“It’s been a hard few weeks.”
This sentiment has been reiterated and repeated by women on my timeline over and over again the past few weeks. It’s been... hard. The never-ending news cycle has meant that, over and over again, many of us are having to see all the conversations that terrified us into silence played out on a national stage by not just pundits, but our president. The accused isn’t just a man in power, it’s the person who is supposed to guard and judge our rights as citizens over his lifetime.
So, it’s been a hard few weeks.
Beyond the difficulties of consuming the news, being a teacher adds a new layer of intricacies and difficulties that bubble to the surface. On the one hand, it is our duty to prepare our kids for the world, and have tough conversations with them so we can find ways to validate and support them. On the other, statistics suggest that many teachers are also sexual assault survivors, and for those of us living in those two worlds, trying to have those difficult conversations can feel overwhelming.
On top of that, our students are also affected by the news coverage. Yes, they are looking to us to model how we react and how we process the news but, sadly, statistics show that it is likely some of our students have survived sexual assault or abuse as well. As teachers, it’s natural to want to create a space where we can help support them and get them the help they need to move towards healing.
So, how do we manage? What do we do when consistently engaging in the difficult discussion about rape culture is hard on our hearts, but helpful for our students?
The answer, I think, is rooted in balance, honesty, and kindness-- for our students and ourselves. Here are some things to consider for our classrooms, and ways to take care of ourselves too.
For Our Students and In Our Classrooms
Begin to dismantle the normalization of rape culture. Whether in classroom discussions or simply in off-hand comments, it’s essential that we begin to undo generations of harmful, insidious beliefs that have convinced us that “boys will be boys” or that this is in any way okay. We can do this by quickly and calmly disrupting it when our students say it-- such as countering a joke that is unacceptable in our classrooms. We can also do this by making the space to explicitly teach it if we are able to. Teaching Tolerance, as always, has amazing resources and stories (here, here, here , and here).
Be mindful of our own bodies and spaces. I am, by nature, a very physically affectionate person. I’ve also experienced unwanted physical contact-- hugs, touches on the legs and knees-- that was really triggering and upsetting. Model consent by practicing consent. Simple touches, like fist-bumps and high-fives, are okay (though, if a student doesn’t want to, don’t make a big fuss out of it), but anything beyond that should either be avoided or you should specifically ask permission. For example, if a student is crying, I’ll ask, “Is it okay if I give you a hug?” Show your students how to better use our bodies and spaces by being a role model for them.
Give students spaces to share their voices in safe and validating ways. It’s okay to simply acknowledge what is happening in the news and give kids the space to let you know how they’re doing. If you know students are talking about or affected by things, giving them five minutes to all journal about their feelings about it to share with you or not can be an important way to let them know you see them and you care.
Provide trigger warnings when appropriate. I once got into a huge debate with someone (a man) about trigger warnings, because he felt that they were “shielding” students from difficult discussions. On the contrary, trigger warnings can be a powerful way to empower and support students who have experienced difficult topics. When I see something has a trigger warning about a topic that I know is close to home, it doesn’t necessarily mean I won’t read it. It means I take a deep breath and prepare myself to read it, or I set it aside to read when I am ready. When I don’t get that, my anxiety can kick in, and I may not be able to take in the information as well as I could have if I had been prepared. Our students deserve similar care and choice for some of these difficult discussions.
Unplug when you need to. I know that sometimes I feel it’s my duty to keep up to date on the news so I can discuss and converse with students and colleagues. While self-education is important, it’s okay to take a break and take some space until you feel ready to engage again.
Ask for help and support. You don’t have to do this alone. Ask if you can team-teach a lesson or discussion with another teacher, or simply ask for someone to help you process and listen (constructivist listening is great for this!). By working with another person, you not only support yourself, but you also model creating a community of support for your students as well.
Be flexible and kind with yourself. Maybe you had a really powerful lesson about some of these issues set for today and then you get to class and... it’s not going to happen. That’s okay. Be kind to yourself, replan, and come back at another time. One of the beautiful things about our work is that we get to see our kids many, many times throughout the year. Learning these things is a process, and your students will get the most benefit out of these discussions when you’re in a good and healthy place to engage them.
Seek joy. Our kids are so full of joy. It’s easy to feel busy and get caught in the work. Take a second to appreciate the wonder and awe that our kids see the world in. Yes, there is darkness, but there is so much light too. Take a second to breathe it in.
Photo Credit: Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh listens to questioning during his confirmation hearing before the Senate Judiciary Committee earlier this month. --Manuel Balce Ceneta/A
The opinions expressed in The Intersection: Culture and Race in Schools are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.