Teacher Talk: We need to present a united front against racism, bias

Posted: Friday, March 05, 2004

I have been a teacher at Juneau-Douglas High School for seven years, and most days I am just a history teacher. These days, in light of the recent racial incidents that have surfaced in our building, I have become a Native teacher.

As I struggle day in and day out with the issue of discrimination and racism I am reminded that my advocacy runs deep. As a person of mixed heritage I have struggled with my own identity for the better part of my 31 years. As a teacher whose students range from light to dark and from rich to poor, I am constantly reminded that the reason I teach is to help develop contributing citizens for this wonderful community at large.

As we take a good, long, hard look at the issue of discrimination, in all of its forms, I am reminded that schools are microcosms of society, and that we as educators are here to advocate for all of our students. It is my firm belief, and some days my saving grace, that discrimination is a problem for which we are all responsible.

A part of my job as an educator is to create and maintain a safe environment for my students. Not for the majority of my students, not for 99 percent of my students, but for all of my students. If I have even one student who feels targeted and unsafe, then I have not done my job. This is a lofty task. It requires me to be all knowing from the moment I arrive on campus to the moment that I depart.

I need to look for carvings on my desks, to listen for the under-the-breath mutterings and to act on each and every complaint that may surface. I need to create a relationship with each student so that if and when an issue arises they feel that I am a trustworthy adult who will advocate for them. And, yes, while doing all of this I must also plan, teach and grade the better part of hundreds of years in history.

Most days, I feel as though I have done a decent job. These days I am hearing kids say that they feel unsafe and I am looking at myself to see where I can do more. I am one individual. Thankfully I am one individual who works with almost one hundred other individuals who I am certain are here day in and day out to advocate for kids.

It is likely that things will get worse before they get better, but the reality is that for me I am anticipating the day when I can go back to being just a history teacher. I am exhausted having heard sad story after sad story. I am tired from the energy it takes to comfort each scared and anxious student.

We are all entitled to participate in this community and we cannot tolerate a safety violation of any magnitude. Racism, bias and discrimination are safety violations. We pull fire alarms when fire is threatened, and we evacuate the building when bomb threats are called in. We must present a united front with discrimination as well.

As my first real foray into leadership, I call upon all of my colleagues, my Juneau community members and my students, to be proactive with this endeavor, not reactive. We can get past the spray paint and the bus signs without much effort. It will take more from us to eliminate the daily disparaging remarks and the undercurrent of bias.

For me, it is unacceptable to work in a place where we have kids who feel unsafe. For me, it is unacceptable to work in a place where I feel unsafe. It is the easy choice to look away. It is the easy choice to brush this off as hype. Our challenge, and my challenge, is to look this in the eye and to march forward.

It is the shared responsibility of every Native teacher, every non-Native teacher, every administrator and every board member to help our community overcome this. The words of one of my students, Robert Hickok, resonate in my mind. "What you do not say will be heard." This is our chance to speak up.

• Paula Dybdahl teaches history at Juneau Douglas High School.

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