I had a situation in my classroom today. It was unpleasant and ended in tears, but they weren’t mine and that sucks.
At the same time, when we hear words spoken out of fear, out of hate for another group, and out of ignorance, we are forced with a choice. We can speak out or we can stay silent. With our silence comes complacency, and with our complacency comes failure. When we fail to speak up, even when it is hard, our silence communicates that we will allow atrocities to continue and therefore, become a party to the crime.
So, when a student was talking about immigration today…about “those people” who come into “our” country and then don’t even bother to speak or learn English, I was taken aback. My knee jerk reaction led me to cry out across the room with a “what did you just say?” And when I could tell that my tone was wrong…all wrong…that I had startled the class, I back tracked. I said that I was going to err on the side of caution. I said that I was going to assume I heard what I heard out of context and that we would talk later. Of course, I left the class confused. But my knee jerk reaction was to stop that conversation in its tracks. And this wasn’t about the student who said it. In that moment, I felt the need to protect the diverse children in my class who may be the children of first generation immigrants. They may be immigrants themselves. Their families may be struggling to speak English fluently or feel no need to learn it because they live in a community that values their language and culture and doesn’t require that level of assimilation. Whatever the case, I knew that kind of talk was disrespectful and full of hidden meanings and I simply would not allow it.
I do not break from the role of teacher in my room often. I try not to impress my political beliefs on the children, but instead, push them to consider other experiences and to view the world through a lens of empathy that values the diverse experiences of their peers. At the same time, I will not allow blind ignorance or hatred to persist in my room. I know this child didn’t mean it. I know he wasn’t coming from a place of hate. He was coming from a place of ignorance. These were beliefs he had acquired unconsciously along the way. And I realized, maybe too late, that he needed empathy too.
I had failed to see that he had been struggling to feel safe in my room recently. He is a bright, sweet kid. Not just bright, gifted. The last few weeks, I had forgotten to consider the whole child and had not been aware of the ways my actions and the actions of his classmates may be affecting him. He felt shut out by me. He told me after class that it didn’t matter what he said to me because I hated him anyways.
He thought I hated him.
That, folks, is the WORST feeling ever. I called him back in my room. Tears had swollen up in his eyes. He was fighting them back, trying to not let the first one fall down his cheek. I looked him the face and said “I don’t hate you at all.” I told him that I thought it was a very bright and sweet young man. I told him I would love to sit down with him over coffee some day and debate all of the things he wants to debate. (And boy, does he love to debate.) Then I explained to him that there was an appropriate time and place for these types of debates and they weren’t in the classroom when we are talking about main idea, or characterization, or some other skill process. The times for these debates were during Socratic seminars, or in fishbowls, times that are meant for discussion. I told him I needed him to work on realizing the difference. He said okay and asked if he could leave now.
I let him go and I took a long hard look in the mirror. How I had my actions communicated that I hated him. Had I said things that would send this message? I realized that I had stopped him in his tracks a couple of times when he had started in on a story that was wildly off topic. I realized I probably hadn’t been as nurturing as I should have. He probably had annoyed me a little and clearly I had allowed this to show through to him. I had been wrong and now, I have to fix it.
It is hard to admit when we are wrong, especially as teachers. We are supposed to know what we are doing. We are supposed to set the example. But you know, we are just people too. What sets us apart from the kids is our ability to step back and reflect on what we have done. We make decisions to move forward and to make changes. We reflect, because we can’t tolerate any hate, real or perceived.