Teaching in a World Filled With Fear

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As an educator, I know that many of my students experience fear and bigotry because of the color of their skin, the way they dress, or the beliefs they hold. Too often, this reality interferes with my students’ abilities to learn, feel accepted by their peers, and experience school as a happy and safe environment.

This past spring, a 3rd-grade student asked me, "Why does our president hate me?" This question caught me off guard, especially because this student was so serious and sincere in her delivery of it. When I asked the student to share why she felt that way, she responded, "He wants to build a wall and send people like me to Mexico." I explained that hate is the byproduct of fear, and that people sometimes fear what they don’t understand, including people who are different from them. I tried to calm her own fears by saying that the president doesn't hate her specifically—he doesn't understand people who are different from him.

It was at that point that I realized our kids are paying significantly more attention to social media, quotes from national leaders, and news than my peers and I did as children. Shielding our kids from these potentially harmful influences might seem like the simplest solution, but as media becomes increasingly prevalent, that becomes more difficult—and I’ve seen many young people consume today’s news with just as much savvy as adults.

When faced with my student’s question, I struggled to explain how our political leaders often use fear as a tool to make themselves appear necessary. As a recent TIME article explains, "Fear has always been an effective form of political rhetoric, and one deployed to great effect by countless presidents." But only under our current leadership have I seen such rhetoric used to the extent that it deeply distresses my students.

President Donald Trump has relied on the fear factor from the start. In the first few minutes of his 2015 speech announcing his candidacy, he unfairly stereotyped Mexican immigrants to the United States, calling them criminals, drug users, and rapists. Close to the end of the speech, he announced his plan to build a wall along the Mexican border.

This language has naturally inspired fear in the children of immigrants. Immigrant children across the nation fear losing their parents as much as their parents fear being separated from them—and their concerns are valid. Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents arrested a man in Los Angeles right after he dropped one of his daughters off at school, while his 13-year-old daughter was still in the backseat of the car. School no longer feels safe for these children, and some students fear they will be sent back to their "home" countries for speaking a language other than English.

In response to this hostile environment, schools across the nation are holding meetings to help immigrant parents make a plan in case they are separated from their children. Districts are sending letters home to parents to try to ease their fears that their children are not safe at school.

"Our goal is to get children in school and have them engage in learning," Steven R. Staples, the superintendent of public instruction for Virginia, told The Washington Post. "A frightened child doesn’t learn much.” He added that the state doesn’t want children “to be missing days of school because of concerns about immigration status."

But how can we ask our students to focus on standards when they feel like something bad could happen at any moment? A well-known sociologist, Barry Glassner, believes that Americans are living in one of the safest environments in one of the safest times in history, but that we’re made to feel otherwise: "We are living in the most fear-mongering time in human history. And the main reason for this is that there's a lot of power and money available to individuals and organizations who can perpetuate these fears.” In the Rolling Stone feature "Why We’re Living in the Age of Fear," writer Neil Strauss builds on Glassner’s research by making a distinction between fear ("a response to a present threat") and anxiety ("a more complex and highly manipulable response to something one anticipates might be a threat in the future").

As politicians make our students the scapegoats for Americans’ anxiety, many fear they are not welcome in this country. The impact of this message on their academic progress can be catastrophic. From stifling undocumented students’ college dreams to keeping the children of undocumented immigrants out of the classroom, fear has negatively affected our students’ abilities to learn.

By deriding inclusive attitudes and behavior as "political correctness," politicians like Trump have made it more socially acceptable to taunt or dehumanize groups of people because of their disabilities, skin colors, cultures, or even beliefs. Our children don’t need to be saved from those who are different. In fact, in an increasingly globalized world, they need to be protected from close-mindedness and unfounded fears, which can rob our nation of opportunities to thrive, grow, and benefit from our rich diversity.

Going forward, we must teach all of our students respectful ways to express themselves and connect with the world they live in, in order to provide for both their futures and the future of our nation. For me, art is the best tool for helping students understand their own sense of place and navigate the fear, hate, and intolerance in our sometimes-unaccepting world. The arts allow me to challenge my students and have them reflect on their identities and roles in their families, communities, cultures, and all the spaces they live.

My lessons ask students to consider family traditions, beliefs, and their heritage. I use global artists like Marc Chagall, Grant Wood, and Pablo Seminario to show how we can express those different roles and characteristics in healthy ways that allow us to understand our own experiences. I ask students to bring items from home, collaborate with their families to research their heritage, and share those findings with each other and in their artwork.

Next year, thanks to a grant from the NEA Foundation, I will have a new library in my classroom filled with diverse books that represent my diverse student population—books filled with characters that look like them, believe in different ways of life, and face adversity. These books celebrate both differences and similarities between the United States and the rest of the world.

While our world has changed, our basic need as humans—to be understood and feel accepted—remains universal. I can’t protect my students from the fear they may feel because of goings-on in the outside world, but in my classroom, I can create an inclusive environment for them to ask questions, be who they are, and understand that there is strength in diversity.

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