There is nothing quite as invigorating and terrifying as a new school.
I’ve started teaching at a new school and new grade level this year, and it’s been an exciting new challenge—new students, a different culture to navigate, and relationships yet to be forged.
While the challenge is exciting, it does add a new dimension of difficulty to teaching in today’s social and political climate. It seems like in the past few years (heck, in the past few months), the current state of affairs has been so tumultuous, it’s almost overwhelming. Between concerns for the safety of our DACA students and their families and deepened understanding of how race and racism affect student outcomes and the way our students are treated to natural disasters—it’s a little overwhelming to ask yourself, “How am I going to talk about this in class tomorrow?”
So, here’s the new notion I’ve come to: We can no longer REactively teach towards justice and create space for compassion within our classrooms. We must PROactively work to make justice, compassion, and safety part of our consistent classroom culture and curriculum.
In the past, I would see something on the news, react to it personally, and begin to plan lessons and activities to help students process. The problem is, there are too many things in the world today that require that kind of love and care. Now, when I open the news, I often look at the headlines and ask, “Where should we begin?”
I realize now that we must, as we always should, begin with love, compassion, and relationships. Here are some things I’m about as I move forward:
We have to prioritize relationships. This year, I was eager to dive right into Facing History and Ourselves's Teaching Mockinbird Curriculm. Then, I realized that not only was I with a new group of students who didn't know me from Eve, but that at this much bigger school, they were generally new to each other as well. They lacked the foundational relationships and trust with each other necessary to engage in deep, difficult conversations about race and identity. So, I put the brakes on a little. I prioritized relationships and identity discovery and sharing before we began to read. This allowed my students to have some comfort in and trust of each other before diving into some difficult truths. Creating safe, compassionate spaces is at the foundation of what we do. Along that line, I've been really considering how to set positive, healthy norms with my students. What needs to happen for students to really believe that they are safe and welcome in our classrooms? Without creating that space first, some of our students may find that their affective filter will go up and be unable to really participate in our classes. Teaching Tolerance has some wonderful classroom culture professional development as well as building a "Classroom Constitution." As the basis of our work must be student empowerment and activism. When I feel overwhelmed by the news, I remember that sometimes it's less about the content I teach and more about the skills and long-term understandings I give my students. Ultimately, my students need to understand how much power they have, and learn the skills needed to use that power to create the change our world so desperately needs. We can start by understanding and learning from what may be "the golden age of college activism," as well as examples of high school student activism, and exposing our students to these stories so they can learn from these models.
As the school year hits its full stride, it can be easy to want to turn away from the current world and keep our head down to make it through. While this is tempting, we must fight the urge and perhaps try and see the opportunity here instead. We have the chance to invigorate the next generation that can lead us out of the darkness and into a new era of justice and equality. Our students deserve to know that they have that power. We must work to create a world within our classrooms that cultivates those dreams into actual, real change.
Photo courtesy of the author.
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.