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November 1, 2020
Vol. 78
No. 3

To Be Young, Gifted, and Innocent

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To better support and nurture young students of color, educators must confront harmful stereotypes.

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The success of every child of color in our classrooms, from as early as preschool, depends on their relationship with us, their teachers. Despite how we are taught not to take behavior personally, no matter what is going on in a child's life, every positive or negative behavior that occurs in a classroom has something to do with the quality of that relationship.
Children of color especially need us to be there for them in a way that we may not necessarily have been prepared for. They often come to us with "pre-installed attitudes" and energies that emanate from the world outside of school. Consider what they know or think they know about that world, school, and race: Regardless of age, they've probably seen the video of George Floyd's murder or heard about the shootings of Breonna Taylor and Jacob Blake. Maybe they've watched—or even participated in—the protests. Much of what our Black children get from the news or overhear in adult conversations is a message about how little society values their lives.
They need to believe that we—as educators—are capable of seeing them, understanding them, and caring for them. Of course, they can't tell us this. They might even try to deny it. But they need us.
Yet telling a child that you care about them, even in the early grades, isn't sufficient to offset what they've been led to understand about us and school. Unfortunately, we are a part of the system. No, telling them you care isn't enough. You have to show it.

The Burden of Guilt

In one of the first pilot sessions of the Innocent Classroom, a professional development program I developed to close the relationship gap between educators and students of color, we explored the idea of stereotype-driven "guilt." During our discussion, a white teacher wondered aloud if guilt, the way I was framing it, was the appropriate word. She didn't think her students felt guilty. I was barely into my attempt to answer her question when a Black principal stood up and told a story about being at a birthday party with his 7-year-old nephew, in racially mixed company, when one of the mothers momentarily misplaced her purse. But before it was found, they began asking the children if they'd seen it. The principal told the group of educators that when someone asked his nephew if he had seen it, the boy blurted out, "I knew you would think a Black male did it."
"So, yes," the principal said. "Our children are weighed down heavy with the knowledge of what others might think about them at a very early age."
From the beginning of my work with educators, I've believed that this "guilt" is the biggest barrier to the success of students of color. It is the cumulative impact of negative stereotypes—that Black students are angry, disrespectful, violent, won't do well academically, and so on—that are internalized by even our youngest children. I call it guilt because as it's internalized, it often causes children to behave in ways they are supposedly destined to behave. The current research on stereotype threat validates that stereotypes can have a profound effect on behavior. This ideology of guilt governs much of what we see in children and how we interpret their actions. It often erodes the important and necessary relationship that is required between a teacher and student.

A Return to Innocence

What can be done to lighten the load of the children we teach, especially when that load has little to do with who they really are? By removing the weight of stereotypes in our classrooms, and nurturing students' innocence, we create the possibility for a child to believe that we care for them. The earlier this happens in their lives, the better.
At its best, a high-quality, functional relationship with a young student gives that child the chance to believe that such strong bonds are what they can expect in their academic school life. Perhaps that relationship will bolster them at some later time when their ability to believe in a teacher is tested.
Our children deserve to know what it feels like to own their unique and innate innocence. Constructing an Innocent Classroom is a practice of creating a space (the classroom) in which children of color can exist free of the negative stereotypes that plague their lives and impact the lives of their teachers (in, of course, very different ways). Left unaddressed, a child is at the mercy of narratives that are formed in the public consciousness, narratives to which our children are virtually defenseless. Teachers are the warriors here. The liberators.

