“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.