University of Georgia education professor Bettina L. Love set off a ruckus in a recent education journal with a column declaring that white teachers cannot love their black students if they don't understand the racism built into our laws, culture and classrooms.
"Let me be clear," Love wrote in Education Week. "I do not think White teachers enter the profession wanting to harm children of color, but they will hurt a child whose culture is viewed as an afterthought."
Her essay produced anger. “I find the idea that teachers need to ‘love’ students and their ‘culture’ creepy. Shut up and teach, dammit,” wrote one reader. It provoked denial: “Stop dwelling on race. We have a thriving black middle class, and very successful, wealthy black families. These are evidence that it’s not racism that’s holding back the African Americans who are stuck in poverty….it’s lack of ambition and self-defeating attitudes,” wrote another.
Love's belief that teachers of black children must be social justice warriors forms the basis of her book, "We Want to Do More Than Survive: Abolitionist Teaching and the Pursuit of Educational Freedom." Drawing on the creativity, rebellion and determination of the abolitionists, Love argues for a radical change in American education so that black children matter and matter enough that their teachers, schools and communities fight for them.
She disdains the current reverence for grit and defying the odds, writing, “Dark students being gritty, full of excitement and energy, reciting self-improvement statements and displaying social and emotional intelligence will not stop them being killed in the streets or spirit murdered in classrooms.”
In a recent interview, Love said the education system teaches black kids to survive rather than thrive and discounts their resourcefulness, resilience and joyfulness. And a large part of that comes from teachers who do not know these students or their worlds.
A key problem is the lack of teachers of color, according to Love. In her eight years in the UGA College of Education’s department of educational theory and practice, Love can count on one hand, maybe two, the African-American students in her required class on diversity. Despite a rise in teachers of color, about 80 percent of teachers are white. And most are women.
The aspiring teachers in her UGA classes are “incredibly bright but have limited experience with other races, other cultures. I try and disrupt the myths and stereotypes about black and brown children. At the end of the 16 weeks, I ask my students to tell me what is beautiful about black and brown children, what is the joy of teaching them,” she said
Students tell Love they chose teaching because they love kids. “That is not enough. You can’t love something you don’t know anything about,” she said.
As a child, Love grew up a supportive community in Rochester, N.Y. She was not an academically driven student and went to a vocational high school, but, at 6’2’’ with a heck of a jump shot, ended up in college and on the basketball team. She discovered a love of scholarship, eventually earning her doctorate in educational policy studies from Georgia State University.
She tries to help future teachers understand they must speak to injustices that threaten or disparage their students, not an easy task with a generation programmed by No Child Left Behind and Race to the Top to bubble in answers and follow rules and rubrics.
(Love said schools need tests, but not a billion dollar testing industry that has standardized cultural bias. She is not impressed with the College Board's plan to address the zip code advantage in its SAT by assigning kids an additional score for hardships and inequality, saying, "We'd rather measure barriers than remove them. We need to throw these things out. Until it works for everyone, it doesn't work.")
How do you create a teaching force of revolutionaries and radicals when many teachers, worn out at the end of a long day of overcrowded classrooms and underfunded mandates, want to go home to Netflix or a nap?
A former classroom teacher, Love said, “What I am asking for is solidarity. One of the things we don’t talk about in the profession is the mistrust between teachers of color and white teachers. What I am asking teachers to do is cut across racial lines to have those difficult conversations around race, gender and citizenship.”
In a school based on abolitionist principles, teachers think deeply about culture and social justice and about healing children. And the children know they are loved and in an environment that believes in them, she said.
Ensuring that environment may force teachers to confront principals, attend marches or strike. “It is not about fighting every day,” said Love, “but it is about how you walk through the world. I am not asking that this be something teachers do; I am asking that this be the way teachers see the world.”
She wants teachers to “Get in your lane and push. I know teachers are stressed. It is difficult to be a teacher and a parent. But when you see injustice, do something about it. That could be to just say, ‘That new policy is trash and I am not going to do it.’ We cannot sit back and know our students are facing inhuman conditions, ideas and circumstances and not act.”