A Teacher's Journey

So, I've talked about innocence and guilt, but the critical piece of the effort to create an Innocent Classroom is the journey to discover a child's good—that is, the motivation behind their behavior. The only way to transform feelings of guilt into innocence is to engage a child's good.
The following experience gets at the challenge of this journey. At one of our trainings, a white teacher raised her hand to talk. She stood up and began telling a rather intense story of a Black girl in her classroom who, that very day, had thrown a chair at her and cursed at her. She told her story so matter-of-factly that the incident almost didn't register as the traumatic experience it obviously was. The teacher ended her story by saying "and that was at like 8:30 a.m."
"So," I said, "this child was obviously very angry. That's pretty early in the day to be so angry. What was she angry about?"
"I don't know. She's like that sometimes. How am I supposed to deal with that?"
I couldn't remember what grade she taught, so I asked, assuming we were discussing a middle or high school student.
"First grade."
First grade? It stunned me. "And you don't know why she was upset?" The teacher responded to the child's anger and, of course, handed out consequences. But she missed the opportunity to delve past the behavior to discover that child's good. Such an incident would not likely occur in an Innocent Classroom; a positive relationship with a young child, based on their good, would preempt it.
It's difficult to believe that an angry child is not just an angry child. It's difficult to believe that we shouldn't focus on someone to blame, like a student's family for example. But whatever the challenges a child may face outside your classroom, those challenges can be moderated by the quality of the relationship you might develop with them inside your classroom.
The most important thing that teacher learned from me that day, she told me later, was that she should've known "why." She had assumed she knew this child. But she had formed opinions of her without knowing that the child's mother had been taken to the hospital the night before and that the girl was terrified about what life would be like after school.
I often tell educators to consider the lives that some (or many) of their children lead and how complicated they are. Her student lashed out because her good—the deepest desire of her soul—was "to feel cared for," and she didn't think that morning that anyone did. And sadly, the teacher wanted to care for her but couldn't because there was no relationship formed between them.
The stereotype of an angry black child had won the day.

Getting to Good

This child, as many of our children have been, was so saturated in negative stories about herself that weren't true, that even at 7 years old, she had developed her own way of responding to authority.
The teacher, as she admitted, didn't know her. But she took time over the next few weeks to learn more. She discovered a lot of information about the child's mother (who returned home that day), the mounting tensions in her family, and perhaps most importantly, that the child liked Doc McStuffins, the Disney show about a young Black girl who wants to be a doctor and "fixes" toys and dolls.
The teacher began to interact with the student in a way that responded to the child's good—a critical turning point in their relationship. And by good I refer to Aristotle's definition, "that for which all else is done." Her teacher determined that her good was to "feel cared for," and she began to strategize ways of reminding the child every day, all day, that she cared for her—including having lunch together once a week. And in a stroke of genius, she brought a picture of Doc McStuffins to class and taped it to the student's desk. It changed that child. She began responding differently and became more engaged. No more profanity. No more disruptive behavior. The teacher was suddenly the center of attention of a child she'd thought was out of reach. The experience changed them both.
The good is the cause of all action. It offers the answer to the question "why?" In our trainings, we ask teachers to find a child's good as a precursor to developing any relationship-building strategy for him or her. Does the child feel like no one cares for him? That no one really sees or ever listens to her (unless she's getting into trouble)? That she's unsafe? Our children are often driven by deep yearnings or needs in an attempt to express their good. Finding a student's good, the reason why they behave a certain way, is the beginning of relationship building.
Of course, this isn't as easy as it might sound. But teachers can do it. Innocent Classroom teachers are doing it. When our educators are presented with a child who seems opaque, difficult to understand, or difficult to reach, they are asked to discover that child's good. That is the journey. One example of a child's good could be belonging, as in "I'm behaving this way because I don't feel like I belong anywhere." Another example could be safe, as in "I never feel safe." Educators are asked to know a child well enough to guess at their good. And I do mean guess. That's the thing; you don't have to be spot-on.
But when you can identify a good and respond to it, empathy is cultivated and a relationship is struck. And in the unfolding of this relationship, a child can be welcomed into a classroom where negative stereotypes are not at work. Where negative stereotypes lose their power. Where the child believes that their teacher's interest in them is authentic. Where the child can show up innocent. As teachers engaged in this work have observed, the process helps students become freer, less encumbered, and more inclined to listen and learn.
It seems important to note here that the Innocent Classroom is not reserved for children who act out. All students deserve a quality relationship with their teacher: The quiet ones, the ones who want to be seen as perfect, and yes, the ones whose gift of annoyance is legendary. All of them.
Our Innocent Classroom trainers and the 8,000-plus educators we have worked with have learned that identifying a child's good begins with understanding what drives and motivates them. We have learned that telling a child that you can see their good makes it possible for them to choose to live out that good. And the more their innocence is engaged, the more likely they are to replace the weight of guilt with curiosity, more functional ways of being in the classroom, and academic engagement. They can become better students.

