By Terry Jess, Social Studies teacher
Bellevue High School, Bellevue, Washington
Shortly after the election, one of my Muslim students told me that her family was worried after receiving a handwritten note in their mailbox that said it was “Time to move. Trump won and is coming for you.” These type of hate incidents are not only about an individual’s faith. Educators have seen a rise in discriminatory speech and actions in regards to race, gender, orientation, immigrations status, and other important identities.
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Another young student in our community was bullied relentlessly, and after failing to get any support from her teachers or administration, decided to share her story on social media. She was constantly called derogatory names that were intended to cause her to see her blackness as something to be ashamed of. This story has highlighted a trend that may be even more heinous than the bullying. The post-election rise in hate incidents isn’t unique to the classroom. Incidents have been well documented by CNN, ThinkProgress, and the Southern Poverty Law Center.
As an educator when confronted with this type of behavior, I must take quick and decisive action to make it clear that this behavior is not acceptable and work to create an environment that counteracts the influx of negativity with positive and strong affirmations of students’ identities.
I have a responsibility to educate myself about what my students are dealing with inside and outside of my classroom. Teaching Tolerance, a project of the Southern Poverty Law Center, has excellent resources for educators.
The most important way for educators to understand what is happening to our marginalized students is to listen to them. I have given students the space to give meaningful feedback and anecdotes about their experiences in my classroom by debriefing current issues in Socratic Seminars and Philosophical Chairs. Moderated discussions allow students to share their perspective and to be challenged by others. It is crucial that I have created the right environment of respect, where students know they can be vulnerable without fear of reprisal from their peers. Use what was said during the discussion to engage students one-on-one later.
As important as in-class discussions are, I have also created spaces for students to share their stories and perspectives without the filtering that a classroom environment requires. After school clubs, student panels, or lunchtime discussion spaces allow students to vent and share their story, without feeling the need to regulate it for the benefit of other students. This is crucial for their own well-being, as well as for educators to truly hear students’ perspectives. The trust that can be built with students in these spaces outside of the classroom, when you are no longer their teacher, but their equal, is unparalleled. If that sounds uncomfortable, it is. We must be willing to experience discomfort, so that our students can experience greater comfort in our schools.
I will stand up as an educator dedicated to creating a culture of respect and safety for ALL students. This means identifying myself as a caring adult who is prepared to advocate for positive school climate and will engage other educators to ensure our schools are safe and welcoming places for ALL students. TAKE THE SAFE SCHOOL PLEDGE and learn more about the tools for creating a Safe School Climate.