A teacher friend just asked me how I plan to talk to my students about Charlottesville on the first day of school. The country is on fire. White supremacy has taken over the White House. People are dying in the streets. What am I going to say?
I do have a plan about what I’m going to say to the students in my English classes on Wednesday about the political turmoil in this country.
It’s the same plan I had at the end of the summer of 2016 in light of the murder of Philando Castile and the police officers in Dallas. And the year before. And the year before. I’m entering my twenty-third year in the classroom. There has never been a year in my career that was not fraught with social injustice.
So here’s what I’m going to say about Charlottesville to my students on the first day of school. Ready?
You may disagree with that approach and that’s cool. I have my reasons, though.
- Kids hate being preached at. Even ones who agree with their teacher hate it when the teacher becomes the preacher.
- The curriculum I teach is English, not Mrs. Wanket’s Political Views. The curriculum of English is vital to ethical and intelligent citizenship. Can’t waste class time.
- On the first day of school, young people are biologically focused mainly on how much they have to go to the bathroom, how hungry they are, how sleepy they are, how cute their crush is, and who they are going to sit with at lunch. They seem like a captive audience. This is an illusion.
- The students who do not agree with me that White supremacy, global warming, and seriously dangerous men in the White House are real are almost surely reflecting the views of their parents. If I say that their ideas are wrong, they are hearing that their parents are wrong and therefore I think they themselves are fundamentally wrong in the cells of their making. This is not a path to trust and rapport, which I need in order to impart the skills of the actual curriculum.
As an educator deeply concerned with issues of social justice, however, I promise that I will:
- Teach the curriculum of my classes to the best of my ability, using all of my professional skills to reach every learner.
- Enforce strict rules of respectful engagement and give plenty of chances to practice them in classroom debates and discussion.
- Show respect for all students, including those who would disagree with me.
- Allow all of my students, including those who are divergent from the dominant paradigm, know that I am an oasis of acceptance and support for their emotional health as well as their high academic achievement.
We’re here for the long game, teacher friends. Your students will quickly learn of your commitment to social justice and equality by your example and demeanor. Your actions and authenticity will have far greater impact than anything you say on the first day of school.
Anyway, it’s never my business to use my classroom as a soapbox. Not even now. It is my business that my students learn to back up their arguments with fallacy-free logic and fact, not with tiki-torches, mob mentality and murder. Besides, soapbox teachers so often turn their students off, if not to the message then to the source. I can’t teach young people who walk into my classroom already determined to not listen.
What do you teach? Computer Science? Biology? Algebra? It’s all necessary. Believe it.
I’m not suggesting that all supporters of White supremacy are uneducated. Yet White supremacy is built on ignorance, hate, bad history, and breathtakingly flawed logic. The more our students learn to critically think, the better for all of us.
The more academic opportunities for our historically marginalized students, the better for all of us.
Teaching time is a precious commodity. Whatever your curriculum, the work of education is some of the most powerful social justice work we can do right now.
Let’s roll up our sleeves and save the country.