Speak Up

School Counselors’ Role in Conversations About Racism:
Q&A with Professor Alan Green

Alan Green is an associate professor of clinical education at USC Rossier and the program lead for their online school counseling program. He also serves as the board chair for the Los Angeles Community Action Network, a nonprofit focused on poverty, violence and community health. Before joining the staff at Rossier, Green served as associate director of the Johns Hopkins Urban Health Institute, where he focused on health and education for communities of color. 

In the following Q&A, Green talks about why it’s important to discuss racism in the classroom, where the responsibility lies, and how USC Rossier is preparing school counselors to fill an important role in these conversations.

Why is it important for educators to weave conversations about race and bias into their classrooms and curriculums?

There’s a real tension going on in classrooms where students are impacted by racism. It’s vital for student success and avoiding teacher burnout. Just when looking to meet the goals and aspirations of educating all children, racism — both structural and personal — needs to be broached in ways that lead to constructive conversations.

How can conversations about race stay constructive and actionable?

The idea of racism needs to be specifically discussed and so does the idea of understanding that there are racists. Differentiating between the two and helping young kids, at a developmentally appropriate level, have opportunities to talk, read, write and explore. There are a lot of media materials — there are cartoons, there are books, there are things that can supplement these conversations. But they have to be started and they have to be age appropriate.

A lot of time they stem from the experiences or things that are happening right in your very classroom. We don’t want to talk about it as a foreign thing because it’s typically right under our noses.

How do educators begin the process for students?

By getting in there and checking yourself, but then getting to work. It’s everyone’s responsibility and we can’t let any excuses be used. I also think it’s important to help everyone dispel myths and process their own experiences as students and as teachers. We all have to work and we all have growth to pursue. So, it’s everyone’s responsibility.

What can educators do to navigate the responsibility of starting the conversation?

I can't emphasize enough the importance of understanding the difference between not being racist and recognizing that we live and function in a racist society. Make connections between structural, systemic racism and academic outcomes. Understand the deficit perspective and how we have to avoid disempowering and alienating students. We have to engage in practices about education and learning outcomes that are empowering, proactive, and also collective in nature.

What can universities be doing better to prepare prospective educators to engage students?

The way USC Rossier approaches this work is that we require our students to understand their personal well-being and the way in which threats and opportunities for well-being exist. Threats like trauma and violence; and opportunities like a solid education, access to college and caring relationships. By centering the concept of well-being in the program and anyone who interacts with it — whether it be the faculty, advisors, students, or the students with whom they’re going to work with out in the field — it sets the stage for being vulnerable and moving in the direction that we need to go to prepare better educators.

In your opinion, what is often overlooked when talking about racism in schools?

The willingness to be vulnerable. Engage in professional development and learn ways to grow that maybe challenge suppositions that have been held for a long time. That piece, but then also just the impact of structural racism on everyday life — including stress, health, well-being, academic performance ... everything.

School counselors also work with students and staff on a group-level. What role do they play in these larger, school-wide conversations?

School counselors are prepared to work with school leaders to create professional development opportunities, to consult one-on-one with teachers on cases, and help them not just react to problems, being proactive versus reactive.

Not just reacting to “Hey, I’ve got a race issue in my class. What do I do about it?” But proactively, at the beginning of the year, building our relationships and talking about culture, talking about differences in power and all those things. School counselors consult with teachers, with parents and other groups. It’s a very important part of that.

This Q&A has been edited for length and clarity.