On Teaching Right Now

Heads up: I’ll be talking about politics in this post.

It’s not what I usually talk about, but I am today for several
reasons. First, I should be talking about politics more often than I do: they affect what
happens in our schools, classrooms, and the lives we teach. Second,
this blog, more than anything is a record of my teaching journey. For the
better part of the last year, I’ve stayed (mostly) silent on this blog when it
comes to politics, but in my personal life, I’ve been deeply saddened by the campaigns as well as the aftermath. What’s worse is that the stress has
affected me as a teacher.

If I breezed over everything political on
my blog, pretending the past few months never occurred or affected me, it would feel extremely inauthentic, almost to the point of deceit.
That being said, I’m totally aware of the overabundance of
political posts out there. I’m not pretending that I’m saying anything
that hasn’t already been said. I’m writing because I’m struggling, and because I
suspect there may be some other teachers who are struggling. That’s it.
I know there will be those who disagree with me for the
content of this post or for writing it. I welcome your opinions. In my years as
a blogger, I have learned so, so much from readers who have thoughtfully and
respectfully pointed out ways I can grow–those people have made me a better
teacher and a better writer. 
***
The campaign season was tough for me to watch from all
angles: the debates, the commercials, the posts and memes on social media.
Nothing about it made me excited or proud or encouraged. I felt like I was
watching our country under a microscope, like cancer cells, repeatedly dividing and infecting. Or when it didn’t feel like peering into a microscope, it reminded me of the times in the past in which a physical fight has erupted between students in my classroom. If you haven’t experienced it, it’s one of the worst feelings in the teaching world–you just want it to be over. And isn’t that what so many of us said about the election? “Ugh. I can’t wait for this to be
over.”
And then it was.
For the record, I’m not upset that a Republican won. I’m not
upset that someone I disagree with won. Though my political leanings generally tend
toward the left, I think it’s good in a two-party system for our country to
trade off in leadership. I come from a family of mostly Republicans, whom I love. I certainly don’t
think Republicans are bad people because we disagree on some issues, in the same way I don’t think
all Democrats are good people because I agree with them on most issues.
(Informationally: I don’t think any of us are “bad” or “good” people, but
that’s a topic for another day.)
I’m just sad that it had to be him.
On a large scale, I’m worried that a man who has
demonstrated little if any skill in curbing his temper will be in charge of our
military. I’m worried that a man who has demonstrated very little tact and
self-control will be representing our country when meeting with foreign
leaders. I’m worried that several of his appointments, including the Secretary of Education, have been people with very few qualifications or with strong
records of not doing the right thing.
On a more local level, I am sad and sickened for my students—particularly those in groups who are already marginalized—who have watched a person get elected who has openly
spoken disparagingly about them or has made promises under the assumption that
their personhood is a threat to America’s greatness.
But these aren’t what saddens me most.

I take my job as a leader very seriously. I believe
that even more important than my job of teaching kids to read and write is my
job of teaching kids what leadership looks like. I believe that leadership means
strength, but that strength is meaningless without humility. That my power as a
teacher should be used to build up and include; not destroy and divide. That we
are enhanced, not threatened, by people different from us. That performance matters but character matters
more. That we should own our mistakes, apologize for them, and look inward; not
deny them or find someone else to blame for them. I believe these things and take my
leadership so seriously because kids are
watching all the time
. I know that in my every action, reaction, glance,
and word that escapes my lips, the kids are watching, and they are learning how
to treat others by the way I model it for them.

So more than anything, I’m sad that our future president so far hasn’t
behaved in a way that indicates he holds the same regard for public leadership.
And I’m deeply worried because I know the kids will be watching.
So.
Here we are.
I thought maybe I’d be upset for a little bit. In general I’m a resilient person, so I thought the bad feelings would blow over, that I would find ways of moving forward. I even thought that maybe our president-elect would rise to the occasion and surprise all of us, as I’ve watched happen over and over in similar situations as a teacher. 
But so far, none of that has happened. Every new story, Tweet, article, political appointment refreshes my anger. Most of the time, when something outside of the classroom is bothering me, I can do a really impressive job of blocking it out and leaving it at the door. But this time the negativity marches right in with me.

As my stress builds, my teaching ability plummets. My patience all but disappears. I find it hard to plan or even know what to do next (ever caught yourself staring at a blank computer screen for upwards of ten minutes? That’s been me the past three weeks). And knowing that I’m not being the best teacher I can has created this terrible snowball effect: stress, bad teaching, stress because of bad teaching, etc.

One day the week before we let out for Thanksgiving, a student told me I was stupid and that an assignment I’d given was stupid. He was having a bad day, I knew, and I softened my voice, preparing for the usual talk I have with kids on bad days about how important it is to respect each other, even when we’re angry. But instead, this thought entered my head, as clear and as loud as if it’d been uttered into a megaphone:

Why are you talking to him about respect? Respect doesn’t matter anymore. 

