We are still facing dual pandemics as I write this days before the 2020 presidential election cutoff. COVID-19 is gearing up for another strike and racism isn’t slowing down either. Both are killing Americans. And both are keeping people isolated, broken, and unwell.
I am no longer in the classroom, in the literal sense of the phrase, in my role as an instructional coach. My students are grown ups now. They are teachers who are actively teaching in hybrid and online models at the same time in a city twenty minutes from where George Floyd was killed. My job mostly entails seeing teachers, valuing them, guiding them, encouraging them, and prompting questions that will challenge their growth when it comes to seeing the role of race in their teaching.
Here are a few of the themes I have found myself saying in my conversations with teachers so far this fall:
Connection before content.
My content used to be reading, writing, thinking, listening, and speaking as a Language Arts teacher. In many ways, those subjects are still my content, but under the larger umbrella of anti-racism. I consider racial equity work and anti-racism to be the content I am responsible for providing teachers.
I operate out of a belief that being antiracist is not only the morally responsible choice for educators, but also a guaranteed way to make teaching more effective and easier. And at the same time, I know that when I sort of shove antiracism in their faces, they don’t always receive it well. It’s important that the teachers I serve feel seen, heard, valued, appreciated, and taken care of the same way we hope this to be true for our students.
So, even though I experience an intense sense of urgency to promote my content to educators, I have given myself this mantra for the year: “Connection before content.” And I hope teachers will see this modeled and then turn around and adopt the same philosophy for the students they serve.
Think about the people in your life who you serve: Without looking at notes or rosters, can you name all of them? Can you name something about them? Do they know that you know that information about them? How can you be intentional about connecting with the people you serve about the topics they are interested in before talking to them about a topic you find interesting. This exercise is inspired by Don Graves.
It’s possible to be seen without ever being seen.
I’m a big audiobook and podcast listener. Ever since I had kids, I knew reading in the traditional way just wasn’t going to happen the same way, and that’s fine. I love multitasking and listening to stories while I clean or go for walks. One podcast I usually listen to is “Wait, Wait, Don’t Tell Me” from NPR.
A couple years ago, I was watching the Disney movie Inside Out with my daughter, and I recognized a voice from one of the characters clearing out memories. It was Paula Poundstone. I knew right away. Her sense of humor from the podcast I just mentioned was totally shining through in her little role in the film. Even still, I have no clue what she looks like.
What are podcasts or animated shows that you interact with regularly? Do you feel like you know those people on a personal level to some extent, even though, you have probably never met in real life? I personally could tell you a lot about a white woman named Brené Brown, her family, some of her life stories, and a lot about her research. And we’ve never met. And she doesn’t know I exist.
What would it look like to create an environment online for kids where I (as the teacher) do the heavy lifting of creating entertaining programming and share pieces of who I am with them, so that one day, when and if we are back together, they have the chance to share who they are with me more?
Silence speaks volumes.
Our students are listening. And they pick up on what we don’t say. What we don’t say says a lot. Be brave. Talk about the pandemic. Talk about the loneliness. Talk about the stress. Talk about race. Talk about the protests. Talk about the police brutality. Talk about the election. Create space for these conversations. If we don’t, how can we expect our kids to be thinking critically and seek out multiple perspectives? There’s a big difference between being uncomfortable and being unsafe. I’m not asking you to make your classroom unsafe. But I am asking you to name all the awkward, hard, and painful feelings your students might be carrying.
Talking about these topics doesn’t need to keep you up at night. But acknowledgment goes a long way. Invite students in to process their information. These thoughts were inspired by Professor Helene Harte who recommends this TED talk by Clint Smith.
Teachers, parents, administrators, neighbors, caring adults everywhere:
Our kids are watching us. They are listening. I believe our young people will really form a lot of who they believe they are during this time. How can we show up big for them?
Part 2 can be read here.
Views expressed here are my own.