Sunday, October 2, 2016

Teacher: The Silenced Leader Who Needs to Scream

My principal approached me in the hallway regarding a discussion he heard my students having in my classroom. 

“Interesting discussion they were having in there today,” my principal remarked last week as I passed him in the hallway.

I paused before I answered, “thank you. Really important stuff.” As I walked back into my classroom, I felt a pang of anxiety tightening my shoulders. The politics of my discussion and the politics of a school are high stakes and stressful. I immediately became self conscious of his comment, thinking, should I not have had this discussion with them? Am I doing the wrong thing? 

I teach 7th grade ELA, and I have been leading the discussion in each of my classes for the last three weeks surrounding racism, segregation, privilege and power, Black Lives Matter vs. All Lives Matter, and prejudice. We just finished watching “Zootopia,” in which my students found evidence to prove the movie discussed many of these concepts. Then I ruined all of their research with articles that prove that “Zootopia” is filled with a lot of murky and messy messages. It sounds fun - talking animals and lively discussions galore - but it has also been immensely stressful and difficult. 

How do you balance the conversation about controversial, ugly topics with a group of students who are still kids? How do you ease the tension when students bring up this very controversial election when telling me their opinions on these topics? How do you answer when a student tells you: “I get so scared every day that my father will not come home from work every night because he is black. What if he gets pulled over? What is Trump or Hillary going to make sure my dad comes home?”

Well, how DO you answer it?

If Johnson were answering this question, I am thinking it would sound a bit like this: 
“To have privilege is to participate in a system that confers advantage and dominance at the expense of other people, and that can cause distress to some that benefit from it. White privilege, for example comes at a huge cost to people of color, and on some level white people must struggle with this knowledge.” 
AKA: both of the people who are running for president have their own privileges that oppress you and your family in some way. They might feel guilty about this, or they might not actually understand the fact that this binary exists, but it is a good thing that you are starting the conversation about this. Keep talking.

I look to Delpit’s advice here:
“Teachers are in an ideal position to play this role, to attempt to get all of the issues on the table in order to initiate true dialogue. This can only be done… by seeking out those whose perspectives may differ most, by learning to give their words complete attention, by understanding one’s own power, being unafraid to raise questions about discrimination and voicelessness with people of color, and to listen, no to hear what they say.”

Thanks, Delpit. 
This is the article that caught my interest right away. Since starting my discussions with my students, I have been walking the tightrope of being the person with privilege and power in my classroom and asking students to question the privilege and power they encounter in their daily lives. 

This New York Times article by Katherine Schulten offers advice on walking the tightrope. Here’s my take on it.

  1. Create a classroom environment that welcomes lively discussion, but also supports respectful, critical discussion. 
  2. Take a pledge for respectful discussion from Teaching Tolerance.
  3. Explore readings that introduce students to the concepts of a divided America.
  4. Teach students how “comments” online can be effective or ineffective, and how to decide which is which.
  5. “Practice Empathy” (I laugh at this as a middle school teacher. Try your hardest to get 12 year olds to think about someone other than themselves for more than 15 minutes. Try your best. They will relate it all back to themselves. But work hard at this all year (you have to when you teach middle school) and you just may make a dent in the empathy levels of pre-teens. I promise. I have seen it happen.)
  6. Prove what you say with credible sources. (Think I will get this tattooed across my forehead to help students understand my seriousness in saying this each day).
    Will make a poster sized version of this for my classroom.
  7. Don’t just hear, listen!
  8. Reflect on where you hear/see/learn your news and what biases you have based on your filtered life on social media.
  9. Think about “us and them,” or (if you’re in middle school), think about “me and the ‘other’ person.”
  10. Don’t try to validate your arguments if you are also not validating the other argument.

These pieces of advice are critical for a classroom (any classroom) to really, in my opinion, run well… Especially, if it is a classroom based largely on student discussion, writing, and gathering evidence.

Here are the consequences for NOT using your resources to back your claims. Reading this article, I am overwhelmed by the amount of fear my students have for their parents, their friends, classmates, and themselves, but I can’t blame them. The “us versus them” “white versus black” dialogue has been resurfaced at a shocking rate, and at such a high speed that people cannot fact check the real violence happening in our world. In this article, the Washington Post clarifies Trump's positive comments towards "Stop and Frisk," which Washington Post describes, "of the 685,724 people stopped, 88 percent were totally innocent. A huge majority were stopped largely, it seems, because they were black or Latino and young and therefore suspicious to police.  What's more, among the many bits of evidence presented in that federal court case that put a stop to the tactic was testimony from police officers who said they had been reprimanded for failing to meet stop and frisk quotas for black men set by their superiors. That's about as close to a formal policy of devaluing human beings with constitutional rights as one can imagine."

Trump calls to "Stop and Frisk" to put away the "bad people," which in context of the community pulled over for stop and frisk is referring to black and Latino community members. To me, this sounds primarily like "let's continue to racially profile and divide America, so that children can live in fear of losing their parents."

“Crime and the fear of crime has long been a go-to political tool for Republican presidential candidates. But Donald Trump has issued the most overt calls for racial, ethnic and religious profiling as a public safety measure made by any presidential candidate in more than 50 years.”


  1. I think it's amazing that you're having these challenging conversations with your 7th graders. It is extremely important that everyone understands how Hilary or Donald will personally impact their lives. The fact that one of your students said “I get so scared every day that my father will not come home from work every night because he is black. What if he gets pulled over? What is Trump or Hillary going to make sure my dad comes home?” shows that they are really applying the potential results of the election to their lives.

  2. Hi Jamie,

    I also touched upon the fear that Trump is invoking in people, especially minorities. I feel that are students are super impressionable (obviously) when they hear his rhetoric. They immediately jump to their parents or loved ones being shot, arrested, or deported. It is such a hard conversation for me to have because I do not feel I have answers that are good enough for them. I am def. taking your advice in this post, the election is a touchy subject but I admire your ambition to teach it the right way. Awesome list on "how to walk the tightrope." Thank you for that! :)