Verta Maloney has worked for more than 20 years in education as a leadership coach, principal, and educator. She currently works with school teams to facilitate conversations around race in education. Most recently, Verta was the Director of Leadership and Learning at Unbounded, an organization that provides standards-aligned resources and support in the classroom. Previously, Verta was the Managing Director of Programs for the New York City team of the national nonprofit New Leaders, the Managing Director of Student Learning and Achievement for Public Prep, and taught elementary and middle school students in Maryland and Washington, D.C.
Preparing Teachers to Discuss Race in the Classroom
Thriving Schools: Verta, in the first part of our conversation, you helped us understand why it’s so important for a school team to share their personal stories around race. Today we’re going to be talking about teachers having these conversations in the classroom with students. How should we think about this?
Verta: Let me say this. The ability to tailor responses and experiences for students is a talent and a skill that not everybody has, which is why not everybody should be a teacher. It’s just like a surgeon who might be working in an operating room – they’re constantly making decisions based on a person’s body and conditions as to what the right course of action is. It could be the same procedure they’ve done a 1,000 times. And yet, it’s not the same because everyone has a body that presents different challenges and unique obstacles. It’s the same idea with teaching and having the ability to tailor a response to the students and the moment.
Thriving Schools: Along the same vein . . . Assuming school teams have done the work we’re talking about, how do teachers start bringing responsible conversation around race into the classroom?
Verta: The first place I’d start is by actually ensuring that a teacher’s personal work of learning and growing is always happening. One thing I like to recommend teachers do is talk to their own families about this. Because if you can do that, you can do this in a classroom. It’s much harder to talk about these things with people who are close to you and who you know have some strongly held beliefs.
"I can’t just be all rainbows and butterflies because the things that are going on right now are crazy. And they’re hateful and wrong. But at the same time, I can hold love in my work to resist and undo that."
Including Diverse Viewpoints in Classroom Discourse
Thriving Schools: Once a teacher has done this, where could they begin with students?
Verta: You can start small with this. For instance, you could decide as a subject team that you want to make a particular unit inclusive of different points of view. Now some teachers might say that makes them feel like they’re pushing an agenda or something like that. But all you need to do is present facts, real thoughts, and real perspectives – use primary sources, real information, etc. And from there, you might decide we’ve done this with one unit and we can go ahead and tackle another. Or you might decide you need more support from a curriculum specialist. It is also important to remember that there is a history and bias present in all subjects. So educators can use that as an asterisk that they/students can choose to discuss (or not), but it's important to always make space for it.
Thriving Schools: How do you advise school teams talk about important national news or geopolitical events?
Verta: If something huge is going on in the world, the country, or locally, that’d be a place to come together as a team to talk about how you’re going to discuss this with students. And I think it would be irresponsible of us to not to engage students at the times it was most important. But again, it’s important for a team to decide what the right response will be.
Curriculum and Resource Suggestions
Thriving Schools: Could you give us some books, videos, or other resources that can help educators continue their own personal development on this front?
Verta: I’d start by mentioning Glenn Singleton’s Courageous Conversations about Race. It has a great workbook component and a corresponding website with lots to dig into, and it’s also been around for a minute. I also think history is super important, and so I’ve got to mention Howard Zinn’s A People’s History of the United States. It does such an excellent job at positioning historical moments from different perspectives. I also want to mention Robin DiAngelo – her book is called What Does It Mean to Be White? And she’s got a great website as well with awesome resources. For instance, one of the resources is an anti-racist checklist that white teachers can look through to examine their own practices. The New Jim Crow is a foundational text for me that really dives into the school to prison pipeline and mass incarceration at a larger scale than ever before. I could go on and on – Between the World and Me is an excellent read and I think Lisa Delpit is a prominent scholar that people should read and re-read as well.
Thriving Schools: Do you have any advice on curriculum that teams or schools can use?
Verta: Because so much of the curriculum depends on what decisions a school or content team decides to take, I can’t give you specific recommendations there. But what I will say is that if you purchase a curriculum, commit to purchasing the professional development that goes with it for at least a full year. Too often, we purchase materials and then decide we’ll try to figure out how to best implement it on our own. But the folks who wrote the curriculum have already done the deep thinking on that. So take advantage of it.
Being Authentic and Messaging Love
Thriving Schools: What sayings, quotes, or mantras do you like to use to ensure you’re being authentic and responsible in the classroom?
Verta: One of the things I keep coming back to is the question of whether I’m honoring my students’ humanity and honoring my own. Because you’ve got to do both. So if you don’t feel comfortable with something – using a curriculum, implementing an idea, or responding to a question – then don’t do it. Talk to someone about that discomfort. You can always come back to it tomorrow. The next thing is – I’m all about love! And I like to think about how we’re showing our love out loud in this work. Sometimes we get so bogged down with tests and scores and if we were to ask ourselves if we’re showing love, the answer would be questionable. Don’t get me wrong, there will be difficult moments and challenging conversations. But these also become moments to be courageous and loving, and that’s what we need every teacher to be. Courageous and loving.
Thriving Schools: That’s such an awesome response because it reminds us of the spirit with which everyone enters this profession.
Verta: Yeah! I like to say – I’m all love with appropriate doses of rage. Because just like we’ve been talking about, some of the things we're seeing are pure madness. It’s just like that Che Guevara quote, “At the risk of sounding ridiculous, let me say that the true revolutionary is guided by a great feeling of love.” So I can’t just be all rainbows and butterflies because the things that are going on right now are crazy. And they’re hateful and wrong. But at the same time, I can hold love in my work to resist and undo that.
Verta also wanted to provide a shout-out to her photographer, Krista Njapa.