By Pamela M. Jones
We are located at the intersection (Collins & Bilge, 2016) of multiple identities, including but not limited to the following: practitioner, acutely human entity, first responder, and finally, change agent. Too often, we are asked to foreground one of these identities at the expense of the others. I argue that a Trump presidency and (possible) DeVos-led Department of Education require educators to bring their whole selves to the table. Where acutely human, first responder, and change-agent identities converge is where I enter the conversation and advance an idea for how we might proceed in the days, weeks, and months ahead.
The Teacher as Acutely-Human Entity: Radical Self-Care as Action
At the risk of stating the obvious, teachers are members of the human condition. At the beginning and end of the day, we are subject to the range of circumstances that befall all members of the human race. This warrants mention because all too often, educators are conflated with mythical beings who inhabit a rarified air. This trope is reified in texts depicting the teacher as existing solely within the walls of the school building, ascribing to them a Vulcan-like, unemotional stance, and casting them as striving toward omniscience. Should teachers display their honest opinions and emotions in front of children? This is one of the questions we’ve rushed to answer; ultimately, however, the more important question remains, “How should we acknowledge teachers’ humanity?”
The fact remains that we are not absolved of the commitment to tend to teachers’ well being. As a teacher educator, I tell my in-service and pre-service teachers that self-care is paramount and should rank among the highest rungs of their lives’ ladders. To punctuate this point, I remind my students about the protocol passengers on airplanes are instructed to follow—put the mask on yourselves first. As counterintuitive as it feels, at a moment when we are compelled to take action to mitigate the harm that is part-and-parcel of a Trump presidency, we should engage in some self-care. Some of us feel fractured emotionally and from this location, it’s hard to provide care and comfort to those around us. While the many conversations my teacher candidates and I have had in the last several weeks have certainly explored how best to support our school-aged students, I always bring the discussion back to self-care. When classroom atmosphere is heavy with a palpable air of despair and weariness, I find myself leading us back to how we can take better care of ourselves. If we are tending to our wounds and making sense of the unthinkable, we are better situated to support our students. What constitutes self-care varies from one person to the next; the important thing is to identify people with whom we can commune and activities that offer a sense of peace and restoration. Join local action groups in your communities, engage in mindfulness activities, and prioritize sleep. Do the counterintuitive and put your mask on first.
The Teacher as First Responder: Supporting Students in the Short-Term
With the mask firmly in place, and before the deeper work can begin, first responders bandage and suture their patients’ wounds—tending to the most severe cases first. For lack of a better term, teachers are on the front lines; teachers are first responders. The stories emerging in the days after the election would give many folks pause; nonetheless, we are called to action. As I walked into classrooms in the weeks immediately following the election, I saw the pain and uncertainty on many children’s and adults’ faces. The teacher-as-first-responder assesses the scene of her classroom to determine how best to respond. Yet teachers are not islands and do not have to go it alone, but are instead members of a school-based team. I remind the teachers I advise to collaborate with their colleagues—fellow teachers, school psychologists, and social workers.
As a team, they will be better equipped to craft responses to meet the children’s needs. In the short-term, when schools across the country are trying to figure out how best to support their students, a few key strategies warrant inclusion in our toolkits: (1) bibliotherapy, (2) conflict resolution protocols, and (3) worry walls.
- Bibliotherapy: At times like this one, tapping into the well of good books is a brilliant idea. Well-selected texts have the capacity to engender conversations, spark new thinking for our students, and facilitate the healing process. Alia Jones, a children’s literature blogger and diverse books advocate, recommends the following texts: Last Stop on Market Street (Matt de la Peña), I Like Myself (by Karen Beaumont), Wonder (by RJ Palacio), Honey I Love (by Eloise Greenfield), Each Kindness (by Jacqueline Woodson), and All American Boys (by Jason Reynolds & Brendan Kiely, suggested for teens and young adults). While these texts may not address the election or the electoral process specifically, they do provide students and teachers the opportunity to lean into some of the issues surfaced during the course of the election—issues that all too often divide us.
- Conflict Resolution Protocols: The reality is that the students in our classrooms represent a range of views about the election results. These differences of opinion have sometimes given rise to verbal and physical conflicts in classrooms, leaving teachers wondering how to proceed and feeling out of their depth. Equipping our students with the strategies and language to mediate potential conflicts will help them hear one another with greater open-mindedness. A few protocols I teach to my teachers include conflicts in slow motion (Levin, 2000), the conflict escalator (The Morningside Center, 2012), and the turtle technique (Joseph & Strain, 2006; Lentini, Vaughn, & Fox, 2005). “Conflicts in slow motions” is a protocol that engages children in a task analysis of the conflict in question. Facilitated by the teacher or by the children themselves, once they’ve achieved a level of independence with this technique, children do the following: (1) replay the conflict step-by-step, (2) note the emotion underlying their actions at each step, and (3) reflect on how they could approach things differently next time. Similar in many respects to conflicts in slow motion, the conflict escalator guides students up and down the escalator of the incident, helping them see (concretely) the emotions underlying their actions—noting which emotions take them up the escalator (indicating more heightened and negative emotions) versus those that move them down the escalator (indicating more calming and positive emotional states). The “Turtle Technique” guides students through four steps of reflection designed to help them avoid escalation of the moment of crisis by doing the following: “recognize your feelings,” stop in a moment of frustration, disappointment, or anger (before acting out destructively), “go inside your shell and take three deep breaths,” and “come out (of your shell) when calm” with alternative solutions in mind (Joseph & Strain, p. 4; Lentini et al., slide #2).
