Committee for Children Blog

For Educators Aspiring Toward Allyship: Starting in the Classroom

In the introduction and part two of this blog series, we’ve established that allyship is aspirational, self-directed, and lifelong. It’s aspirational because “ally” is never a term one can give to oneself. You’re deemed an ally by the community you’re seeking to support based on your actions and activism. Allyship is self-directed because it’s ultimately the responsibility of the learner to seek new knowledge and perspectives. Those facing systemic oppression should not have to carry the emotional burden of directing others in their journeys. And allyship is lifelong: this is work and growth that will require continual effort and patience.

As a white graduate student studying racial and socioeconomic inequities in American public schools, I had a professor who, after class, asked me why I wasn’t participating in group discussions. I didn’t feel ready, I explained. I was worried I would say the wrong thing. I wanted to shore up my own knowledge and confidence for a bit longer, and then when I was really sure of my facts, had tamed all of my internal biases, and was secure in my state of allyship—then I would feel comfortable speaking up in class. My professor told me something I’ve never forgotten:

There’s no perfectionism in this work. There’s no way to graduate from this class. You’ll never receive a “woke medal,” and if that’s what you’re looking for, you’re doing it all wrong. So, start participating, start talking and making mistakes. Sit in discomfort, apologize when needed, reflect on it, and seek to do better. Seek to do more.

Although an educator’s journey of personal allyship is aspirational, self-directed, and lifelong, that doesn’t mean that it’s too soon or too early to start acting. Here are some suggestions for tangible actions to take in your classroom.

Advocate for culturally relevant curriculum and learning materials in your classroom.

Cultivate a library of books, media, and learning materials that are racially and culturally representative of the students in your classroom and in your community. Look for ways that the curriculum could better speak to the experiences of all students, and support discussions in the classroom about students’ reactions to different kinds of learning materials. Not all students will interpret these materials in the same way or see themselves reflected in them. Just as I described my own journey through levels of discomfort and reflection the first time I read Between the World and Me, students need time to process and be challenged.

Remember that identities are complex and intersectional.

Kids see and understand social categories like race. Studies show that babies as young as six months old are able to make racial distinctions, and that by preschool, young children begin attributing value to skin color.1 As tempting as it may be to distill complex conversations into simple dichotomies, remember that, like you, your students experience an intricate world of layered social identities. Find ways to celebrate the richness of those identities and allow space for conversation about how intersectionality impacts your students.

Build spaces free of shame.

One of the biggest lessons I learned from attending the symposium, “Talking with Children and Youth About Race,” was a point made by speaker Dr. Caprice Hollins: When children are given feedback that a subject is taboo, awkward, or forbidden—even nonverbally—they’re less likely to ask questions and explore difficult concepts in healthy ways. Instead, they might form internal definitions or understandings based on their own observations—or worse, seek out media and online perspectives to provide context to these “illicit” topics.

Work hard to promote brave spaces that are free from shame or judgement. All questions and conversations are welcome. As with other weighty subjects, if the discussion feels out of your depth in the classroom, connect with a school counselor or another staff resource. Teaching methodology and classroom best practices support saying “I don’t know” when appropriate and modeling the same vulnerability you’re requesting of your students.2 But be sure to not reflect back to the student that their question or phrasing was scary or shameful, just something that requires further exploration.

Cultivate trust with your students and their families.

Ultimately, your role as an educator is to foster learning, curiosity, and growth. The most fertile space from which this learning will grow is one of trust and empathy.3 Find ways to show your students and their families that you care deeply about their experiences and their insights. Honor home languages in the classroom and celebrate a diversity of perspectives as well as cultures. Listen to your students and respond intentionally. Seek out ways to connect with their resources at home and to advocate for them within the larger school system.

There are many who worry about dismantling a sense of childlike innocence when it comes to tough topics like race and oppression. These concepts are difficult, complicated, and upsetting for adults; is it fair to burden children with them as well? Research shows that adults delay these conversations because they underestimate children’s conceptualization of race.4 But the truth is, these complexities shape our society and our world both in and out of the classroom. Students are already living with the consequences and effects of our profoundly unequal systems—and they’re looking for spaces to explore and understand these concepts.

As an educator, taking these meaningful steps in your classroom will aid you in your lifelong allyship journey. Like me, you’ll never graduate from this class. There’s no woke medal in your future. But empowering the next generation of critical thinkers and civic leaders? What better motivation can there be?


Want to learn how you can make an impact with colleagues at school? Read the next blog in the series!


1Winkler, E. N. (2009). Children are not colorblind: How young children learn race. PACE: Practical Approaches for Continuing Education, 3(3), 1–8.

2Wabisabi Learning. (n.d.). Why saying “I don’t know” is often the best way to teach. Retrieved September 29, 2020, from https://wabisabilearning.com/blogs/professional-development/saying-i-dont-know-teach

3Korth, B., Martin, Y., & Sotoo, N. (2007). Little things that made a big difference: trust and empathy on the path to multiculturalism. Scholarlypartnershipsedu, 2(1). https://core.ac.uk/download/pdf/47213047.pdf

4Sullivan, J., Wilton, L., & Apfelbaum, E. P. (2020). Adults delay conversations about race because they underestimate children’s processing of race. Journal of Experimental Psychology: General. Advance online publication. https://doi.org/10.1037/xge0000851