Four Qualities of an Effective Ethnic Studies Teacher
By Kara Cisco
The new draft of Minnesota’s social studies standards requires students to learn ethnic studies at every grade level. Students of all backgrounds will benefit from this new program, but choosing the right people to teach it is critical to ensuring learning is effective, not oppressive.
Ethnic studies is my area of expertise—teaching and providing curriculum, support, and training for districts and educators across the country. That said, I believe there are four characteristics all effective ethnic studies teachers should have, and I encourage school leaders to take these qualities into account when deciding how to implement Minnesota’s newest content area.
1. Continually re-examines what they “know”
Any teacher leading an ethnic studies course must approach content with a decolonized mindset. We face stereotypes and implicit biases in the spaces and systems we occupy, and the people we interact with daily. The history most of us received in school relied on McGraw-Hill and Pearson—historic models rooted in white supremacy and full of gaps. When I started teaching ethnic studies, I held a degree in African-American studies and a great deal of experience teaching Black, Latino, Indigenous, and Asian American Pacific Islander (AAPI) history. And I helped integrate the rich curriculum of other organizations, like the Minnesota Historical Society, as a consultant. Yet, despite my experience, I surprise myself (even today) at the small and hidden ways I’ve been primed to perpetuate a myth of American exceptionalism through my own education.
Ethnic studies teachers must challenge themselves every day to eliminate racist perspectives, understanding that many of the things they’ve learned might be inaccurate or have a dangerously biased view. Doing so gives way to a willingness and ability to critique topics with students. My students take notes each time that they find themselves either questioning a traditional construction of knowledge or encountering a counternarrative. Recently, one student reflected on our study of breakfast programs, liberation schools, and free medical clinics operated by Norma Amour Mtume and other women involved with the Black Panther Party:
You never hear about the Black people fighting for freedom themselves. You always hear that the white people had an awakening and realized that their thinking was wrong because the Black people were fighting back. It is nice to hear more about what the Black people themselves wanted and not what the white people did for them.
If educators don’t interrogate how traditional history classes get it wrong, the impact of those histories renders students like this feeling helpless and unseen.
2. Sees ethnic studies as a way of thinking about the world
We can’t think of ethnic studies as a subject; rather, it’s a way of thinking about the world. Teachers must be willing to co-create their course with students—challenging traditional narrative control, which many teachers covet. Embracing this collaborative approach remains one of the most pertinent and resounding adjustments I made to the way I teach ethnic studies.
Our understanding of history changes as we study multiple perspectives. Learning transforms as a collective endeavor when we seek to better understand a topic of study by understanding each other. Our lived experiences influence our interpretation of historical events, and through discourse, we all grow.
For example, my students take notes on the four types of oppression (ideological, institutional, interpersonal, and internal). And we often spend entire class hours discussing different interpretations of the same historical event. Working like this is fascinating, enlightening, and incredibly challenging, resulting in enormous engagement.
3. Not here to save students
All ethnic studies teachers—especially white teachers—must approach the content and students without any notion of saviorism. As a white teacher, I often reflect on all the baggage that comes with the “hero teacher” narrative—in particular, the idea that teachers can help or, worse, save Black, Latino, Indigenous, and AAPI students. White supremacy exists in many forms, including tokenization, infantilization, and savorism. And this practice of teaching has the power to control what our students experience, perpetuating the status quo.
In contrast, when done well, ethnic studies develops and enhances critical consciousness more for white students (and educators) because of the underdeveloped nature of white criticality. Baldwin writes, “Those who believed that they could control and define Black people divested themselves of the power to control and define themselves.”
4. Ready to take direct action in the community
The ideal ethnic studies mindset is civically engaged and responsive to the community’s needs. For us, this usually means students influencing meaningful policy change and meeting with administrators, school board members, elected officials, and policymakers. We also find opportunities to educate the community through panels, newspapers, blogs, and other mediums. The projects we work on change with each group of students. And the specific details matter much less than the outcome.
Studying U.S. history through a lens of both institutional oppression and the critique of traditional narratives would make anyone feel hopeless and powerless. So, teaching students how to meaningfully and immediately access the levers of power in their own communities as a force of change ensures they emerge from the course with some sense of critical hope.
I remain extremely excited and hopeful about the new ethnic studies standards. This change will impact the lives of every student in Minnesota and, in a generational fashion, benefit every current and future resident of the state.
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