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The 2020-2021 school year has pushed educators to envision their roles from a new perspective. An experienced school counselor reflects on how we can address race and divisive politics in our K-12 schools. 

At the beginning of the school year, we were consumed with how to do school effectively in a virtual setting or in-person safely. Compounding the pandemic is America’s original sin, the sin of racism that has plagued the country long before its birth. How is it that we can address race and politics in our schools?

A Divided Country

The 2020 election season, January 6th Insurrection, and the events leading up to President Joe Biden’s Inauguration have revealed our countries divide. In less than a year, children have witnessed schools shutdown from a virus, multiple Black men and women murdered by law enforcement, and the U.S. State Capital Building stormed by armed insurrectionists.  

As a school counselor, I remember incidents of racism at school that often went unaddressed. Politics and racism impact our lives socially and how we feel emotionally. School counselors must take our positions seriously and tend to students’ social-emotional learning from a culturally responsive lens.  

Students of color and other marginalized populations are not new to these types of social and political attacks. All students will benefit from educators who are skilled in addressing major racial and political events.

I believe we can help heal the racial and political divide in our country as school counselors. I have watched this divide impact my students’ and colleagues’ lives and my own life. Even my almost-two-year-old daughter has felt the impact of racism and politics from family members interpersonally and systemic societal racism. According to the FBI, major racial incidents in elementary and secondary schools have increased by 24.7% over the past three years.  

Interrupting Racism

Alicia Oglesby and Rebecca Atkins’s groundbreaking book entitled Interrupting Racism: Equity and Social Justice in School Counseling, provides us with a context in which to move forward. “What do we mean by interrupting racism? The word interrupt means “to stop the continuous progress of (an activity or process).”(Atkins & Oglesby, 2019). To interrupt racism, we must first identify obstacles to all students’ achievement regardless of race and second to stop the status quo’s continuous progress.   

This interruption also serves as a call to break from the mindset of being passive and reactive. Proactive school counseling addresses racism in practice and systems that are impacting their students. 

Tell the Truth

At this moment, saying nothing is reifying white supremacy. To quote Desmond Tutu, “If you are neutral in situations of injustice, you have chosen the side of the oppressor.” It is imperative that we openly recognize and denounce what has transpired. 

Racist and discriminatory rhetoric impacts our communities and schools’ social interaction. We have to be ready to face pushback from colleagues and parents. Since kids can recognize race and hold bias by ages 3-5, we have to begin this work as soon as kids walk into our school buildings. 

Kids are seeing these events unfold and having conversations with peers. Public violence and protest are no longer shocking for them to see. We owe it to tell the kids the truth. Have the conversation. They can handle it. They see it on social media.  

One school-wide strategy for addressing racial and political events in our country is taking time as a class to process what has gone on. A useful exercise to incorporate in a classroom that can be very effective is “Spot The Difference.” 

Final Thoughts

We must provide students with the skills to call out racism and bias when they experience and when they see it. Encouraging and equipping students to be critical thinkers as they unpack real-life events must be core to their K-12 experience and the work we do in the classroom and as school counselors. This work begins with us as educators. We are in a unique position where we can help heal a divided country. How can you start that journey today for your students?”

Derek Francis

Derek Francis is a passionate school counselor with years of experience focusing on a proactive and equity-based approach. He currently serves as the Manager of Counseling Services for Minneapolis Public Schools. Specializing in helping students and staff build trusting cross-cultural relationships, he frequently is a presenter at state and national conferences. Derek also serves on the ASCA Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion Team and as a Professional Development Specialist for Hatching Results. Spending time with his daughter and traveling are Derek’s favorite hobbies.