Constructing an Innocent Classroom

However simplistic it may sound, I believe that good is the key to a child's heart. Yet the work of constructing an Innocent Classroom is built on a complex way of thinking about our children that yields a set of relatively simple actions. How would you help a child feel like they belonged in your class? How would you help them feel safe? Connected? Respected? These questions begin the process of developing a genuine relationship. The Innocent Classroom is not a collection of one-size-fits all best practices. Each child has his or her own good that requires a separate set of responses and actions.
In my new book, the Innocent Classroom: Dismantling Racial Bias to Support Students of Color (ASCD, 2020), educators are led through six steps of constructing an Innocent Classroom. The steps, in a way, represent the process of building functional relationships. They are:
  1. Deepening understanding: We deepen our understanding of the dilemma that children of color face with respect to guilt and innocence and explore the ways in which the weight of guilt is bestowed on them.
  2. Discovering students' good: We focus on ways to neutralize feelings of guilt and recognize the good in children of color.
  3. Valuing: We learn to value the innocence of our students, value their power and brilliance, and value the positive progress we are making in our relationship with them.
  4. Engaging: We work through the process of engaging and developing strategic responses to students' good.
  5. Nurturing innocence: We explore strategies for nurturing students' innocence, particularly through direct and personal validation and curricular validation.
  6. Protecting and advocating: We learn about the need to protect and advocate for students who've responded to our engagement. This includes protecting our classroom's culture, protecting students from themselves (or from reverting back to past behaviors), and protecting students from us and other adults (calculating our reactions to behavior and being an ally for the child by representing them accurately to colleagues and administrators).
This journey offers educators a way of seeing through negative behaviors to discern a child's good and then developing strategies to engage that good to build a relationship. That relationship will have the capacity to improve behavior and academic engagement. In fact, our work has shown positive effects on in-class behavior, cooperation, "academic mindset," and referrals of students out of class.
While the challenge of building authentic and functional relationships requires time and energy, doing so matters greatly to students of color. This investment in a child is more than repaid over time. Our goal in training is to help teachers form a relationship that is based on their knowledge of an individual child. Once that goal has been reached, a teacher's next challenge is to create a classroom that is as free of stereotypes as possible. In this place, this Innocent Classroom, a child has a chance to be their true self and to demonstrate their brilliance and curiosity.

Every Child, Every Classroom

We have worked with educators challenged by children who were silent, sad, overenthusiastic, disconnected, afraid, or hungry. But all of these students had a good that a teacher could identify, strategize around, and use to offer that child a new path in their educational life. Yes, every classroom should be an Innocent Classroom—especially in the early grades.

Pledge of Innocence

I pledge, as an educator of children of diverse backgrounds, races, and beliefs, that I will strive to know and see each child separate and apart from the stereotypes that contextualize their existence.

I pledge, upon the discovery of their good, to engage with them in such a way that their good is nourished and they are capable of showing up innocent in my space.

Adapted from The Innocent Classroom: Dismantling Racial Bias to Support Students of Color by A. Pate, Alexandria, VA: ASCD. Copyright © 2020 by Alexs Pate.

Reflect & Discuss

➛ How have you seen harmful stereotypes shape your students' perceptions of themselves?

➛ After reading Pate's article, how might you approach relationship building differently?

Author and educator, Alexs Pate is also President and CEO of Innocent Technologies and creator of the Innocent Classroom, a program for K–12 educators that aims to transform U.S. public education and end disparities by closing the relationship gap between educators and students of color.  

The Innocent Classroom has partnered with U.S. districts and schools, training more than 7,000 educators and expanding to include early-childhood educators and training for healthcare professionals to build connections with their patients. Pate was named the 2021 Kay Sexton Award winner, an award recognizing his longstanding dedication and outstanding work in fostering books, reading, and literary activity in Minnesota. His published work includes the New York Times bestseller Amistad.  



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