I make a habit of sitting at the lunch table and chatting with my preschool students every day. It is a wonderful time to talk with them. They are relaxed, sharing stories about pets, upcoming T-ball games and some truly terrible knock-knock jokes. Sometimes, those conversations take us in unexpected directions.
During a pause in lunchtime chat last week, 5-year-old Iris (name changed to protect privacy) looked up at me, frowned, and said, “I wish I was white instead of Black.”
I have been teaching for over two decades, and not a year has passed that I have not heard a Black child make a similar heartbreaking statement. As a white teacher, my responses have changed greatly over time.
Early in my career, I may have deflected my discomfort with an overly earnest statement about the beauty of melanin and why she should appreciate her skin. Or I might have avoided responding at all because I lacked the skill to navigate conversations about race with young children.
But I know now that I owe Iris and every other student in my classroom the dignity of a real and honest response in these moments when they are seeking connection. This time, I looked at her, nodded my head, and asked her a question to open up a conversation that I would have tried desperately to shut down 20 years ago:
“What would be different for you if your skin was white?”
As Iris leaves my preschool to begin her K-12 journey in public school this fall, she may have a Black teacher or two at some point who can respond to her in moments like this with a depth of lived experience in ways that I cannot.
Yet we should not expect those teachers of color to shoulder the work of supporting children’s healthy racial identity development: Students of color in the U.S. are much more likely to have white teachers than teachers who reflect their own race.
White teachers like me cannot build trusting relationships and meet the emotional needs of our students unless we learn how to talk honestly about race. Teacher training programs ensure that their graduates receive specific coursework related to children’s language and literacy development, elementary mathematical concepts and many other core subjects that all teachers must understand to support to students’ learning.
However, many white teachers are ill-prepared to navigate conversations with students about race, despite the fact that children as young as 2 are already forming ideas about race and are internalizing biases. Teacher training programs fail to address this knowledge gap between white teachers and teachers of color — very few of whom have had the luxury of avoiding conversations about race.
There are myriad opportunities for white teachers to learn this skill on their own time that did not exist when I started teaching. Organizations like EmbraceRace and the Center for Racial Justice in Education are terrific resources.
But we need to expect more than self-directed professional development by individual teachers. We need systemic solutions.
Teacher training programs should address this educator skill gap. We can do real harm to students when our only response to conversations about race is to shut them down as quickly as possible.
Researchers Rita Kohli and Marcos Pizarro of the Institute for Teachers of Color have looked closely at this issue, and their proposed solutions include two game-changing ideas: requiring a “base level of racial literacy” for admission of candidates to undergraduate teaching programs and including initiatives to “educate white teacher candidates on how whiteness operates … and teach them how to recognize and disrupt these ideologies.”
Back at our school lunch table, 5-year-old Iris, without missing a beat, was ready to answer why she wished she were white.
“I wouldn’t get shooted. I wouldn’t have to worry about police.”
The Black child next to Iris nodded her head in response. A white classmate across the table nodded too. The five of us asked one another questions and kept the discussion going long after lunch was done. I know that Iris left that lunch table feeling heard and valued.
My heart aches when I think of the students with whom I failed to connect in my early years of teaching, all because I lacked the skill to respond to them honestly and openly.
Students learn best when they feel connected to their teachers.
While racism is not a problem we will solve overnight, each new day is another opportunity for us to act. As pivotal long-term efforts to recruit and retain more teachers of color take root, there remains an immediate need for our teacher training programs to prepare white teachers to truly support our students in all areas of their growth and development.
Suzanne Stillinger is an early childhood teacher leader and accessibility coordinator at New Village in Northampton, Massachusetts. She is a 2023-2024 Teach Plus senior writing fellow and Teach Plus senior policy fellow.
This commentary originally appeared in The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education.