I found myself uncertain when I was deciding what to write about this week. My plan for the next few blog posts was to follow up last week’s entry by talking about things in my life that I was grateful for. This week was going to be about my career as a high school English teacher.
There are a thousand things I could say about teaching, but I decided to focus only on one aspect of why I’m glad that I’m a teacher.
I am grateful for the perspective and empathy that I have gained from working with students from a wide variety of backgrounds over the past 26 years.
For the last 11 years, I have been a teacher at small alternative high school. Our student body is heterogeneous; students come from all over the world and from a range of socioeconomic backgrounds. Some students have chosen to attend our school because of our smaller student body, and some have been sent to us for disciplinary reasons.
Being a teacher has allowed me to meet and develop empathy for others whose experiences I will never share. I was raised in a town that is multicultural and diverse in a number of ways. As I began my career, I didn’t think I had everything figured out, but I did assume I was relatively accepting of all people. However, my work as a teacher has taught me that my perspective was not nearly as broad as I thought it was.
During my first year of teaching, a ninth grade student brought her sonogram in to show the class. I watched her struggle with her pregnancy for the remainder of the school year. Another of my students showed up for school after being badly beaten by her boyfriend. My stomach turned when I went to talk with her in the nurse’s office and saw the bruises on her face.
In more recent years, I had to hold back tears as I listened to the personal narrative of one of my students from Central America. She described one day in her childhood where she sensed something was wrong with her mother and made the heartbreaking discovery later that day that she and her sibling were being left with a relative they didn’t know very well while their mother made the journey to the United States so she could find work and support the family financially.
A number of students have shared their dangerous and painful experiences of making the journey from their countries to this country on foot.
Another student’s personal narrative detailed how she was sent to work as a child and was not able to fully access education. After coming to this country, she worked for several years before she was able to enroll in school. She talked about how she has not taken any of her education for granted.
While I was never personally faced with teen pregnancy, dating violence, racial prejudice, family separation, immigrating to another country, or having to fight to get an education, learning about those experiences from students I have come to know and care about has certainly given me a much broader frame of reference.
I’m also grateful that being a teacher allows me the daily opportunity to do meaningful work that is relevant to what is going on in the world.
This past week I’ve been thinking a lot about a unit I did with a couple of my classes four years ago. With the help of our school librarian, we looked at well-known incidents of bigotry from the last hundred years or so that were connected to religion, race, nationality, gender, sexual orientation, and disability. Some of the topics we covered included the Holocaust, the Civil Rights Movement, the Nanking Massacre, the Women’s Rights Movement, Matthew Shepard, and Temple Grandin. We were looking for the root of the bigotry in each historical example. “Why is there bigotry?” was our essential question.
There is obviously not one correct or simple answer to this complex question, but a common thread that my students recognized was relatively straightforward: people tend to be uncomfortable with others who are different from them. Often this discomfort leads to disliking those who look, think, worship, etc. differently, and sometimes it leads people to the point of violence against those they view as “other.”
Jean Kilbourne articulates this point well in her film Killing Us Softly. “Turning a human being into a thing is almost always the first step towards justifying violence against that person. We see this with racism, we see it with homophobia, we see it with terrorism. It’s almost always the same process. The person is dehumanized and violence then becomes inevitable.”
I would never claim to know what the solution is for eliminating prejudice, but my experiences as a teacher have led me to believe that exposure helps to counter the urge to see someone as other and set down the road to dehumanize.
The culminating conversation I had with students at the end of our bigotry unit was extremely interesting, especially in one class, where students came from several other continents. One student said his big takeaway was that “the uneducated are easy to control.” Another student, who is from a war-torn region of the world, said of atrocities connected to bigotry, “It keeps happening. It’s like a routine.” A third student had very thoughtful questions about why bystanders do nothing to intervene. Based on their comments in this discussion and a number of others throughout the unit, I felt my students had also made progress towards being understanding and able to examine their own biases. This was gratifying to see.
The events of the past few weeks have opened my eyes to things I thought I was already aware of. I have certainly learned a lot from my students, but I know I still have more to learn.
It’s worth saying that my profession has cultivated in me a greater sense of humility and gratitude over the years. I recall a student from 15 years ago. In spite of significant physical disabilities that brought her daily challenges, she was upbeat and positive, participated in class, and was eager to learn. She was transferred out of the class because of a schedule change sometime around Valentine’s Day. Before she left, she gave me this mug filled with candy and a card thanking me for being her teacher. I still have the mug. Every time I look at it, I am reminded of all I have to be thankful for and all that I have gained as a teacher.