Clarksville, TN – One morning this summer, Dr. Prentice Chandler, dean of the Austin Peay State University (APSU) Eriksson College of Education, sent an email to his faculty, challenging them to respond to a long-ignored national crisis – systemic racism.
The college simply couldn’t carry on as usual, he argued, following the recent deaths of Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor and George Floyd.
If they were serious, as champions of education, in combating this deadly form of ignorance, then the college needed to re-examine how it operated.
“As educators, we need to advocate for change, to prepare students to be active participants in society, and to work at dismantling systems of oppression in society,” Dr. Amy Tondreau, APSU assistant professor of education, said. “A lot of members in the college responded with similar ideas around feeling that this was at the heart of our work at the College of Education. We wanted to think about ways to put that into action.”
The faculty decided change needed to start at the top, which means it needed to start with themselves and their own entrenched thoughts and beliefs. That summer afternoon, the college established its internal Antiracist Educators Study Group.
“The idea is for the College of Education to engage in a group study of two books, ‘White Fragility’ and ‘How to Be an Antiracist,’ so that we develop a better, collective understanding of race, white privilege and systemic racism,” Chandler said. “It’s rooted in the idea that if we want to change the world, a good place to start is with ourselves.”
The dean purchased books for his faculty, and he tasked Tondreau and Dr. James Thompson, assistant professor of education, to lead these study groups. They began meeting earlier this semester and plan to continue into the spring.
“There’s no timeline because we wanted to treat this as a journey to change for the better. You can’t put a time stamp on it,” Thompson said. “A lot of us have to learn and unlearn things.”
“White Fragility: Why It’s So Hard for White People to Talk About Racism” is a 2018 book by Robin DiAngelo that, according to “Publishers Weekly,” “provides a powerful lens for examining, and practical tools for grappling with, racism today.” The Kirkus Review praised Ibram X. Kendi’s 2019 book, “How to Be an Antiracist,” for the way it examines “racism through numerous lenses: power, biology, ethnicity, body, culture, and so forth.”
Sales of both books have dramatically increased following this summer’s death of George Floyd, and Thompson hopes the discussions they spawn in these study groups lead to actual change.
“It’s not enough to just talk about this,” he said. “Our long-term implication is, ‘how can we put words into action, have actionable and measurable steps in our community? How can we affect future teachers and administrators? How can we reach every single student, because certain students are not being reached right now?’”
This change could come in how the next generation of educators, trained at Austin Peay State University, develop school curriculums. When setting up their classrooms, these new teachers will hopefully ask what does deliberate, anti-racist teaching look like?
“I teach a writing methods course and a social study methods course, and we talk about diverse representation – looking at the curriculum that exists and ask how do we supplement what’s there to be responsive to students,” Tondreau said. “We’re really aiming to prepare teachers to go into local districts who can be change agents themselves. They’ll be able to bring an antiracist lens to what they’re teaching.”
For information on Austin Peay State University’s Eriksson College of Education, visit www.apsu.edu/education.