A call to action to combat oppression within the education system: What can we do?

By Shannon Finnegan

What can we do to dismantle systems of oppression in our schools?

I hear (and ask) this question a lot, and while I don’t have all the answers, I do know that somehow and
somewhere along the way in my career these seeds were planted – they were watered by colleagues,
students, mentors, friends, experts, authors, professors – and then they grew. They are still growing.

I am still learning and seeking to know more. I will tell you that reading antiracist literature, surrounding yourself
with colleagues who challenge your thinking and question your practice, being open to learning from your
students, not being afraid to admit your mistakes or right your wrongs, getting curious instead of defensive –
these are all good ways to start.

And, I wrote another list for you.

This list is by no means exhaustive, but here are some things we can start doing right now and immediately to work to dismantle systems of oppression in our schools:


1. Educate yourself. Read blogs like this one, listen to podcasts like We Teach Us or Reimagining
Schools, research the school to prison pipeline and white supremacy in education. Most importantly, do
not rely on BIPOC people to teach you or check your bias, you have to do the work.


2. Encourage others to learn alongside you. Ask your fellow teachers to start a book club, or suggest
your administrators design professional development at your school around books like The New Jim
Crow, Pushout, Multiplication is for White People, Me and White Supremacy, or How to be an Anti-
Racist. Better yet – involve students at your school in designing and delivering professional
development for teachers.


3. First, create a safe classroom culture, then ask your students. Before you can dive right into
holding a class discussion and expecting your students to share their opinions on or experiences with
white supremacy in schools, you need to create a classroom culture where it is safe to be vulnerable
and honest (which means you have to be vulnerable and honest, first).


4. Elevate student voice and choice in the classroom. Be brave enough to shift your role as the
educator: ask your students what they want to learn and how they want to learn it, then make it happen.
Become a guide, mentor, and coach instead of the sage on the stage. Be willing to ditch To Kill a
Mockingbird in favor of The Hate U Give. When students have choice in your curriculum and in their
learning, you are giving them power and agency within a system that is designed to oppress them.


5. Engage students in a critical look at state standards, curriculum, literature, and pop culture.
How does this textbook tell the story of Christopher Columbus? Whose voices are missing in this story?
How many state history standards are about Europe? How many are about Africa? Latin America?
Indigenous Americans? Asia? When looking at the standards that are about Africans, Latin Americans,
Indigenous peoples, Asians – how are their stories portrayed? How many books in our literature class
are from non-white authors? Feature non-white characters? How does this movie or TV show portray
Arab characters? Latino/Latinx Characters? Black characters?
Do the work to understand historical trauma – know that your approach to curriculum in the classroom
can wound your students. Grapple with how to support your students in approaching delicate or difficult
content without further traumatizing or triggering them. Be prepared to make mistakes, own up to them,
and learn from them.


6. Shift from Zero Tolerance to Restorative Justice. This is a big one and will require training, resources, and buy in, but I firmly believe schools have to make this shift if we hope to disrupt the school to prison pipeline. Restorative Justice is more than just sitting in talking circles. Restorative Justice, when implemented fully and correctly, builds a school community where students find belonging and staff find understanding. Zero tolerance policies rob students of precious learning time, but worse these policies and punishments rob them of a sense of belonging and the need to feel wanted, heard, and valued. Seek training, apply for grants, engage students, teachers, and administrators at your school in a Restorative Justice Implementation Team. Visit schools who do the work successfully. Involve students in decision making and training.


7. Push to fund counselors, not cops. Understand that BIPOC staff and students are traumatized by
the presence of police in schools, and know the data that shows that schools with a School Resource
Officer (SRO) have nearly 5x the rate of arrests for disorderly conduct as schools without SROs. I’ve directly witnessed my students being tackled, handcuffed, and arrested at the hands of SROs. We need to get SROs out of our schools.

Students also need access to more mental health support in school (and culturally responsive mental health support). Research shows it is far more likely that a white teacher will recognize mental health symptoms in their white students than in their students of color. We need to train school staff to recognize these signs and we need to fund schools to provide mental health support for our students.

8. Campaign to hire BIPOC teachers, counselors, administrators. Representation matters. In far too many schools in the United States, the school staff does not even come close to representing the student body. We have to ask ourselves why – why don’t we have more non-white teachers, counselors, and administrators? How do we bring them into the profession? How do we retain them? Support them? Learn from them? Empower them? Keep them? I will also argue here that it is not just our BIPOC students that need BIPOC teachers, counselors, and administrators – white students need them, too.


9. Demand the inclusion of Black and Ethnic Studies in schools (for all students). Here again, I’ll argue that the current school curriculum dehumanizes, and traumatizes our BIPOC students. We need to mandate the inclusion of Black and Ethnic studies in schools (and again, white students need these courses, too) and work to decolonize our curriculum. It is not enough to have “Black History Month” (the shortest damn month of the year) or feature one or two black figures in our history classes or authors in our literature classes. We need to know more, and we need to understand more deeply.


10. Put relationships before content. We live in the age of Google and cell phones. It truly makes no sense anymore to expect students to memorize a map of 50 states, or how to solve for x, or the parts of a cell. If they want to know that stuff, they can look it up in .5 seconds. What matters is that we know our students, and that we help our students to know themselves. We should be teaching them how to practice self care, collaborate with others, think critically and creatively, and to communicate with each other.

A few times throughout this school year, I supported my students in presenting to the entire school staff on the importance of building relationships with students. The number one pushback we heard from educators? “I don’t have time for that.” My blood boils at the thought. The days of needing to “get through the content” are over. The content truly doesn’t matter any more (and oftentimes, is part of the problem). When we prioritize building relationships with our students, then they feel safe to learn, grow, ask questions, and take risks in the classroom. When students feel safe in the classroom, then true learning happens, and we give them power and agency (instead of oppressing them each and every day).

11. Check your white savior tendencies. We see it in pop culture all the time: the hero white teacher who inspires and saves a group of black, urban youth. The white savior trope is dangerous and damaging. If you’re a white teacher who works with BIPOC students, you have some work to do to recognize and check these thoughts, beliefs, and actions. I’ve been guilty of it, too. We have to do better. Yes, we can have an impact on our students. Yes, we can still be effective educators even if we are white. But we have to actively fight against any narrative that we are saving them from their plight.


12. Stop being silent. Our students are watching us. When events like George Floyd’s murder happen, and we don’t stop to acknowledge them, we inflict pain. We don’t have to have the words, we don’t have to explain it (because it can’t be explained) but we do have to acknowledge it, to give space for students to speak, listen, ask questions, and grieve. When we allow our colleagues and fellow educators to act or speak or teach in ways that we know cause harm and we don’t speak out, we inflict pain. When we recognize that we have failed or made a misstep and we don’t acknowledge it or
apologize, we inflict pain. We have to stop being silent. We have to be brave and support one another in speaking out and
actively working to combat oppression within our schools.


 Lastly, and most importantly –

13. Never, ever, ever tell them to sit down or be quiet.