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Teachers: How to Recover When You Make a Mistake Related to Race/Culture

Updated: Dec 12, 2021

Dr. Toni Harrison-Kelly

School Leadership for Social Justice

November 27, 2021


Every November, I am reminded of one of the biggest mistakes I’ve ever made as a teacher.

It was the fall of 2015, and I had been teaching at Zumwalt Middle School just long enough to feel a bit overly confident in my ability to connect with my students. Día de los Muertos was coming up in a few weeks, so I plugged in to the University of YouTube and became an “expert.” After watching about four videos and consulting absolutely no one of Mexican-American or Latino heritage, I planned my classroom celebration for Día de los Muertos. After all, about 24% of my students were Hispanic and I needed to make sure they felt valued, seen and heard.

The day for my lesson came. I played a video and gave my interpretation of the video’s interpretation of what the holiday means to Mexican culture. Out of the corner of my eye, I saw Aileen jump up and run out of my classroom. She was visibly upset. I quickly wrapped up my talk so I could console her--and punish whoever had hurt her. My Mama Bear Teacher instincts were screaming for accountability. After all, my classroom motto is “this is a safe place.”

When I caught up with Aileen, I asked what was wrong. Aileen explained that her family celebrated Día de los Muertos and that she had been remembering her little brother who had died the previous year. She was crying because I was insensitive and thought that since I had “studied” her culture, I had earned the right to teach about it however I liked.

Imagine my shock when I realized I was the one who hurt Aileen. I’d broken the Teacher Hippocratic Oath--first, do no harm.

The worst part is that her pain could’ve been avoided if I had paused long enough to seek advice from my students, parents, co-workers or anyone who actually honored and celebrated the tradition. I learned the hard way that “people of color are the experts on the lived experiences of people of color” (Dr. Sharla Horton-Williams). No matter how many YouTube videos I watched, I could not replace actually living the experience. Although I am a Black woman, I did not understand or consider the nuanced emotions that went along with the facts and figures I was spouting with pride. Humility could’ve saved me from making such a harmful mistake. Aileen paid for my lack of humility.

My second grade lunch box.

According to the National Institutes of Health, cultural humility is a “lifelong process of self-reflection and self-critique whereby the individual not only learns about another’s culture, but starts with an examination of her/his own beliefs and cultural identities.” Given this definition, it makes perfect sense that a person who had this lunch box and thermos (pictured here) in the second grade would struggle with cultural humility as an adult (read my personal narrative for more context). Although I now run a diversity/equity/inclusion firm, I am still struggling to de-center myself and learn from others about their cu

ltures. The work never ends.

In 2021, the new-and-improved me once again attended the University of YouTube to create slideshows for our campus teachers to use as we helped students understand and celebrate Hispanic Heritage Month. This time, I actually made sure we invited staff members who were Hispanic/Latinas to steer the planning conversations. I was doing so well, until our class discussion on quinceañeras. Luís let us know that sometimes boys have quinceañeros, too. I quickly let him know that wasn’t true, because none of the videos I watched said anything about boys having quinceañeros. Once I saw the utter confusion on his face, I flashed back to Aileen. Here I was, making the same mistake again. Thankfully, this time I was able to stop, apologize and ask if he felt comfortable sharing more so that we could all increase our cultural awareness. I am so grateful that Luís accepted my apology and that my mistake became a learning moment for me. Again.

Because I am human, I am guaranteed to keep making these kinds of mistakes. Hopefully, the frequency and severity of the impact will become less and less as I learn to anticipate my blind spots by working through my own racial identity, and as I learn more about other cultures.

This is true for all of us. So how do we recover when we make a mistake related to race and culture?

1. Apologize: This graphic from @sylviaduckworth, “How to Apologize,” breaks down the anatomy of an effective apology. And this document from Elana Goldbaum, a history teacher and equity warrior in California, offers situational responses for how to repair harm.

Courageous Convo Restorative Sentence Stems
Download PDF • 154KB

Messing up is inevitable in our struggle to lead and teach more equitably. Accept that fact. Embrace that fact. It may be beneficial to script or practice how you are going to apologize. Because it’s not a matter of IF you will say something inappropriate in a racial context; just a matter of when.

2. “Seek your knowledge” (Angela Burley): Every mistake has to become a learning opportunity for us to grow, so reflect on what went wrong. Examine the situation from the perspective of the other person: Where was the fallacy in your thinking/beliefs? How could you have been more humble? What would you change if you could have a redo? Then find resources to grow your knowledge. Although those you wronged may be gracious enough to give you more information, your growth is not their responsibility.

3. Don’t quit: After my mistake with Aileen, I was so ashamed, afraid, and filled with guilt that it was several years before I even tried to speak in racial/cultural terms in front of my students again. But guilt doesn’t serve anyone in our collective journey toward equity. I should have jumped right back into the fight. I should have been practicing how to recover and grow all of those years instead of being sidelined. I often wonder how many of my students were negatively impacted by what I didn’t say for all of those years. We must press on despite the imperfections, one day at a time.

As educators, we likely all have "Aileen's" or "Luis's" in our past--students who have taught us lessons about their cultures that we have never forgotten. The memory of the incident with Aileen still causes me pain. I never want to harm one of my students. So I have used that mistake as a foundation for opening myself to greater cultural awareness and for strengthening my understanding of students. I have not allowed that mistake to be "wasted." It is up to me to show my students that mistakes are inevitable, but grace is available. And that they are worth every effort.

Parting words from Dr. Sharla...

Dr. Cathy Hill, Blog Editor

This blog features excerpts from our professional development session entitled “The R Word.” Please contact us to learn more about scheduling your next workshop or keynote.


Dr. Toni Harrison-Kelly is a fifteen-year teaching veteran, having taught science, technology, engineering, and mathematics at both the elementary and secondary levels. Toni is also an education consultant, having worked with a variety of community partners, including KERA, the Dallas-area PBS affiliate, and Southern Methodist University. She is also a highly-rated presenter, having trained nearly 1,500 parents and educators to date at local, state, and national conferences. Toni earned a Bachelor of Science from the University of North Texas, a Master of Education in Educational Technology-Leadership from Texas A&M-Commerce, and a Doctor of Education from Texas A&M University where she researched using gamification to achieve equitable student engagement in the middle school classroom.

As co-founder and partner of SLSJ (School Leadership for Social Justice) | All In Equity, Toni works with her partner in equity and justice, Dr. Sharla Horton-Williams, where their work is focused on equipping educators to teach and lead for excellence and equity and helping everyone everywhere find their place in achieving a just and equitable society.

SLSJ BLOG-How to recover when you make a public mistake related to race and culture
Download PDF • 6.35MB

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