The thought was so jarring that it stayed with me all day, long after the last bell. I thought about it on my drive home, while making dinner. Respect doesn’t matter anymore. Of course I didn’t believe it (and thank goodness I didn’t say it aloud at that moment). But why would I have thought it?

Then I realized: since the election, all I’d been doing was reading friends’ angry thoughts, commentary, and memes on Facebook.

I’d been checking the president-elect’s Twitter feed.

I’d been reading online articles, even ones I knew were propaganda trash, because they justified and fueled my anger.

I’d been fact-checking online articles and wanted to throw my laptop in a lake.

It’s no wonder I’d begun to think that respect doesn’t matter anymore.

It was then I decided I had to do something. I could not let the political climate continue to ruin my attitude and affect my teaching. But I also knew I couldn’t just tune out completely. If I want to be an advocate, I have to stay informed. Since then I’ve been making a list of how I plan to do that: stay informed and involved, but without giving power to bitterness or hate.

1. Stay off my
personal social media accounts.
 As much as I love seeing my friends’ babies, dogs, and lunches, I know that reading the political posts are doing bad things to my heart right now (even when I agree with them). 

2. Stay informed the right way. I’ll be the first to say that one of the benefits of this election was that it made me take a hard look at the news I read. I had thought that my news source (which is not any of the cable networks) would be listed among the most empirically unbiased, but it wasn’t. That doesn’t mean it’s heavily biased, but it also doesn’t mean it’s unbiased. With a little online research, I found several news outlets that were consistently rated to have the most neutral reporting. Note: I don’t there’s anything wrong with reading news that “tells it slant” to some extent, but I think it’s important to pair it with outlets whose commitment to neutrality outweighs ratings.

3. Call my government
leaders.
Social media has become an echo chamber, but you know who has to listen to me? Jeff, my state
representative’s intern. I’ve called him every day for the past week and a half. I start by thanking him for his service, and then I ask how he’s doing, or how the weather is, or I tell him exactly what I’m doing (once, Googling whether
you need to pluck dog ear hair). Finally, I tell him my opinions on various
political appointments that have taken place. Who knows if Jeff even tells his
boss about me apart from, “Yeah, that weird lady called again,” but I have to
believe there’s a better chance of my voice being heard by talking to Jeff nicely
than by sharing something angrily on social media. (P.S. Once I actually
reached Jeff’s boss! It was very exciting.)
Want to call your own Jeff? Here’s a handy link: https://www.usa.gov/elected-officials
4. Focus on what I
can do, and believe that what I can do isn’t small.
For me, this means
selecting books for my classes that highlight stories of diverse and/or
marginalized people and groups, teaching students to differentiate between real
and fake news (because most can’t, which is frightening), and trying my darndest, even when it feels impossible, to model
the leadership qualities I want to see in our world.  
5. Take lessons from
animals and nature.
Dogs, man. Dogs and trees. I spent a lot of time this
weekend with both, and I just feel improved. Rebooted.
6. Give things to my friends who are most affected and to organizations that
need my help. 
“I’m here if you need me,” is good, but I like asking others what would help them the most, or if they say nothing, just guessing. Once, a friend knew I was having a rough time in school and simply gave me a tiny plant and said she was thinking about me. I have never forgotten that gesture.
7. Eat things that
make me feel good for longer than five minutes.
Cramming nine Oreos in my
mouth makes me feel awesome for exactly five minutes. An hour later, I want to
kill the whole world. I know that example is silly, but I’m a big believer (even if I’m not a big practicer) that
it’s really hard to do good if you don’t feel good. So for now, Oreos are on the ’86 list.
8. Practice grace.
Practicing grace doesn’t mean turning a blind eye or excusing bad behavior; it
means recognizing that behavior is not the person, and remembering that in every person (every, every, every person, I remind
myself) is a story worth a listen; are fears to which I can relate; is redemption. 

Reading over this list, I just sighed–one of those huge, exasperating sighs that end with my head on the table. Some of these steps seem too big for me. Some don’t seem like they will be enough.

But there’s a quote from Richard Rohr I return to again and
again. He says, “We do not think ourselves into new ways of living; we live
ourselves into new ways of thinking.” I’m hoping that by doing (and in some
cases, not doing) I can get back to a place where I feel like a highly effective
educator as well as a highly effective human again. I’ll keep you posted on how this works, but in the meantime, let me know how you cope when you’re not feeling your best in the classroom.

Thanks for reading, for teaching alongside me, for letting me write when I’m struggling.
Love,
Teach