As many are now aware, a Chapel Hill-Carrboro City Schools student on a field trip to Gettysburg posted a photo with what some believe to be a Confederate flag. Responses from other students on social media were rightfully troubling to many, though it should be clear that many students engaged in an honest and frank conversation about race through that medium.
When something like this happens, teachers see a chance for learning and growth. As troublesome as it may be, I don’t think you would find many teachers surprised by the existence of overt prejudice or racism in our community. Many outside the school see the student’s actions as an opportunity to express honest and real outrage, while others use the incident as a platform to reaffirm their own prejudices. However, teachers here at Carrboro High School and in the district, based upon my interactions with fantastic teachers at East Chapel Hill, see something like this as an opportunity.
Ultimately, we as teachers see all involved in the incident for what they are: kids, still. Kids, who like every single student at our school, have things to work on and growing to do. The district has stated its desire to focus on a growth mindset. We have the resources in this community to expand that concept beyond what is displayed on a standardized test score or a report card to give our students a full understanding of the context in which they live.
Such a discussion would be incomplete without an honest look at the segregated context within which our schools operate. It is important to address specific incidents as they arise. At the same time, it would be lacking and in some ways counterproductive to do so without a discussion of everyone’s responsibility in the school community, not just teachers, students and administrators, to deal with this.
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Most students operate in segregated circles not only in the school building but also in so many other aspects of their lives. In fact, for many students, their school day represents the least-segregated part of their lives, and that’s a low bar given that many students continue to move through their school days in classes that reflect racial disparity. As long as that context remains in our community, teachers and administrators will always be swimming upstream.
As in Baltimore, or Ferguson, or anywhere else, if we focus our attention solely on one act and consequently one method of response, we end up satisfying a need for identifiable culprits but fail to address the larger systemic issues of segregation, racism and prejudice that continue to exist in this town. My hope is that here in Chapel Hill and Carrboro, we can use incidents like these to do something different and truly look at our community as a whole. If we believe in all of our students to get better at math, reading, science and other subjects, then we must also hold out the hope for all of our students to become more tolerant as well. Each of our students, including those involved in the incident, deserves that chance.
Teachers, as always, will continue to do the work. So many teachers in the district do not ring a new alarm of surprise when incidents like this happen because our alarm is always ringing. Issues of equity and social justice inform practice daily. However, if parents and students feel their voices go unheard, something should be done. I would encourage members of the community to engage teachers and administrators on what they are doing to further this work.
Many great teachers in our district have taken great responsibility for doing the daily work of promoting tolerance, fairness and justice. For starters, reach out to them to hear their stories as a way to understand the experience of kids in our community.
Christoph Stutts is a social studies teacher at Carrboro High School.