Teaching Profession Opinion

‘How Can We Help Our Students Feel Safe?’ A Charlottesville Educator Responds

By Mary McIntyre — August 23, 2017 4 min read
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Teachers and students across the country are heading back into their classrooms. This week, students in Charlottesville, Va., will join them. But in many ways, we are still picking up the pieces of what some locals are calling the “summer of hate.” Racism is alive and well in America. The Unite the Right rally of white nationalists on August 12 and the murder of counter-protester Heather Heyer were just the exclamation point at the end of the sentence. Many of us know this, but some people still have trouble saying it out loud.

As a current school board candidate for Albemarle County Schools in the Charlottesville area and a teacher who left the classroom at the end of this past school year, I watched this week’s livestream of the Charlottesville City Council meeting and saw the building taken over by protesters asking for the mayor’s resignation. I watched council members vote to cover the city’s Confederate statues with black cloth while they await the outcome of a lawsuit preventing their removal. And I wondered, amidst the unrest: How is the security at our schools? If another white nationalist or Ku Klux Klan event is planned for Charlottesville, do we have a plan in place to protect our students and employees? What is the district’s policy for addressing issues of racism or discrimination, and do teachers, students, and parents find it effective? What does the community need that we are not providing? These are questions our leadership will need to wrestle with.

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“As the superintendent looking at a district in distress, I wondered: How could we possibly help our teachers process these events, so that they in turn could help our students?” Read more from Charlottesville Superintendent Rosa Atkins on how the district supported its educators in the face of tragedy.

But I also think about these events as a former teacher and as a parent. When I gave goodbye hugs to my kindergartners and 1st grade students just a few months ago, I had no idea the roller coaster we were all boarding. Now I’m having daily conversations with friends and colleagues where we wonder what we can do to help our students feel safe. How can we talk about this in a way that is easier for young children to understand?

Before the events of last week, I had quite a few conversations with my own children about race and violence. Even so, after all of our discussions, sensitivities to feelings, and commitment to fairness, I was simply unprepared for how to shield my children from my own reactions to the rally. There were quite a few times when my emotions overrode my typical parental responsibility. I was unequipped to handle my anger and fear, much less turn it into a teachable moment. I imagine that teachers on September 11, 2001, faced a similar dilemma. How can we acknowledge when something terrible has happened and teach children that powerful emotions are absolutely normal and acceptable—while not placing a burden upon them that they are not ready to bear?

I try to use many of the strategies suggested by the blog Raising Race Conscious Children when I struggle to find age-appropriate language or an effective way of explaining something. Recommendations such as “consider feelings” and “talk about fairness” make an instant connection with my son, who is in 2nd grade. At only 7 years old, he understands that equality and equity are not the same—a lesson that took me more than 30 years to internalize. These conversations are a necessity, especially now.

My daughter, who is in 5th grade, was intrigued by the idea of General Robert E. Lee getting a statue, even though the Confederacy lost the war. “Why would losers get a statue and not the winners?” she asked, with typical childhood innocence. That led to a conversation about who deserves to literally be up on a pedestal in a place of honor. (For the record, she nominates “Hamilton” creator Lin-Manuel Miranda.) We talked about how terrible war is and how it would feel to look at an image every day of someone who had tried to hurt you or your family. We also talked very carefully about white privilege, slavery, and the many ways our society has oppressed people of color historically and today.

I admit that I don’t have most of the answers, and I don’t always get it right. But one thing that I do know with absolute certainty is that relationships are key to getting at the hearts and minds of our students. If I was welcoming a new class this year, I would invest most of my time and energy building a strong bond of trust, an understanding of each child’s personality, and a link to their home life. I would also use the #CharlottesvilleCurriculum resources created by fellow educators, historians, and social activists. When students feel safe at school and accepted exactly as they are, they will take risks that lead to growth. They can participate in tough discussions and feel strong emotions without fear of judgment. I would like to think that stronger personal relationships could have changed the beliefs of the white nationalists who came to terrorize our city on August 12th.

It has been amazing to feel the support and solidarity directed at Charlottesville from around the world. But every person who reached out must also get to work to combat racism and inequity within their own community. With more white nationalist events planned across the country, we must all make sure—as parents, teachers, and district leaders—that we are building relationships to foster communities of safety and trust. We must talk to our children about race and about our flawed U.S. history. If teachers across the country commit themselves to ensuring that our future generations will value diversity and love over division and hate, we can finally put racism and white supremacy where it belongs: in the history books.


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