How has race and intersectionality impacted your life?
It’s changed everything. I don't know any other way to say it. My first journey into this work was reading a book called Courageous Conversations about Race by Glenn Singleton. That piece just really changed my way of thinking—how race affects my life, my role as a White woman, how Whiteness has affected me and the way that I walk in the world.
And then it just really started to infiltrate everything that I do, whether as an educator, or woman, or sister, or mother. It’s one of those things that once you see it, you can't unsee it. It was like the layers of an onion started to peel away of what I thought the world was and what the world really is. Now, racial equity is a conversation in my home every day. It is a filter by which I make all decisions in my work.
I'm still learning, that's part of it, too. I'm working toward making my life more rich with multiple perspectives of the world — where I live, who my family is and who my friends are. It's really intentional. We’re constantly talking about it. Unpacking it. Learning more. Challenging each other.
Why is talking about race in educator professional development?
In my building, 98% of the teachers are white. And you know, I'd branded myself like, “Oh, I'm super savvy in the world. Of course, I'm this, and I'm that, and I'm inclusive.” All these things, right?
I had to unlearn so many things. I had this misconception that I was fine. And now I'm like, “Oh my gosh, I wasn't fine. I wasn't challenging my own biases and my own belief systems, and I was not enriching my life with multiple perspectives, and I was not intentionally putting myself in places that were uncomfortable. And if I found myself ‘super progressive,’ then certainly the teachers who are serving my students of color were not doing this either.”
It was a moral imperative. My philosophy is that once you see it, you can’t unsee it, and then you have to do something about it, or else you're negligent. I felt compelled to bring more people on that journey, within my locus of control. I'm an educator, and I'm a leader in education. If I'm not doing this work, I'm not serving my teachers. I'm not serving my students of color. And that would be negligent.
What was it like using TMWYA and making this PD plan?
If we're doing something statistics-heavy, maybe about racial disparities in testing or grades, a story really brings some life to it and makes it more human.
Our PD Plan really started with a lot of the Beyond Diversity stuff. One of the agreements in Courageous Conversations About Race is opening yourself up to multiple perspectives on the world. And that's really what Tell Me Who You Are does: it invites people into stories that they may not be invited into, should they not open themselves up.
So we weaved it into our Professional Development. If we're doing an adjacent reading, a book study, and part of the book study talks about a certain concept, we try to find a pairing within TMWYA. From that was born an elective class that focuses on race for students, and we've also used TMWYA there, first with that teacher to help her open up her space to different stories.
And then, I've tried to weave it into all the other things that we're doing. If we're doing something statistics-heavy, maybe about racial disparities in testing or grades, a story really brings some life to it and makes it more human. We're in the midst of—we're probably going to receive a ton of backlash on this—revamping our whole social science curriculum, our whole philosophy of how we tell the stories of our history. I'm hoping to use TMWYA there, too.
How did your community react to your work?
When I first started race work, I started really slowly and cautiously. I was like, “Don't screw it up, don't screw it up.” That was my philosophy in the beginning. I did it with a very safe group, people that I knew were open to questioning things and new ideas. And then I started to do some of this work with the whole staff. And that's where I started to see the pushback, that's where the anti-racists separate from the people who are overtly racist. That reception is not great. You’ve challenged people’s belief systems, and then they politicize it, and they think that you're questioning them as human beings, and they're unwilling to be uncomfortable. We've lost some people over some of this work.
But I mean, I knew that was gonna happen. That's also a reality of some of this work—you start to expose the racists for what they are and who they are. And then the reality of it hits you again, like, “Wow, the world is ugly, the people who I thought were not that are that, and they've been serving my students, and that's not okay.”
I live an hour south of Chicago. Chicago is very blue, but the rest of the state is not. I do live in a community that has racial problems, some very old ideas about the way the world should work, very racist ideas. As a community, there's clearly segregation, leftover redlining problems, all of those things. This community has never really called out these things before. So, yeah, we've received a little bit of backlash. But overwhelmingly, the response from the elective has been positive. And I have a very, very supportive superintendent who lets me do this work and lets me unapologetically be fierce. Thank god, right.
What would you like to tell any educator looking at your work right now?
It can feel really lonely, especially if you’re receiving a lot of opposition. Build a space for community.
Just keep tweaking it. It's never perfect. Keep using the lessons, keep sharing.
The more sense of community that people can bring to this work, the better. It can feel really lonely, especially if you’re receiving a lot of opposition. Build a space for community. You know—you close your door, you do your thing, you all live in the same town and you don't stretch yourself outside of that space. Allow yourself to learn from other educators. Know other people are doing this in the world. Seek outside learning communities.
TIFFANY KOHL'S ACTIVITY:
TYPE: Activity (PD) TITLE: Racial Literacy and Cultural Relevancy PD Plan CONTENT AREA: English
GRADE LEVEL(S): Teachers and Administrators of 9-12 district
DESCRIPTION: The professional development plan meets the needs of Goals 1,2,3 of the District 307 Vision (Student Success, Learning Culture, Professional Development and Community and Family Partnerships). It was used at Bradley Bourbonnais Community High School, in Bradley, IL.
Click below to download a PDF of Tiffany Kohl's activity.