Several months ago, an openly gay colleague and a classmate of mine attended a school board hearing in his county in very liberal area of a swing state. The particulars of the meeting dealt with protections for transgender and non-gender-conforming students. This educator, massively successful in his field, had to face the parents of students who were openly and publicly stating that they believed his sexual preference as well as the gender expression of other students was detrimental to their children. And yet my distinguished colleague carries on. He provides his students -- all of them -- with the highest quality music education he can on a daily basis. He is reminded that not all of his students' parents see him this way.
But it is undeniably difficult to know that parents of students do not accept you. Especially when you are tasked with acceptance of all students, no matter how much their beliefs differ from the values you teach in your classroom.
We as public school teachers are required to work with every kid who comes across our paths. Every single one of them who walks through our doors. We take the tired, poor, huddled masses, yearning to breathe free** and we give them the best we've got. I've seen my co-workers perform miracles with our kids. I was raised by a single mother, but raised by her to be an award-winning overachiever honor student. Some of these kids don't have any parents to teach them morality, relationship building, or anything else pertaining to emotional intelligence, irrespective of socioeconomic or racial/ethnic background. We are charged with teaching them to get along as well as tied inextricably to them, as their test scores determine our salaries and reputations. Public pre-K teachers, a group that included my mother-in-law for many years, often perform toilet training tasks. We don't save everyone. We try. But we can't. But the progress I've seen other teachers accomplish is nothing short of a phenomenon.
(For the record, if you find it quite difficult to work with students who differ from you on the basis of gender/race/sexual orientation/socioeconomic status/gender presentation/disabling conditions/religion/etc., you should not be a teacher.)
Teachers are expected to be neutral. We are expected not to let our personal feelings get in the way of informing our students. We are not supposed to allow our biases to show (which is sadly an impossible task, in reality). We are supposed to be supportive, yet detached, and not allow our feelings to get in the way. In truth, if you let your feelings get in the way or allow your feelings to be hurt easily, you won't last very long in the profession.
Teachers are often discouraged from stating their opinion, especially when politics are involved. At the same time, at least by my playbook, teachers cannot simply sit back when faced with prejudice, bigotry, and xenophobia. Our job is to open students' and communities' minds, not narrow them. Our job is to model kindness & justice, not to actively work against it.
I fear, as many people do, that the results of last week's American presidential election will work directly against what we attempt to model in our classrooms. We try to teach our children the value of hard work, not the glimmer of celebrity or the shine of wealth. (This is especially difficult in chorus classes, where you do everything you can to model effective, healthy singing technique, and not just the technique that has made a lot of people rich.) We teach our kids to be kind and understanding toward each other, with cultural appreciation and peace-making written into many of our state and national standards.
Some might ask why we have to force kindness down kids' throats? Can't we let them decide whether they want to choose kindness or not? Having seen kids interact with each other without the interference of adults, I can say that I don't want to live in a world where schools do not teach kindness. We need to sing Kum Ba Yah. We need to teach them the emotional skills to get along with each other. That's our responsibility. And in ensemble music classes, that is more so than in other classroom settings.
We teach many kids who are raised with bigotry, dysfunction, and a myriad of other issues enveloping them. We try to divest them of their prejudices to the best of our abilities, and we work in cooperation with some parents who have said terrible things about us behind closed doors.
I think that, as a result, teachers as a group are uniquely qualified to speak to those we disagree with. To bridge gaps. Particular to those of us who are less directly affected by bigotry, we must be on the front lines, speaking out against it. When we see students being harassed, we must call it out, and deliver consequences against those doing the speaking. We have to seek justice, and not revenge. In our classrooms, we have to offer positive praise to those who have said terrible things in the past when they make a change and do the right thing. We have to praise progress, mostly because it works on children, and we have to keep encouraging our kids to move forward, no matter how far behind they start.
My husband raised an interesting question to me a couple of weeks ago. Having taught overseas in Poland and Vietnam previously, now a mental health counselor, and finding struggles here and there, he said, "That's the thing I never quite understood -- how do you get someone else to understand something?"
To my own surprise, I had a quick answer: "Patience."
Unfortunately, patience is not a luxury afforded to many people who will suffer in the next few years. Migrants leaving war torn countries cannot wait around and be patient, as their lives depend on quick action. Communities belonging to people of color that will be subject to increased surveillance cannot afford patience. At the same time, there is no silver bullet of magical understanding. People who believe that hatred should be promoted as a byproduct of free speech are not going to suddenly change their minds and sing a whimsical Lin-Manuel Miranda song while surrounded by Muppets. Those who seek to change the world must continually plant seeds of progress and understanding, all the while protecting their gardens and maintaining patience while watering them.
We teachers have infinite wells of patience. And we have to use all we've got in order to make changes. Unending work, patience, and intervention/advocacy on behalf of our students is what the next several years will require of us, more so than ever before. It's a good thing that's what we're trained to do.
Now get out there and take care of those who need it.
**So that you're aware, the population of my school includes an exploding number of immigrants, legal or otherwise, who want to get to the U.S. before the wall is built, risks be damned, because they still believe that our country will provide a better life for them and their children, even with leadership that speaks out against them on a daily basis. Just let that settle in for a second.