- Worry Walls: Children are refreshingly forthcoming; there’s simply no pretense. For example, a number of people shared students’ fears of deportation in a Trump administration. Teachers and fellow teacher educators have shared many stories of students beset with worry about the many possible outcomes of the election. An idea that came up during one class with my pre- and in-service teachers was a worry wall. This wall could exist as a living, physical structure where teacher(s) and students can place the worries shared by children. Teachers, in concert with school psychologists and counselors, could then tackle each posted worry (one at a time), via a critical conversation with the students—removing the worry from the wall physically, which could serve as a beginning point for emotional healing and mental processing. The goal would be to rob the worry of its power over the child and create a greater sense of safety for the children.
The Teacher as Change Agent: Ethically Subversive Practice in the Era of Trump
At this moment in history, it is as if we are “awakening into rebellion” (Palmer, 2014). We are beginning to think offensively, making moves that will hopefully mitigate some of the damage that almost surely awaits us. This type of thinking aligns with Gilyard’s (1996) reminder, which is that teaching is a decidedly political act and that “in every act of teaching, there is complicity” (p. 24). Every action we take, and every word we speak, impacts our students. In my estimation, a Trump era presidency requires teachers to adopt what I call an ethically subversive stance. Ethical subversion, as a construct, shares the vision embraced by constructive subversion, a leadership approach that by definition calls for the active interrogation of standard practices by “questioning the basis for perceiving the world through the eyes of acting according to the familiar,” to “subvert unthinking custom and practice” (Longstaff, as cited in Easton, 2016). I define ethical subversion as the adoption and enactment of practices that run counter to a dominant and hegemonic structure, or system. In education, this constitutes teachers’ adoption of dispositions and practices fueled by a critical lens on teaching and learning. In its purest form, ethically subversive practice appeals to the Freirean notion that the more unquiet a pedagogy, the more critical it becomes (Freire, 1994, as cited in Richardson, 2003, p. 25). As we contemplate how we “might collectively engage in resistance that would transform our current reality” (hooks, 1994, p. 67), teachers adopting an ethically subversive stance to their practice could consider the following: (1) creating therapeutic classrooms, (2) altering standard curricula, and (3) organizing at the school level.
- Therapeutic Classrooms: Students learn best when they are acknowledged in their entirety. Show me a classroom that embraces a therapeutic pedagogical approach and I’ll show you a teacher who sees her students in their full humanity. Being therapeutic teachers means that we provide our students with literal and figurative safe spaces and embrace listening as a practice (Bush, 2016). While therapeutic teaching practices vary in design, a common thread is how they foreground children’s emotional safety and growth through the classroom’s physical design and in the activities adopted. Some of these practices include a peace corner, where children can go to reflect or calm themselves; multiple opportunities to listen actively and engage in conversations; and activities that promote group cohesion and honor each student’s uniqueness (e.g., family artifact studies and name studies).
- Modifying Standard Curricula Using a Critical Theory Frame: Prescriptive curricula remain a formidable presence in classrooms across the country. These guides often challenge what students are allowed to think and limit what teachers are allowed to accept as valid knowledge. Equipping kids with the knowledge and skill-set to take a critical eye to any content with which they’re presented will grow their minds and capacity to challenge the status quo. A Trump presidency portends unfavorable outcomes for public schools. To this end, teachers who adopt an ethically subversive stance see students’ literacy study as a “social practice,” position students as language researchers, and welcome student resistance to the conventional (Comber, 2001, p. 92). Encouraging these dispositions in our students makes for critically minded beings who are more apt to interrogate texts they’re given. More importantly, this path grows children into change-agents who will more readily resist prescription.
- Organizing at the School Level: Educators are in possession of specialized knowledge, skills, and dispositions with the potential to effect real change in the era of Trump. Opportunities to collaborate at the school level are vital for educators as we seek to navigate the new normal of a Trump Administration and all that this reality may bring. From K-12 school settings to schools of education, folks are organizing processing groups and action think tanks. Processing groups provide faculty the opportunity to engage in constructive dialogue about the election and its implications. Action think tanks are groups of educators who organize to generate a plan to safeguard quality educational experiences for all of our children. Acting in concert with our colleagues, students, and students’ families engenders further action and staves off battle fatigue, which is important given that resistance in the era of Trump requires long-game thinking.
As is often the case, the field of education is on the verge of change yet again. We’ve been thrust into a fight to reclaim and safeguard justice-oriented educational experiences for all of our students, especially for students with disabilities and students of color who bring with them cultures and languages that differ from a supposed standard. Faced with these circumstances educators have no choice but to act, and one word that captures the actions we must take is “resistance.” Simplistic framings of resistance render it as an inherently negative stance working against something when in reality, it often requires working for change by moving toward justice. Inaction is simply not an option for the educators among us, and no act is too small as we decide how we can be of service to our profession. Our charge is to embrace a heightened sense of “pedagogical conscience” (Trier, 2009, p. 126), take actions both big and small, and remember to embrace all of our identities in the era of Trump. We are a force to be reckoned with and our actions can effect real change. It is in this very commitment to change where we will find renewed hope for the future of education.
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Pamela M. Jones, MSEd, MPA, is an Advisor and Instructor in the Childhood Special and General Education program at Bank Street College. Before joining Bank Street, Pam worked as a special educator in the elementary grades. Pam earned a Masters in Public Administration from Columbia University and a Masters of Science in Education from Bank Street College of Education. Currently, she is pursuing her doctorate in literacy at New York University. Pam can be reached at the following email address: firstname.lastname@example.org