Twenty-first Century Skills in the Decade of Trayvon Martin and Michael Brown

What exactly are 21st century skills? In the last 15 years, teachers have been exhorted to “prepare students for the 21st century” and to teach “21st century skills.” Many hours have been devoted to educating teachers about state of the art technology so that they, in turn, could teach their students to use the new tools.

The events in Ferguson, Missouri, this past August — the aftermath of the grand jury’s dismissal of the case against Darren Wilson — and subsequent events, including the conflict between Mayor Bill de Blasio and the New York police, drove home to me that, while schools are preparing people to navigate information highways, they are not really preparing children for the challenges in our society. There is serious racial conflict in American culture. Polls showed that whites and blacks interpreted the events in Ferguson very differently, with twice as many blacks saying those events were about race. We, as a people, don’t agree about race – we can’t even talk about it. Schools want to do the right thing, but usually there isn’t a critical mass of people among the faculty, parents, administrators, and students who agree about what to do about racial inequity or who even agree that there is racial inequity. So schools do very little (sometimes only enough to polarize people).

The scenario at a private school can look something like this: require teachers to be tech literate, but don’t require them to read Peggy McIntosh’s article “White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Backpack.” It is easier to invest in technology. Most people are on board, and the investment yields some kind of dividend you can measure (e.g., all assignments are on Haiku or Blackboard).

As a white teacher, I have learned about engaging in dialogue with black people on my own – usually at the expense of black children. For example, I learned not to have students read the n-word aloud from a book when there is only one black girl in the class; I learned that mixing up the names of two black kids is significant in a way it might not be if the two kids were white; I learned not to ask the only black kid in the class about his experience of racism; I learned that ignoring a white kid’s racism-tinged remark because I didn’t know what to say made the two black kids in the class feel very alone. Every teacher makes mistakes, and every teacher learns from some mistakes, but every black student shouldn’t suffer in the process.

I get scared; I get defensive. I need help learning how to address these issues in my classroom, while keeping the small number of black kids safe – from my ignorance and from the ignorance of other students. Some of our black kids need help learning to navigate the mostly white, private school world. Some of our white kids need help considering another point of view: We live in a racist culture, and while we cannot help being infected by the affliction of racism, we must do something. We can start by educating ourselves, and we can stop reacting to our own guilt and shame by shutting down; we can make understanding and communicating a priority.

People want to make the world a better place for everyone. Educational leaders need to commit to help us do that. What does commitment look like? It looks like money – to make good schooling accessible to everyone, from the age of three; to hire skilled, trained people to start discussions about racial equity; to train teachers.

Commitment looks like time – for courses in conflict resolution, African American Studies, and Whiteness, and for professional development. Commitment looks like rewards for excelling in the areas of wisdom and kindness. Colleges and schools need to put their money where their mouths are and start admitting people based on their character, not their test scores. Awards based on character need to be as well regarded and important as athletic and academic awards.

Listening, feeling empathy, controlling one’s emotions, daring to be vulnerable, choosing to be honest . . . every generation has needed these personal skills. There isn’t a unified vision of how to teach them, but why should that stop us from exploring? In our effort to teach young people 21st century skills, the first thing we could do is show them that our priorities involve aspiring to create a just and peaceful society.


Jan Sidebotham has been a teacher in private schools since 1985, including at Maret School (Washington, DC) and Connelly School of the Holy Child (Maryland). She currently teaches English at Brimmer and May (Massachusetts).

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