First Person

Making Sure Students Feel Safe in Uncertain Times

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Even in the best of times, educators put in a tremendous amount of effort to make students feel safe in their classrooms—greeting students at the door, joking around about a potential snow day, asking about a recent swim meet, offering a shoulder to cry on after a family tragedy. Over the past 15 years of teaching at Arlington High School in Lagrangeville, N.Y., I've gotten better at figuring out when a student felt out of sorts. I offered cough drops, granola bars, a quiet talk in the hallway, and whatever else helped my students feel at home in my classroom.

The day Donald Trump won the presidential election, I knew that my high school students represented the entire political spectrum. At the beginning of each class period, I distributed paper and asked them to write "President Donald J. Trump" and how they felt about that phrase. I asked them to write down the comments they heard from other students and how they felt about those reactions.

Several students confessed that they cried when they heard the news. Others were jubilant that changes were finally happening after eight years of former President Barack Obama. Others were fearful that life would become far more difficult for them and their loved ones after hearing other students chant things like, "Build that wall!" in the hallway. No one really knew what to expect.

Responding in the Classroom

As their teacher, I talked to kids when they seemed anxious or angry. As my sophomores read the Young Adult novel All American Boys by Brendan Kiely and Jason Reynolds, we discussed the dangers of echo chambers and fake news. When my seniors started reading The Road by Cormac McCarthy, about a father and son's journey in post-apocalyptic America, we talked about what the country would look like in 2117 and what shaped our predictions. I tried to navigate each day’s news events by making sure that my kids knew that they could come to my classroom and feel valued and safe.

But the headlines blared from my phone as the days progressed. As the daughter of South Korean immigrants who overcame tremendous odds, my own anxieties grew as palpable changes went into effect from one executive order after another. I tentatively became more politically active outside the classroom, contacting local representatives and participating in the Poughkeepsie Women’s March Over the Walkway. I talked to family members, friends, and colleagues and tried to understand different perspectives. I felt like America was becoming unrecognizable.

But in my classroom, I kept quiet about my opinions because I didn't want my kids to feel uncomfortable. Some relished all of the changes that were happening. Some were disengaged and didn’t know or care about what was happening around them. Others grew far more anxious. I knew about the sharp increase in hate crimes in schools across the country and heard about isolated incidents of racism and anti-LGBT rhetoric, as well as heated ideological arguments from my own colleagues and students.

Then Trump implemented a travel ban on January 27, which prevents refugees from entering the United States for 120 days, indefinitely halts refugees from Syria, and keeps immigrants from Iran, Iraq, Libya, Somalia, Sudan, Syria, and Yemen out for 90 days. It was implemented without warning and stranded thousands. Although the ban was temporarily blocked by a federal judge, its fate is still up in the air—the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals is deliberating on the case now, but it is expected to go to the U.S. Supreme Court. The uncertainty surrounding the ban has repercussions that hit my own students.

Voicing Support for Students

Initially, I was an observer. I saw pictures and videos of people flooding into John F. Kennedy International Airport, holding signs declaring “Refugees Welcome” and “I Love Immigrant NY” and chanting, “No ban, no wall!” I witnessed families reuniting with their confused and shaken loved ones after they were detained for hours, even those with green cards, student visas, or after honorably helping the U.S. military.

The next day, I worried about my students, many of whom were already anxious about what was going on in the world. After a week filled with unpredictability, I could no longer stay silent. Many of my students had family members in other countries and a few were immigrants themselves, and I wanted to encourage my colleagues and fellow parents to offer support to those who needed it.

After much thought, I shared the following on social media:

Teacher friends and parents,

Tomorrow, children will go to school and be told by their peers to go back to their country because they deserve to be deported. They might be Muslim, Mexican, Jewish, black, Asian, or from another beautiful culture (or two or more). They will hear jokes about microaggressions, trigger warnings, safe spaces, the LGBT community, people of color, Nazis, the economically disadvantaged and more—in the cafeteria, on their way to school, under the breaths of classmates, or online in their social media feeds. They will be told that they are too sensitive if they take offense.

What are you going to do about this?

Everything that is happening in America today affects my children and my students. They come first.

Even if you know that your students or that your children are thoughtful and compassionate individuals with a deep understanding of what it means to be a kind person in America, talk to them anyway about how they are feeling these days. What do they hear? What do they see? How are they navigating this world of ours? A conversation never hurts.

Watching the repercussions of the travel ban really shook me. Even though I was a little nervous about potential backlash, I stepped outside of my comfort zone as a teacher and wrote the message. Sometimes students like it when they can immerse themselves in the day's lesson and forget about the world outside, but this news affected relatives and friends.

A Balancing Act

When I went back to school that week, I told my students that I wanted to share my perspective with those who were afraid in light of recent events. I tempered my opinion with the acknowledgement that there was a plethora of different opinions in the classroom, and I didn’t want to offend or silence anyone. But as a human being, I also felt a certain way about how many of my students, or those they knew, were being treated.

In my students' writing that day about where they saw America in 100 years, they all shared their hopes for a better world, their optimism about the human spirit, and their acknowledgement that even though we didn’t know what was going to happen, we needed to continue doing our part in whatever capacity we could. After sharing my own feelings with them, my students' writing about their view of the future was also more honest.

It was gratifying to be a participant in the conversations that ensued with my classes—not just an observer or a facilitator. One of my students who was personally affected by the travel ban invited my senior classes to participate in a solidarity rally for Muslims and refugees. Another student invited her peers to participate in a postcard writing event to local representatives and politicians.

When I marched at a solidarity rally against the temporary immigration ban in Poughkeepsie, N.Y., and saw some of my students giving voice to their thoughts, chanting, "Love, not hate," and smiling at the hundreds of people that gathered that evening, I was so proud of them. We need to reassure the most vulnerable students in our school districts that we will support them in their time of need, especially given that the fate of the travel ban, which was temporarily blocked by a federal judge, is now up in the air as a case against it goes to the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in San Francisco.

However, we also need to have difficult conversations with all of our students, especially when there is so much uncertainty in the world. Sometimes, in appropriate ways, that also includes the voices of educators. But there should be no echo chambers in our classrooms. All of our students have unique perspectives that deserve to be heard. Let us continue to build our classroom communities one shared moment at a time.

Photo provided and taken by author at the Mid-Hudson Solidarity March in Poughkeepsie, N.Y. on February 1.

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