“I am the only Black teacher at my school out of 225 teachers. I didn’t think much of it because it’s always been like this. I’m accustomed to predominately white spaces. But then I started questioning curriculum and how privilege is presented in literature.”
These are the words of Britni Mitchell ’08, an English teacher who is using her voice as both an educator and a Black woman to create a Black English literature class at her high school for juniors and seniors.
Mitchell loves being a high school educator, but those dreams did not come to fruition until she was a sophomore at Illinois State. She originally chose ISU for two reasons. First, because she wanted to be a journalist. Second, because her grandfather attended ISU.
Although Mitchell started out as a journalism major, her true colors and love for education were exposed when she got involved with tutoring in the Bloomington-Normal community.
“There were many adversities that prevented these kids from excelling in school, and I wanted to help them,” she said. “I ended up looking forward to helping these kids and meeting with them every week.”
Mitchell discover her passion for teaching, and more importantly, developed a strong interest in teaching high school-aged students.
“I worked with a student who was a sophomore in high school, and I just loved how confident he was,” Mitchell said. “They question the purpose of everything, which makes me want to challenge myself.”
One challenge Mitchell has faced since she, herself, was a high school student is being one of the only biracial people in her space. Growing up in Naperville, she did not come from a place with much diversity, with only a handful of students of color in her graduating class.
“The last thing someone could have told me was that I would be in a high school [as a profession],” she said.
As an educator in Downers Grove, a predominantly white space, Mitchell’s time in high school now is different. She is looking to provide a curriculum she wishes she had when she was a student.
With what she calls a personal and professional responsibility as one of only two Black female teachers in the district, Mitchell wants to make her presence valuable and have her curriculum reflect who she is.
“In my mind, I’ve taught this English class since I started teaching,” Mitchell said. “I felt that I didn’t really start reading books like this that were well-written and inclusive until I was in college.”
Although the schools she teaches at are predominately white, Mitchell sees a need for diverse authors and curriculum.
“It can benefit everyone, particularly non-Black students,” she explained. “It gives a look at life from a different perspective that isn’t theirs. It allows us to be sincere allies and guide with empathy.”
Mitchell’s students are on the same page as her, too. She has tried to incorporate discussions regarding race and privilege into her classes and past students have reached out to her to say thank you for teaching them about otherness, systems, deconstructing those systems, and how to be anti-racist.
Mitchell has always fought for diversity and inclusion, but this year especially has pushed her to pursue her career goals of teaching a class regarding Black literature.
“This was a huge year for racial tension,” she said. “World events pushed me, and this was the year that I was no longer on an equity island. People believed that this is something that the school and district needed.”
In regards to what Mitchell will teach in her Black English literature class, she wants to focus on aspects of Black culture and history that do not focus on their enslavement.
“The only time I saw myself in Black history in school was on a slave ship in Amistad in history class,” Mitchell said. “It was never in literature.
“Particularly because I have majority non-Black students, I have to be instrumental in people recognizing that slavery is not the only thing that defines Black culture,” she added. With that, Mitchell also hopes to focus on other aspects of Blackness such as music, art, and poetry.
She noted that although her class will not be linear, it will be thematically connected to show her students that the century has changed, which means the world and how Black individuals are seen and treated must be changed, too.
With full support of her department and fellow staff members, the initiative to add diversity and make progressive changes is both exciting and necessary. In her fight to be anti-racist though, Mitchell unfortunately still feels the effects of those who still deny the need for diversity and equity—something she does not want her 7-year-old daughter to experience in the future.
As a class with heavy topics such as race and oppression, Mitchell does her best to be objective and approachable, especially to students who have never felt like they could discuss racism, otherness, and oppression. She gives them language and tools for these difficult situations, but also creates a safe space where students can process what they are learning.
“I think about who I want my daughter to share the world with and that’s what I want them to be,” she said. “I try to reserve judgment but create a learning environment that is safe.”
Of course, Mitchell wants her students to step outside of their comfort zones and use this as an opportunity to learn and break tradition, but her baseline goal for this class and as an educator is and always will be this:
“I want them to leave as better people. I don’t care if they remember characters, pages, or quotes. I want them to be able to say that because of my class, they have a well-rounded view of the world and always choose kindness.”