As someone who works with preservice teachers daily, I’ve gotten lots of questions from my current and former students about the future of public education. Some are worried about whether their jobs will exist, and others are worried about what those jobs will look like. Some worry about k-12 students being deported, or about students becoming the victims of police brutality. They wonder about what their role is in the murky present in which we find ourselves.
So I attempt here to share a guide for the educator trying to serve students and maintain the profession in the next few years. What follows are certainly my own opinions, based on my years of experience working with students and teachers in all manner of settings. I won’t pretend to have all of the answers, but I hope that, if nothing else, this guide serves to make you think about your own plans for the next few years.
- Determine which lines you will not cross. This one requires a lot of introspection. You need to think deeply about what things you’re willing to live with and what things you will not stand for. Will you step in if ICE shows up for a student? For the parent of a student? If the police overstep their authority or are needlessly violent with a student? What if stepping in means you lose your job? What if it means you get arrested? You need to make these decision NOW, when you have a cool head, so that you aren’t frozen in a moment of injustice. I strongly recommend that you actually sit down and discuss these issues with an educator you trust, and write out your plan for these scenarios.
- Engage in the public discussion about things that are relevant to the profession, as well as larger injustices. Be aware that whatever you post on social media can be shared or screenshotted; only post it online if you would stand on a street corner with a sign stating the same thing. That said, stand up for public education! Speak out when bad policy decisions are made. Exercise your right to free speech and your right to protest. Just be aware of item 1 above: you need to know where you draw the line. Be sure to post from your personal devices on your personal network on your personal time.
- Show up for your students every day. More than anything else, students need you to be a constant, caring presence in their lives. This doesn’t mean you can’t show them when you are upset; if something scary or upsetting happens, process through it together. Listen to their fears. Help them answer questions. Reassure them that you are on THEIR side, no matter what else happens. Offer age-appropriate discussions of current events. If you sense that they are upset by an event, start by asking them what they’re feeling and what they know about what happened. Reassure them that in that moment, in your classroom, they are safe; make that be true.
- Run for office or get involved in someone’s campaign. Not everyone is interested in holding public office, but you are more qualified than you may realize. If you are a public school teacher or administrator, you typically are not eligible to serve on a school board in an elected capacity. Using public resources or funds to campaign or advocate for or against particular ballot measures, etc. is typically not allowed. However, you can get involved in campaigns on your own time and your own dime. Go door to door, make calls, or consider running for an office that doesn’t conflict with your teaching job.
- Remember that while bad decisions may be made at the top, YOU are the one in control of your classroom 99% of the time. You choose how a lesson is taught. You choose what type of classroom climate you cultivate. You choose how to address misbehavior. You choose how to engage with parents. You choose, so always choose in favor of your students’ needs, no matter what anyone else tells you. That one might get you in hot water; but then that goes back to my first point. You have to know where you, personally, draw the line. When I was a classroom teacher, I taught at a high needs, “failing” school. I was instructed to take 20 minutes each day out of the 50 minutes I was supposed to spend on math instruction, and use it to complete pages in a standardized test prep workbook with my students. I said “Okay!” to my principal, and then I engaged in a little educational disobedience. Those test prep books never left the shelves. We spent our full 50 minutes each day instead on inquiry-based math instruction. I knew based on research findings and based on my own experience that pulling 20 minutes a day away from math instruction to do test prep worksheets would be a serious disservice to my students, and so I did instead what I knew to be sound instructional practice. I was willing to do that, and to be disciplined if it came to that, because as the teacher, I was the primary line of defense against bad instruction for my students.
- Build a network of like-minded educators. I encourage my students to build a Personal Learning Network of peers, mentors, and role models in the field of education, as a way of continuing their professional development when they leave their credentialing program. I think this is crucial for all educators, and now it is even more important that this network include other educators who are resisting bad educational practice and who are teaching in transformative ways. Surround yourself on social media with people who are fighting for the things you believe in as an educator. Read articles and watch video about how to improve your instruction and be an advocate for your students’ needs.
- Be well read and well informed. Follow people on social media who make you feel uncomfortable. Follow the ones you disagree with. Follow those who seem too radical. I’m not talking about the trolls, and you don’t have to actually click “follow” and boost anyone’s ego. There are quite a few people who I don’t “follow” but whose tweets and posts I regularly read. If you really want to be informed, you can’t stay in your bubble. You have to listen to what the other side is saying, even if you disagree. Read the arguments for AND against vouchers, charters, standardized testing, and all of the other controversial educational issues. Look for reliable sources on all sides. Be aware of what unreliable information is being spread as well. Read the current peer reviewed literature on important issues in the field of education.
- Last, and perhaps most importantly, TEACH YOUR HEART OUT. Teach them to distinguish real news from fake news. Teach them what a reliable source looks like. Teach them to critically think and to evaluate data. Teach them statistics. Teach them to eloquently make arguments. Teach them to avoid logical fallacies. Teach them about what it means to be a citizen, and the rights and responsibilities they hold. Teach them about historical injustices, and how easily nationalism becomes fascism. Teach them to critically examine their own biases. Teach them to be bold. Teach them to be kind. This election was possible in large part because we have a significant portion of the electorate that was unable to do the above. Teach a generation that can make things better.