By Todd S. Hawley and Adam W. Jordan
This is how we had planned on starting our next Southern Schooling column. As former teachers, we remember well what it was like to start a new school year — a mix of excitement, stress, and the collective belief in the power of new beginnings. Certainly, the start of a new school year didn’t mean having to stop flying first-class, staying in fancy resorts, or living the good life for three solid months — as many seem to believe teachers do while on summer vacation. Sadly, this isn’t true. Not even close. Summer is a chance for teachers to recharge, spend time with family, and work on everything there wasn’t time for during the school year.
As part of our efforts to honor the work of public schools and public school teachers, we had planned to mark the start of a new school year with an open letter to teachers, framed as part high-five and part vision alignment, with both intended to support teachers as they get back to the hard work of teaching. We believe teachers need both a strong system of support and a deep commitment to their vision of good teaching. Without both, even the best teachers can get caught up in the push to teach to the test, to give in to the belief that teachers and schools are failing, and to focus on the need to navigate a teacher evaluation system that values test data over true connections with kids. Hence, the high-five and the call to calibrate our brains as tools to support teachers as they begin a new school year.
And then Charlottesville happened. And the actions of a few served to remind everyone that hate, racism, fear, and organized bigotry are still alive and well in the United States in 2017. It became clear to us that our initial vision of an open letter to teachers needed to change. (Stay tuned on that, though…) We were and continue to be moved by powerful stories of resistance, of communities coming together to denounce racism, to remove monuments, and to discuss, explicitly, the role racism continues to play in our society.
We are, however, well aware the events in Charlottesville didn’t come out of nowhere. Rather than representing a seismic shift, or simply a one-day return to post-Civil War-era white nationalism, the events in Charlottesville connect easily to the murder of Trayvon Martin, to the murders in Charleston, South Carolina, and to the murders of Michael Brown, Freddie Gray, and Tamir Rice (to only name a few). Our point is that while Charlottesville may have changed the world for some white people, many black, brown, Jewish, and immigrant people simply called it Saturday. Charlottesville was not the first time they’d felt the weight of racism, and sadly, it won’t likely be the last.
Now, what does all of this mean for teachers, particularly teachers in the South? It means we have to commit to confronting racism and equipping our students to do the same. To do this, for starters, we must welcome all students back into our classrooms and provide space for students to ask questions and have hard conversations. We must find the strength to denounce hate speech and racist actions. It means letting students explore how they feel and what they can do to bring about positive social change while honoring the real worlds students bring into schools and classrooms. It means acknowledging that we are teaching students who are feeling less safe in the world than they did during the last school year. It means acknowledging that we are teaching students who have learned to be racist, who have never been exposed to different views, perspectives, or cultures, and who may support the racist speech and action in Charlottesville. We must acknowledge that those kids aren’t bad kids. They are just kids, but they need good teachers perhaps now more than ever.
It means that we are probably working with colleagues who have never had deep conversations about the role they can play in teaching all students to resist and confront bigotry and racism, all while teaching in schools and districts that do not want to react to any of these events. These schools may have policies and traditions that suggest students come to school only to learn facts, not to ask deep questions, explore social issues, or become prepared to transform their society. It means acknowledging that teaching isn’t neutral and never has been. We must make choices about what we teach and how we teach it. It means collaborating with and supporting colleagues who may not feel empowered to talk about race and racism. In short, we think it means doing what teachers and schools should be doing every day, being explicit about why they do what they do and connecting students’ lives to the curriculum.
We acknowledge that teaching in 2017 isn’t easy. Teaching is hard. Teaching in an era where accountability takes the form of grading teachers based on their students’ test scores is hard enough. Throw in a growing acceptance of hate speech and actions in K-12 schools, and things get even harder. Despite these harsh realities, we believe in teachers as agents of change. We believe in the transformative potential of public education. We acknowledge that there have already been many wonderful things written about teaching in the Trump Era, and about teaching after the most recent events in Charlottesville. Valerie Strauss of The Washington Post has put together an excellent list of resources for teachers who want to talk about hatred in America on her blog, The Answer Sheet. These are all amazing resources, and we hope that all teachers will draw on them as they begin to provide space for open, honest discussion in their classrooms.
