The Time For Courageous Conversations In The Classroom Is Now

Educators have to engage in courageous conversations in our classrooms. Teaching is a political profession. Our students look to us to help them understand the complex issues they hear about in the news or via social media. The reality is that it is all too easy for us to look the other way.  

Tackling these conversations in our classrooms requires courage. Sometimes it may mean going against the leadership of your school who prefer that you leave ‘that topic’ out of your classroom. It means being prepared to hear a range of opinions from your classes that may fundamentally differ from your own. It requires you as an educator to get uncomfortable, to make your students uncomfortable and to realize that discomfort is a necessary prelude to discourse and change.

I am definitely not an expert on having difficult conversations, but I wanted to share with you some of my experiences, resources and strategies for tackling courageous conversations in the classroom.

  1. It is important to discuss explicit and implicit biases with staff and students and recognize that we are not immune.

We all have biases. So do our students. Our beliefs and values are products of our socialization. We need to recognize this before change can occur. The video series Who, Me? Biased from the New York Times effectively examines how our implicit biases impact our actions. Each video is only about 2 minutes long and could be used at a staff meeting and/or in the classroom as a discussion prompt for looking at our own biases. Another activity is to have students reflect on their own political socialization. I recently had my Grade 12 Politics students create a reflective piece examining their political socialization. Some students recognized that many of their beliefs are shaped by their family/social media and that they themselves know little about the issues. The point is to get students thinking about their thinking (metacognition), and reflecting on how we are influenced to believe what we believe. Teachers/Admin need to do this as well.

  1.         We have to build a climate in our classroom for courageous conversations.

When Trump first proposed his immigration ban, I tried to discuss this topic in my classroom. I had a number of articles, resources, quotes, videos, etc, that I had stayed up late curating. I was nervous, but I felt prepared. I wasn’t. My class became extremely emotionally charged and divided. I had to stop the lesson, apologize to my class and tell them that we would revisit this topic. I think this happens to a lot of us. We plan to tackle a difficult issue, we lose control of the class and we decide to walk away from it. However, I wasn’t prepared to walk away.

I went home that night and worked on a presentation on how to have Difficult Conversations. We also looked at the Oatmeal Comic The BackFire Effect. We then practiced having courageous conversations with some historical topics. Later, we revisited Trump’s immigration ban and were able to tackle the issues as a class together courageously.

This year in my Politics class, I reused my presentation on Difficult Conversations but I turned to a lesson plan from Facing History to help me tackle issues of race in my classroom and create a contract for courageous conversations. Before discussing Charlottesville, we looked at our own biases, practiced how to have difficult conversations and created a contract for courageous conversations in the classroom. You can see the overview of this lesson here in:  After Charlottesville adapted from the lesson plan: Lesson: After Charlottesville and the Fight Against Bigotry.

  1. There are certain issues we need to address explicitly. Our goal as educators is to teach students how to think not what to think. We want our students to be critical and creative thinkers. This can make us uncomfortable to share our beliefs with our students. There are many times when teachers should keep their opinions to themselves and try to facilitate a conversation that reflects/values differing viewpoints. However, there are times as teachers where we have to be worried about the dangerous middle ground. Sometimes there is no middle ground. Racism, misogyny, homophobia, prejudice and discrimination are wrong and have to be called out by teachers in the classroom. We need to talk about why the middle ground that we are often taught to value can sometimes be dangerous and perilous. We need to stand up for human rights – otherwise all of our courageous conversations are little more than empty words.

 

Teacher-Teacher Relationships Matter

When I first starting blogging in June, I didn’t know how important it would become to me. It is hard for me to always put what I am thinking into words, and writing has been a tremendous release for me. I took the last 2 ½ weeks off from blogging because I finished my Masters and wanted to fully devote time to my family, friends and recharge a bit before September. My first ever blog post was about the importance of student-teacher relationships. However, as we head into a new school year I wanted to write about the importance of relationships with other educators.

In my last blog post, I shared a curated Google Doc inspired by Melinda D. Anderson’s hashtag on Twitter #CharlottesvilleCurriculum. I started curating these resources because I didn’t want the great ideas that I witnessed being shared across Twitter to be lost. I shared the Google Doc on Twitter thinking that a few people would be interested, and instead the Google Doc collected over 19 pages of resources. It is difficult to put into words how much this impacted me. I experienced first hand the power of collaboration and I felt overwhelmingly connected to other educators who like me were using part of their summer to find, curate and share anti-racist resources, because they recognized that protecting our students was our first priority. It reminded me how lucky I am to work with people who commit their lives to educating others.

