It’s the first week of school in many districts across North Texas, and students are returning to the classroom after a summer of racial turmoil in America and police shootings in Dallas.
All this week, in a series called “The First Week,” we’re listening in on conversations about race. We’ve heard from parents and students. For a teacher’s perspective, we turned to Kecia Dennis.
Dennis is an eighth-grade English teacher at Richland Middle School, part of Birdville ISD in Tarrant County. In her classroom, the lessons often go beyond literature.
The kids Dennis teaches are mostly Latino, African-American and white. Most of the students at her school qualify for free or reduced lunch. She said eighth graders are at a pivotal age; they’re still children, but they feel like grown-ups.
“A lot of them have freedoms at home, and they’re at home a lot of hours by themselves. So they are not used to people telling them what to do. They could have been at home all summer making dinner, taking care of siblings, doing things that grownups do. So it’s hard to go from doing that to being told where to sit,” she said.
Dennis said it can be tough to teach her students to listen to authority figures. She tells them kids sometimes just have to do what they’re told. The stakes are lower at school. But she thinks about the authorities her kids might interact with outside of school, like the police.
“I constantly tell them don’t do stupid things. First of all, don’t be breaking the law. That’s number one. The police has no reason to be talking to you if you aren’t breaking the law. But of course we know that breaking the law isn’t the reason to be stopped all the time. They can stop you any time that they want to. You answer, you be respectful, you don’t make any certain moves,” she said.
Dennis said 13 and 14 year olds possess a keen sense of fairness, and so she talks to them about reality, which can be quite different from the ideal world a teenager might expect.
“I make it a point to tell my students, a lot of times, life is not fair. And it’s not because they are kids, it’s because they are people of color and there are some stereotypes and beliefs that people just have,” she said.
“We have to break down some of those barriers,” she said. “But you’re never going to break down those barriers with your fists. Is it more important for you to stand your ground and yell it’s not fair and swing your fists and get shot, or is it more important to play the game, go through the channels, listen to what the police officer said, tell your parents and go home and sleep in your bed at night? That’s what’s fair, for you to be alive.”
Dennis knows students are returning to school after a summer of violence, and more killings of black men and women by police. Alton Sterling, Philando Castile and Korryn Gaines were among the new names added to a grim inventory that elicits complicated feelings and raw emotion.
“I believe that it is very important to give students a voice and let them ask questions and let them be heard and let them listen to people so that they can form their own opinions. They’re learning how to be adults,” she said.
As a black woman, Dennis said she thinks about race all the time. But eight years ago when she started teaching, she never expected to spend so much time facilitating difficult conversations about race, policing and inequality.
“I hoped for years that my children won’t have to deal with this, that my students won’t have to deal with these things. But they do,” she said. “And it is our job to help their parents in these lessons and reinforce them, and hopefully teach them something better than what we’re doing. We obviously dropped the ball somewhere along the way. They have a chance to make it right, so we have to help them be better so these things aren’t happening when they have children.”
Dennis said it would be easier to shy away from these conversations – many teachers do –but she can’t be one of them. To do so would leave her kids unprepared for life outside of her classroom.