But given our experiences both growing up in and teaching in the South, we feel compelled to speak to Southern teachers. We believe that things may get much worse before they get better, and we know that teachers will be a key component in the struggle for equity and justice in schools and society.
As Southern teachers, we must first be honest with ourselves about our vision for our teaching, our students, and our communities. We know that sometimes self-preservation in a demanding and public profession causes teachers to see themselves as apolitical, sticking to the notion of teaching as a neutral profession. It feels safe to stick to the facts, follow the curriculum, and avoid controversy or anything that might lead to heated discussion or disagreement.
We are not the first to challenge the notion that teachers cannot be neutral, nor will we be the last. However, our hope is that more Southern teachers will feel empowered to do more than the expected. We hope teachers will begin to resist teaching to the test and accepting a standardized curriculum as the best way to teach students. Instead, we hope they will enact a pedagogy focused on critical thinking and complex problem solving. We hope that teachers will ask themselves if they truly believe that their students, as current and future members of our democratic society, are better off learning to take tests and memorize facts than they would be if they were challenged to solve complex questions, to address persistent social issues, and to use their new knowledge to think about how they can work to make their world more equitable, more just and better for everyone.
Teachers, this is our moment to grasp. So many of us want to be change agents in our society, yet so many of us feel constrained in our ability to do so. We write eloquent social-media posts denouncing hate and racism, but too often we don’t know where to move from there. Statistically, here in the South, most of us are white and middle class. We weep over Charlottesville, but we don’t directly feel the sting of Charlottesville. As Tina Fey brilliantly communicated through satire, we can sometimes say the right words, but with a mouth full of cake. If you’re feeling lost and wanting to be a part of the solution but don’t know how, may we make one suggestion? Teach for change.
We aren’t suggesting that teachers stroll into classrooms shouting their personal political positions. That’s not our jobs. We are simply suggesting that teachers go into their classrooms intending to prepare their students to form their own political opinions, but to do so with the appropriate tools of critical thought and analysis. We are suggesting that maybe social studies teachers will use discussion and deliberation as pedagogy instead of lecture. Maybe math teachers will teach correlation by showing when Confederate monuments were erected alongside a timeline of Jim Crow. Maybe English teachers will have a critically focused essay assignment where students highlight racism throughout American literature.
To conclude, we return to the words of one of our favorite educators, Paulo Freire:
"Washing one's hands of the conflict between the powerful and the powerless means to side with the powerful, not to be neutral.”
We hope our words support teachers of color in the South. With that being said, we must acknowledge that we are two white men. We cannot fathom what teachers of color in the South face right now. But we do know what it is like to be white teachers in the South, so we have to conclude this column with a call to white teachers in the South directly.
White teachers, we have the privilege to turn our heads and make arguments like "Charlottesville doesn't represent all of us," or to say things like "there is violence on many sides." The problem is: Doing that only makes us part of the problem.
There is no neutral. We have to pick a side. We’re calling out white supremacists and neo-Nazis for what they are — confused, misguided, and disgusting representations of systemic, self-serving, and intentional racism that has been going on for decades.
We’ll put our money on the folks fighting racism, we’ll place our actions in full opposition, we’ll acknowledge and try to leverage our own white male privilege, and we sure won't be quiet.
Teachers, in 20 years, when our kids look back at this, they have to know where we stood.
Teachers, don't wash your hands of this moment. Fight this nonsense head-on with your brains, your hearts, and dadgum good lesson plans.
In an interview, Heather Heyer’s brilliant, strong, Southern warrior of a mother said, “I’d rather have my child, but if I’ve got to give her up, by golly, we are going to make it count.”
Mrs. Heyer, we are with you and we are sending you a big ol’ virtual hug around your neck.
Just know that good teachers will always make Heather’s beautiful life count.
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