As teachers, we don’t just teach curriculum, we support students through social-emotional issues and sometimes we make a connection with a student and discover that we are one of the few caring adults they have in their lives. This is overwhelming, immensely rewarding and sometimes incredibly stressful. Our job is hard – it is wonderful, I truly feel that this is what I was meant to do, but it is hard. If it is hard for us, then that means that it is hard for our colleagues as well.

Student-teacher relationships are incredibly important, but as educators we also need to reflect on how we treat and talk about our colleagues.

First, be kind to yourself. I have never ended a teaching year and thought to myself, “Well, that was a perfect year.” You are going to make mistakes. You are going to have a kid you didn’t reach and beat yourself up about it later. You are going to deliver a sub-par lesson a few times throughout the year. You are human. You are flawed. You are enough.

My fifth year of teaching, I left on the last day of school and cried in my car pretty much the whole way home. That year had been extremely hard for me personally, and I felt like I had failed my students professionally. I was angry at myself, frustrated and saddened by what I had achieved in my classroom that year. I thought about quitting teaching. I wanted to quit teaching. I was tired.

At the time, my Department Head invited me to meet up with her later. She didn’t give me a hard time for all the mistakes I had made that year, and there were many. Instead, she told me that my bad days were still pretty good, and that next year I had a clean slate. She told me that I was only human, and that sometimes life gets in the way of who we want to be in our classroom. She gave me the courage and support to teach again.

This may not seem like much. But she could have done something very different.

Too often, I have been to Professional Development sessions or see Tweets on Twitter that begin by disparaging teachers. Sometimes this is posting their Syllabus on Twitter and ripping it to part as outdated for all to share and retweet and comment on. Other times, it is idle chatter in the hallway or discussions in the staff room. At times, I am guilty of this.

Now, I firmly believe that we should definitely be critical of teaching and teaching practices when we are focused on improvement. I don’t believe it does anyone any good to close the blinds and just pretend that everything is lollypops and rainbows in the education system. Also, I want to make it clear, if a teacher is harming a student, you have an obligation to speak up. You have to.

However, if one of our colleagues is struggling and feeling overwhelmed then we should offer help, support and share resources/ideas as opposed to disparaging them.  If they are struggling, we should see what we can do to help them as opposed to making their job harder.

I am so fortunate to work with the people that I do. They are my colleagues and my friends. They support me through the good and the bad, and I value their insights, creativity and friendship. Most of all, I know that the people in my department truly put the welfare of kids first everyday and want to support their students. We don’t always agree, but I never doubt their commitment. They love their students and they want to support them just like I do. The teachers I work with and the students I teach make my work meaningful. Without the support of my colleagues, I would feel lost.

Professional Learning Network’s (PLN’s) on Social Media are extremely powerful. However, we all need to work at building our own PLN within our schools as well. This job can feel very isolating and places like Twitter can offer solace and help for that, which is wonderful. However, there is nothing better than a face-to-face relationship with a supportive colleague. 

 

We Can’t Be Silent

Most of my blogs are about instructional strategies, lesson ideas or useful educational tools. I try to keep my blogs helpful and filled with practical real-life examples that you can start using immediately.

However, the reality is that the most important part of our job as educators does not involve instructional strategies or the latest educational technology. The heart of teaching is relationships. Our job before anything else is to love, protect and fight for all of our students.

The violent, Neo-Nazi, white supremacist rally that took place this past weekend showed us that this alt-right populist movement isn’t going away, and is growing in numbers and violence. Please read the blog: My Fellow White Americans – Blog.

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In response to the events, Melinda D. Anderson (@mdawriter on Twitter), contributing writer for The Atlantic created the #CharlottesvilleCurriculum on Twitter to collect resources devoted to antiracist education. Today, I became inspired by her hashtag to create a shared Google Doc that curates the antiracist educational resources being shared (with her permission). It is completely editable, and anyone who has the link can add resources. The purpose of this is to support and curate resources for educators engaged in anti-racist teaching. Here is the link to the Google Doc: Charlottesville.  This Google Doc has been shared on Twitter and Facebook, and many educators are contributing very insightful and helpful resources. I hope you will consider sharing and adding  your voice. We can’t be silent on these issues if we want to love and protect our students.