Educator Profile: Discussing Race in the Classroom

by Reuben Ogbonna

I come from a diverse household and recognize that I am a product of not only the environment in which I was raised, but also the environments that shaped and developed my parents. My father was raised in Oguta, Nigeria during a civil war. He taught me the value of hard work and the importance of education.   My mother was born and raised in the public housing projects of Shreveport, Louisiana. She taught me the importance of family and service. Together, they molded me into the man that I am today.

I found my way into the classroom through Teach For America. I was selected to teach math in a large high school on the south side of Atlanta. The training that I received in my region shifted my worldview and still influences how I think about education today. In the Metro Atlanta region of Teach For America, we were taught to think deeply about our own identities and how they influence every interaction we have in the classroom. Although our conversations sometimes resulted in tears, frustration, and unresolved problems, we never shied away from speaking on issues of race, class, and cultural awareness. As a result, we came to see how living in a nation with a history rooted in racial oppression and segregation has created biases within each of us. Once aware of these biases, we are able to consciously “check them at the door” to be sure that all students are treated with equality and love.

This year, I have stepped outside of the classroom to expand my impact through school leadership. I am currently a Dean of Students at Coney Island Prep High School, the first public charter school network in south Brooklyn, NY. I have been tasked with managing a number of school-wide policies and procedures, ranging from detention and in-school suspension to field trips and community meetings. I lead small group counseling sessions with our young men of color to ensure that they are on track to graduate on time and matriculate to four-year colleges. I also plan school-wide events that help foster meaningful connections between teachers and students and boost engagement within our school community.

In my new role, I have highlighted diversity as one of the most exciting aspects of our student culture. The beautiful community that our school calls home consists of sizeable African-American, West Indian, Latino, Russian, and South Asian immigrant communities. I aim to find ways to highlight, celebrate, and learn from the diversity of our student body. Ultimately, my goal is to create an atmosphere where students and teachers are comfortable speaking about matters of race, culture, and ethnicity. Every student who walks into our school building brings all of the values and lessons engrained in his/her unique cultural background. I want each student to know that he/she is valued and has something to teach those around him/her.

Too often, discussions of diversity turn to division. It does not have be that way in our schools. Malcolm X once said: “The only way we’ll get freedom for ourselves is to identify ourselves with every oppressed people in the world.” My goal is for students to see the beauty in their classmates’ cultures and to be open to learn from them. I want our young people to recognize both how similar we all are and the beauty in our differences. If we are able to do this, then we can build a tighter, stronger community that exists across racial lines and wraps each of its members in abundant love and support.

Reuben Ogbonna is a Duke University graduate and Teach For America-Metro Atlanta alumnus. He currently serves as the Dean of Students at Coney Island Prep High School in Brooklyn, NY.