When did you first realize that you were called to be an educator?
As a child, I can recall teaching “classes” full of stuffed animals, dolls, a few live puppies, and even a captive audience of neighborhood children. But it wasn’t until high school that I really knew I wanted to be a teacher. It was an ordinary day during my sophomore year in high school, in the middle of a world history lecture, that I remember thinking to myself — Yes, I want to be a high school history teacher.
I was watching my history teacher, Mr. Sterling, at the time, and I could sense his ease with the content, his passion, and his excitement. When he wasn’t captivating me with his ponderings on the state of Abu Dhabi, he was likely teasing me after catching me waving out the door to my boyfriend for the 100th time that semester, or encouraging me to keep going after I missed that one point I needed to meet the goal I’d set for myself in the class.
I knew he was doing exactly what he was called to do in this world — and I knew I wanted to do that, too.
I loved teaching. And that’s why I know that making the decision to leave the classroom is one of the most difficult decisions an educator will ever make.
Yet, for more than a decade, we’ve been having an ongoing conversation about teacher shortages and the difficulties we now face recruiting and retaining teachers. Notably, the data suggests that retention is no longer an issue that only impacts teachers in their first five years, but that teachers are leaving their classrooms in increasing numbers throughout the trajectory of their careers. This is a problem we must address, and we believe that you can help!
How could Syrian refugees transform a school in Los Angeles from 7,500 miles away?
Technology has truly opened classroom doors and communication between students in different schools or districts — whether nearby or across the country. Opportunities to engage with peers who may have different perspectives are becoming more and more common. For example, Jo Paraiso uses Google Hangouts with her students so they can talk with peers across the country.
However, it’s not so often, if ever, that you hear about students in South Los Angeles, Jordan, and Syria having the opportunity to speak to one another, and most definitely not about difficult issues impacting their respective communities. Through the Global Nomads Group’s Pulse program, Syrian and Jordanian students in Amman connected with peers in Los Angeles for a live conversation to do just that.
Sharing a virtual reality experience, curricular resources, and live dialogue, the students learned about one another, the Syrian Refugee crisis, the challenges each community faced, and how they could take action in their own communities.
As teachers, we’ve all dealt with days that are particularly tough in the classroom. Unfortunately, we seem to be increasingly faced with teaching in the days and weeks that follow a local or a collective tragedy. For nearly two weeks, Northern California has been ravaged by devastating wildfires — the deadliest in California history. For many at Teaching Channel, the Bay Area is home, and we’ve been thinking a lot about how we can help our friends and neighbors. From making a donation to volunteering your time, if you’re looking for a way to help, you can find a number of great ideas here and here.
Whether local, national, or international in scope, times of crisis can have a significant impact on our students and our classrooms. While the impact is more obvious when students are in direct proximity to the event or personally involved, large-scale national crises, often accompanied by heavy media coverage, can be equally difficult to navigate. The resulting stress and anxiety students — and teachers — bring into the classroom in response to a crisis can affect teaching and learning.
“The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing.”
This Won’t Be Easy
Important conversations never are. But our students — and colleagues — learn as much from what we do (or don’t do) as what we say (or don’t say). The events that transpired in Charlottesville, Virginia are likely weighing heavy on your students’ hearts and minds, just as they are on yours. You haven’t had the opportunity to learn their names, set up a structure, or lay the foundation for learning this year, but you can still create a space for your students to begin to unpack race, face history, and grapple with the lasting legacies of the past.
How do we help students to move beyond their own perspectives to understand the lives of others? How do we challenge them to deeply understand another person whose life and experiences differ greatly from their own? How do we cultivate empathy, compassion, and even love across the lines of race, ethnicity, gender, class, sexual orientation, religion, and disability?
These questions lie at the heart of social justice education.
To create a truly equitable society, we must be able to empathize with experiences we may never share. We must break down “empathy walls” to transform our society. But how do we do so?
Theater in the history classroom provides one possible answer.
Over the course of the last week, I watched in horror as the imaginary world I live in, or lived in, came crashing down around me. I built myself a world where discrimination was largely a thing of the past. A world where people worked together to achieve equal rights for all. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve told my daughters, and even my students, that things are different now. I lied. I lied to the children; I lied to myself. We still live in a country where it is open season on black people.
My first example of love was from my parents, which is probably true for most people. Their care and attention to my moral, spiritual, and physical development provided the template for what I hope to achieve with Laila and Joshua, my two children. In the space between the example that I saw and the habits I hope to repeat, learning took place. This relationship is essential to creating an infrastructure that allows great teaching to flow.
You must set a vision of excellence that is visible, practical, and impactful. For many, this vision requires an intentional shift. Throughout my work at Paul Laurence Dunbar Senior High School, it has become clear that there are three high-leverage actions that begin to facilitate this change: establishing common language and expectations, building a standards-based foundation, and maintaining a tight feedback loop. Here are some dos and don’ts to consider when engaging with each action:
As a social studies teacher, other than the daily worry about particular students, I felt the most anxiety about my practice the day after an atrocity. How do I teach students about these events and not terrify or discourage them from engaging in the world?
I felt paralyzed in having to face them, ready to answer the why question, or ready to exude certainty that this event was surely an anomaly. Adding to the challenge for teachers today is that students sit in our classrooms full of vivid images of the events from popular media, which fuels the fire of helplessness and doom. Because the world of late has given us so much to explain and reassure them about, this anxiety is hard to shake.
And yet, teachers influence the way students make sense of a catastrophic event likely more than anyone. As teachers we know that the real power in experiences is in the sense-making — in the stories we tell in the aftermath, and how these stories direct how we live.
Oh the dreaded difficult conversation! The thought of engaging in one makes even the most vocal of coaches cringe. The conversation could be needed because a teacher is not implementing a strategy with fidelity, or lacks enthusiasm and energy for the profession. Perhaps a teacher is not pulling his or her weight at work. Even heavier are situations where students are not being treated fairly, or a teacher’s behavior becomes borderline unethical. It’s easy for coaches to overthink the “what-ifs?” of the difficult conversation. What if the teacher loses trust in me? What if someone reacts angrily towards me? What if this person quits? However, the biggest “what if” with which to contend is this: what if I stand idly by and do nothing while students don’t get what they need?
While we do not necessarily like them, difficult conversations have to happen if we are truly working in the best interests of the students. Change rarely happens without a catalyst, and these conversations can be the igniting factor. The teacher on the other end of the conversation may be unaware of his or her actions until they are brought to light by a trusted colleague. Remaining true to the following three tenets of difficult conversations may elicit a non-threatening and productive experience for both the coach and the teacher.