Friday, July 8, 2016

Teaching in a Mad World

Like most Americans, I've followed the tragic events of the past week with a mixed bag of emotions and thoughts.  Clearly, the primary emotion has been tremendous sadness for the lives lost.  Sadness for the families, sadness for the country, sadness for my children and my students.  I was reminded of a poem by the Somali poet Warsan Shire:

"later that night
i held an atlas in my lap
ran my fingers across the whole
and whispered
where does it hurt?
it answered

But, again like most, I've felt that overarching need, as we so often do in times like these, to find someone to blame.  I've spent the better part of the day considering that thought, and read countless posts on social media from new "experts" on who I should blame, everyone from the black community to police officers to President Obama.  But, ultimately, it seems that the more I reflect, the clearer the blame is to assign.  If we, as Americans, want to know who we should blame for the creation of a culture in which this level of hatred can exist, all we have to do is look in the mirror.

As I've reflected on these tragedies, and the world in which we live, the other thought that has hit so hard for me is what can be done to change this culture.  What responsibility do I have to make something positive from this tragic time, not only as a citizen of this country, but as a teacher?  I've always been a big believer that complaining rarely gets one any where, and if it does, not only is it rarely positive, but does nothing to address the bigger issue that might be at play.  In my mind, if you want to complain, then you had better be prepared to either offer an alternative, or to be part of the solution.  Complaining without a desire to change something for the better is always being a part of the problem.  So, again I ask, what can we do as educators to try and make a difference in our culture, because make no mistake, I believe this is an issue of American culture, and it will take every American to fix it.

As I've said, I feel great sadness in light of these events, certainly for the families of the lives lost, but perhaps more so for the indictment they lay at the world which we've created.  I can't help but think about the students in my charge, about my own children, and the world to which we are sending them off.  What can I do, a teacher in a small rural school, to change things, to make a better world?  Can these lives lost be lost for something greater?  As I look for these answers, I'm reminded that my responsibility as a teacher to my charges is not only to prepare them for the content knowledge they will need in the next steps of life, but to do my own small part in preparing them for life itself.  And to do that, we educators must take stock of the world into which these young people are journeying.

It seems clear that these deaths, like so many around the country and world today, are rooted in one basic reality: the reality of fear.  Fear of the different, fear of the disagreement, fear of being uncomfortable, fear of the unknown.  We educators have a tremendous opportunity each day to help combat that fear, to encourage our students to embrace understanding, but to do so we must be prepared for the challenge that comes along with it.  It would be easy for us to march into the classroom, and tell the students what they should feel, what they should think.  But that is merely being part of the problem.  We have to challenge them, push their comfort zones, but allow them to grow in their own mind.  What can we do to meet this challenge?  I have a few thoughts.

  • Encourage deliberation- I teach social studies, so the word "debate" is often a favorite.  How often I've heard "Mr. Cline, when are we going to debate?" I've always had a problem with that word, however.  Not in the discussion, and certainly not in the passionate defense of an idea. But what I have so often seen in debates is that the parties involved simply listen to argue, to poke holes in the other sides argument, and the result is generally hard feelings, and rarely any positive understanding.  I prefer "deliberation", which inherently encourages one to listen simply to listen, to learn.  Steven Covey, the author of the book "The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People" wrote "Most people do not listen with the intent to understand; they listen with the intent to reply." We have lost the art of meaningful conversation, the ability to speak with someone who is different than ourselves, and emerge not angry, but more knowledgeable; not changed, but accepting.  Encourage your students to understand that there is always something that can be learned from someone else, but they have to be willing to listen for the sake of learning.  Not changed, not adopting a point of view, but understanding that it is a voice, and that every voice has worth, and that we each are better when we can see all sides.
  • Most importantly, love every single one of your students, even, and perhaps especially, the ones that are harder to love than others.  If one thing is clear from the events of the past week, it is that we live in a world lacking in understanding and love.  We have to love these kids, every one of them, with a deep love that lacks any superficiality.  And they need to know it.  These kids need to know that we love them, that we want what is best for each of them, that we accept them for who they are and love who they are.  I've never been afraid to tell a student that I love them, that I care about them, that I am here for them.  If we expect our students to be a positive part of this world, if we expect them to develop the kind of capacity of love and understanding for others that is going to begin healing the wounds of this nation, then we had damn well better be sure to model it ourselves.  And if you can't do that, if you ever feel that it has become cumbersome to demonstrate that kind of love for every single child, then consider the reality that this might not be the field for you.
As Gary Jules once sang, "It's a very, very mad world", and we stand at the precipice of choice: do we accept this kind of tragedy as simply the ways things are, or do we strive for something better, a world of acceptance, deliberation, understanding.  Note that I didn't say agreement.  I may have sounded naive in this post (I prefer the term "idealistic"), but I'm not that naive.  Humans will never agree on everything.  We aren't pattern molds, and we shouldn't strive to be.  Our country is undeniably stronger because of its diversity, not in spite of it.  We need diversity of opinions and thoughts, but we also need the ability to agree to disagree.  How often has someone close to you said something like "We just can't talk politics"?  Why?  We should be talking about politics, and anything else that is important to us.  We just have to be ok with not agreeing on the same point of view.  That kind of growth can't start when we are 30; it has to start when we are young.  It has to start at home, and it has to be encouraged and supported at school. I can't say if every single one of my students is going to need that knowledge we gleaned about some Supreme Court case we covered, or the issues with Reconstruction, or anything else we covered in class.  But I know that skills in the art of deliberation are skills that can fit any future.


  1. Hey Kevin! There's a lot here, but there's also a lot to say about this crazy week. I'm not sure how well I would handle this in class if it were happening during the school year. (Reminds me of the Ferguson summer in 2014.) We teachers will probably benefit from this time to observe and reflect before answering tough questions to our adolescent students.
    I smiled at your comment about kids wanting to 'debate' even though they might not really know what that means. Discussion, or deliberation, is a different experience and skill. I have noticed sharp decline in the past decade of 8th graders' ability to sustain face-to-face conversations ... let alone tackle a difficult topic with substantive comments and empathy!

  2. Thanks for the read and the comment Andrew! I teach advanced senior government, so you can imagine the fire they come in with! It's all about keeping that fire while also realizing that others burn with the same intensity, just in a different standard. I remind them that none of them is an expert, so don't act like it, and let's grow together!