use their art to bring change and awareness,” he said.

In orchestra, Hetherington tries to incorporate composers of color into the curriculum while also being mindful of tokenism, which is the practice of making a perfunctory effort to be anti-racist. “The model in the classical music world is that every February orchestras do a Black History Month concert where they play an entire program of Black composers, but the rest of the year they don’t play any Black composers,” he said. “I’m trying to be more mindful and intentionally inclusive than that.”

This year, Hetherington instructed Sinfonietta in playing a piece by the African American composer George Walker, he said. “I struggled a bit because I didn’t always know to what extent I should address [race] in rehearsal,” he said. Hetherington ended up holding discussions with Sinfonietta and assigning autobiographical readings on Walker. “In the end, it seemed important to let the composer speak for himself,” he said.

It is important that the teacher moderates conversations about race to prevent a situation where students could feel offended, Ailill Walsh (11) said. Last year, after Breonna Taylor’s murder, one of Walsh’s teachers opened up the floor for discussion, and a white student made a factually incorrect comment that many students percieved to be offensive and racist. The comment insinuated that the peaceful protesters were “thugs” who made civilians feel unsafe on the streets, he said. 

However, the teacher reaffirmed this problematic comment. “You could just see that there were students in the Zoom call that were really, really upset,” he said. “People were even crying. After such an earth-shattering event we really needed teachers to step up as mentors for us, and in that situation the total opposite happened.”

When he is a part of conversations regarding race, Julian Silverman (11), who identifies as white, tries to listen to the experiences of POC both inside and outside of the classroom. However, he wishes he could hear from the experiences of more POC than he currently does, given that the school is a predominantly white institution, he said. 

“In a school like Horace Mann, it’s pretty obvious that there are not many Black students,” Silverman said. “And that’s not what the world is like, so it’s I think it’s incredibly important to listen to what other people have to say.”

In these conversations both in and out of the classroom, students often make racist comments without knowing it, Gandhi said. “I haven’t experienced direct racism in the school community, but there are indirectly racist and awkward moments all the time.”

In discussions of race, merely creating a space for conversations underlines a key problem at the school which is that many teachers do not feel comfortable or qualified leading conversations about race and will therefore not lead the conversations, Richards said. “Teachers should be willing to try and to make mistakes.”

Rather than creating spaces for discussions, teachers need to be actively engaging students in these conversations, Richards said. No one should resign themselves to thinking that it is not necessary to volunteer their opinion, especially those who identify as white, he said. “I think about many of the activists like abolitionists and women’s rights activists, and they’re not just sitting and saying, ‘It’s not my job to make this country a better place.’”

On the other hand, Connor Dwin (11) thinks that while teachers need to start the conversation, students generally can lead the discussions on their own, he said. “If you bring up the topic, the students can do the rest.” As a result, teachers have no excuse for not bringing the conversation up — not even discomfort, he said. 

While there will always be both teachers and students who steer clear of discussions regarding race, teachers have no excuse, Dwin said. “A teacher’s job is not just to educate; it’s also to facilitate dialogue between kids and make sure that they are able to have tough conversations,” he said. “In shying away from conversations about race when it is so integral to American society, I think they’re not doing their job. This is part of their job description.”

Students and teachers should work to find a balance in these conversations between creating an echo chamber — where all participants only agree with each other, which inhibits learning — and saying something controversial and offending students, Aaron Shuchman (12) said. 

“There’s a lot of fear among people who aren’t POC at Horace Mann to share what they think about class discussions in fear of offending people, even if what they are saying is 100 percent right,” Shuchman said. 

This balance can be achieved by considering arguments rhetorically, Shuchman said. “Even if the class agrees on a topic, it might be helpful to discuss why the other side thinks the way they do,” he said. “I think the standard for what qualifies as ‘controversial’ is far too low these days, especially in a more ideologically homogeneous community like Horace Mann. Even if someone thinks something in class is controversial, we shouldn’t ascribe malice to that person, but instead try to understand their reasoning.”

Classroom discussions regarding race can become more natural if people are exposed to diversity from a younger age, Richards said. “It would be preferable if kids were having these discussions six or seven years ago and not in high school, but it can just ruin the experience for everyone,” he said. “Ultimately, there aren’t very many Black students here, and it’s hard to learn about something that you’ve never seriously interacted with.”

Richards hopes that race continues to be incorporated into the school community in impactful ways. “If you integrate race meaningfully into all your classes, and you make it truly matter, then it will not only become second nature for students, but they’ll eventually learn how to develop the vocabulary and have impactful discussions on this subject,” he said. 

An example of this would be discussing how the depiction of Black women in the modern day has connections to their depictions in the Trans-Atlantic slave trade or discussing the Tuskeegee syphilis trials in a science class, Richards said.

One way faculty members of all disciplines can work to incorporate discussions of race into the curriculum is by attending and encouraging their students to attend the Race and Ethnicity Speaker Series, history teacher Dr. Emily Straus ‘91 said. The speaker series is a year-long series that discusses the historical roots of current issues regarding race and ethnicity, according to its website. 

The series also includes a monthly faculty reading discussion group, where faculty members come together to read a piece by the speakers and discuss it, she said. “This helps not only to educate ourselves but also to have people from all disciplines feel equipped to have these discussions with their classes following the event.”

The discussions provide a model for holding conversations about race in a classroom setting, Wallenfang said. “As someone who typically has taught more textbook-based science material, it’s been great to participate in discussions about these issues with a multi-disciplinary group of colleagues,” he said. 

Upon starting to hold discussions on race in his classes, Posner has adopted a new outlook on racism in society from Kyle Tran Mhyre, a poet and activist, he said. He recalled a quote from Mhyre in an episode of Button Poetry: “White supremacy isn’t a shark in the water; it is the water, and we’re all swimming in it.”

“The stakes of discussing race are so high, I would rather make a fool of myself in trying and showing my vulnerability than to do nothing at all,” Posner said.