It’s been a tough week.
Like many teachers, I’ve found myself feeling lost—and feeling loss. After staying up much of the night on Tuesday, I woke up on Wednesday, November 9, unsure of how I would teach that day, unsure of what to say to my students, unsure how to be around them in a way that was authentic and meaningful and important. In many ways, the campaign and election results challenged and upended so much of what I believed was the work I do as a teacher and what I try to teach students: how to be kind, compassionate, and respectful, yes, but also how to use reason and logic to test claims and evidence, to know the difference between fact and falsehood. The ground shifted after Tuesday, and I didn’t know where—or how—to stand and keep walking.
But I kept walking. It’s what teachers have always done—walk into their classrooms every morning with purpose, conviction, and most of all, hope.
Most of all, hope.
So I walked into my classroom Wednesday morning and took a deep breath. After settling students down, I told them that before we begin that I wanted to say something briefly as their teacher. These weren’t my exact words, but they went something like this:
As a teacher, I am politically neutral. I may have political beliefs, but when I’m in school, I’m only partisan for you.
That said, we’re all human beings. And as teachers and students, we bring the outside world into school with us. We can’t help it. We can’t pretend that the outside world doesn’t affect who we are when we’re in this building. It would be disingenuous to pretend otherwise. Especially today after the election.
I know a lot of you have been talking about the election. I know I’ve heard a lot of conversation about it, in the parking lot, between classes, in the hallways, before class, after class. And there have been a lot of varying reactions. On one hand, some students feel afraid, unsure, upset. Other students feel excited, joyous, gleeful. I’ve heard and seen the entire range of emotions.
With emotions running high, it’s clear that many of us are divided. So it’s important now, more than ever, to try to temper our words. Words are powerful. Whether you are upset or happy about the results, I ask that you try to come back from the extremes and the edges of how you’re feeling. Come back to the middle. You should talk about the election, because talk is a way of processing, and I think we all need to process.
But I ask that when you do talk about the election, try to approach each conversation you have with a sense of empathy and compassion. Try to engage in conversation not to be understood, but to understand others, especially those you might disagree with. It’s a tough time; don’t be the person who inflames an already tense situation. Instead, be the person who listens and tries to understand.
And then, for the most part, we went on with class. What did that look like? With my juniors and seniors, it looked like a class full of students writing. “Writing is a way of clarifying, of figuring out what it is we really think and want to say,” I reminded them. So they took out their writer’s notebooks and put pen and thought to paper and wrote for much of the period.
In one of my 9th grade classes, a student raised his hand and asked if I had chosen this week’s Article of the Week. I told students that I hadn’t yet because I was unsure of what to pick. The Article of the Week, I shared, is supposed to be something that’s 1) timely and 2) tells us something about the important conversations people are having out there in the world. But I had been purposely avoiding the election. I was honest with my students and told them that as their teacher, I wasn’t sure what I should do or if I should open that door. But given the results, it would feel false to not choose something related to the election. So I asked my students, what should I do?
One hand went up. “I think we should have an article about the election, but that it should be about the electoral college.”
Around the room, other students nodded in agreement.
Sometimes I think the best teachers we have are our students. And this was one of those moments. Like his peers, I think he understood the position I was in as their teacher. But he wanted to be more informed, and he and his peers want to talk about it. And they need to. And they need adults to guide them.
I thanked the student for his suggestion. It was one of those teaching moments I won’t easily forget. I am grateful for that student, for all my students. He—and they—reminded me that there are ways to act, small but important ways to act in difficult times. He—and they—helped me to navigate a week that has tested so many of my fundamental beliefs about who we are as a country and as people who need to live with and among one another.
More than a week has passed since the election, and I am still processing it, asking myself what it means for the work I do as a teacher. I am struggling, as I know many students are.
Thankfully, right now I am probably in the best place my heart needs to be—the NWP Annual meeting and NCTE Conference in Atlanta. Being among fellow educators has lifted my soul by reminding me how important our work is. At the NWP plenary, a student poet stood on stage and said to room full of teachers, “Sometimes we need the assurance that the world can be remade, even if we don’t know how to remake it.” And then during the closing remarks, the NWP chair urged us, “Now is not the time for resting but toil… to do the work that will bend the moral universe toward justice.”
Fifteen years ago, the ground shifted on another Tuesday: September 11th. It was my first year of teaching; I had only been a teacher for less than two weeks. My college roommate was in one of the towers. She was only 25 years old when she died.
At an NCTE session yesterday morning, Tom Romano led a panel to urge us, as educators, to help students write what matters. “Indelible moments matter,” we were reminded. One of my “indelible moments” was September 11. I had just finished teaching 1st period and had walked out of my classroom when a social studies teacher stopped me in the hallway to tell me that a plane had flown into the World Trade Center. I was shocked at what I thought was a horrific accident. When the second tower was hit, we realized it was no accident. But it wouldn’t be until two hours later that I would remember that my college roommate had just started working for Cantor Fitzgerald on the 104th floor.
The days that followed were a blur, and I have grieved every day since. But in the fog of the days that immediately followed, there are small moments I remember with crystal-clear clarity. One of my students, a 9th grade boy named Noah, walked up to me after class and told me that he had heard about my friend from another teacher.
I was taken aback and unprepared. As horrifying as those days were, to survive, I had built a wall between my grief and my students. My grief was not something I shared—or even thought to share—with my students. I saw myself as a teacher, not a person, when I was in that room. So when Noah approached, I didn’t know what to say.
But then in a quiet voice, he said this: “I just want to say how sorry I am for your loss.”
And all I could say, or really, mumble, was “Thank you.”
At the Don Graves breakfast yesterday, Tom Newkirk urged us to take “deliberate acts of kindness.” Noah’s was one such act. I was his teacher for all of 10 days. As awkward as it might have been, this 14-year-old boy, through this small gesture of condolence, showed me compassion and empathy. I have not—and will not—forget it.
As a teacher, I guess I’ve always believed that education was a moral good. I still believe that—even this election cannot change that—but the quality of that education matters. What we do with students, versus to students, matters. What we ask students to do for themselves, versus what we do for them, matters. What my students do when they leave my classroom matters. Will they have the tools to navigate the challenges they face? Will they be able to discern information and think critically about what they read and see and hear? Or will they allow their biases and fears to guide them? Will they have the strength to step back and reflect on their own views? In what ways will they use their education in service of others and the good of society? For the sake of compassion and empathy for others not like them? Will they even want to?
I have to believe that they will want to.
And they will need us to guide them. That too is crystal-clear. At two separate events—the NWP plenary and an NCTE tribute to Tom Newkirk—we were reminded of Marge Percy’s beautiful poem, “To Be of Use,” which opens like this:
The people I love the best
jump into work head first
without dallying in the shallows
And ends like this:
Hopi vases that held corn, are put in museums
but you know they were made to be used.
The pitcher cries for water to carry
and a person for work that is real.
As educators, we cry for work that is real. There is nothing more real or more important than helping our students navigate these challenging times—to guide them to the work that will be meaningful and good so that they, too, may be of use.
(NOTE: As with everything else on this blog, the opinions expressed are my own and do not necessarily reflect those of any organizations I belong to.)