View From the Playground


kid-soccerA student teacher’s experiences and thoughts in light of the recent election and upcoming presidential inauguration.
All names given are pseudonyms to protect the identity of the students.

I’m not the first educator to comment on this disturbing trend

“Mr. K, will you help me assassinate Donald Trump?” This came from Jason. Of course it came from Jason.

He’s one of the more…challenging students in my 5th grade class. He qualifies for special education due to emotional disturbance, and has the distinction of being simultaneously very sensitive, very aggressive, and incapable of escaping the gravity of his feelings. I have to spend more time than I would like in the course of a given day counseling him about why his feelings have yet again been hurt and strategizing with him about what we can do. Yet here he was, casually asking me to take another human being’s life. This isn’t the first time a student has made an off the cuff remark about killing someone, and I’m not the first educator to comment on this disturbing trend. Is it video games? Violent media? A lack of real experience with death or violence? All good questions for another time. I, at that very moment, needed to transition my students from their library time back to class.  

“No.” I replied, matter-of-factly.

“Why not?” He asked, the dark thunderhead that so often precedes an “event” already blossoming on his brow.

“Because I’m not an assassin, I’m a teacher.”

It was a spontaneous remark, but something about it stuck with me and wouldn’t go away. The more I thought about it, the more I realized the truth in that quip. I must have known on some level that his question warranted a more thorough response.

I understand the reactionary anger. As corny as it sounds, I love my country, and I’m as embarrassed as anyone that this orange troll of a con man gets to be the president of the country that I love. But while the anger is real, I have to remember that gut level reactions are one of the reasons Trump’s campaign did so well. People are afraid and angry, and Trump was able to win hearts by saying things that resonated, made people feel better, and gave them some hope that their fears were going to be put to rest, that their anger was justified. Even if the things he said were empty, we, as humans, feel before we think.

I’m no stranger to this. I get weepy watching the cheesiest Disney movies with my kids and adamantly refuse to watch UP ever again. Maybe it’s because of my tendency towards strong feelings that I understand the real value of putting my feelings to the side and letting my rational brain take over. The heart is where real meaning is made, but the brain makes much better decisions. Its no surprise that most impulsive ten-year-old brains are more prone to ride the emotional roller coaster than the train of rational thinking and reason.

Usually we can find some rationality in politics, and as educators we are supposed to be politically neutral, but this election was not about politics. It was about civil rights and social justice, and anyone who says otherwise is missing the point.

We, as humans, feel before we think

The talk in the classroom leading up to the election echoed the larger conversation happening in world. Trump was a joke. In a video unit I taught, one group of girls made a video titled “Trump is a Loser at Everything”. There was a wig and some orange makeup, and we all laughed when we screened it at the end of the day. We didn’t have time to talk about political parody and satire, but we will going forward.

My mentor teacher talked to the kids about how very unlikely it was that Trump would win because America is better than that. She has been uncharacteristically silent on the topic since. It’s baffling and deeply disappointing that America was more willing to listen to rumors about Clinton than facts about a man who could turn out to be the first elected Fascist in the history of the United States. Like millions of others, I was shocked by the outcome and kids were no exception.

Trump had been a perfect model of a bully, the kind of person that we educators use as the examples of bad behavior and what not to do. Why? Because being unkind, making fun of people and being rude and inconsiderate is not how we should behave. Nothing good will come of it if you act that way.

Oh, except you might get to be president of the United States of America.

Whoops.

We have programs in our school and in many public schools across the country to foster a sense of community and safety in order to counteract our societal Lord of Flies tendencies.

And then something like this happens.

Everyone walks into my class as equals

The election was on a Tuesday, and we had conferences that week, so by the time the kids got back into the classroom the following Monday, the election results weren’t fresh news anymore. My philosophy in the classroom is to let them come to me, so I waited for them to bring it up. When some students did ask me what I thought, this is what I told them: There is nothing I can do about the outcome of the presidential election. The people I voted for didn’t win, and that stinks, but that’s democracy. You don’t always get what you want. But there is something I can do about the people I see in daily life.

Due to the results of the election and because the President-elect never distanced himself nor denounced the White Supremacists that supported him during the campaign, there are people who now feel like it’s okay to do hateful things to other people based on their gender, their skin color, their religion, or where they are from. If anyone thinks that they can harass someone because they are black, brown, gay, Muslim, Mexican, Disabled or happen to be a female, they will have to get through me to do so, and I’m not alone. Everyone walks into my class as equals.

Okay, they weren’t as moved by my monologue as I would have hoped, but the point is that I said it, and they listened. They know where I stand. A big part of my job is to make the classroom a safe place for all of my students.

I’m not an assassin, I’m a teacher. I decided to teach for a lot of reasons, and one of the biggest reasons is empowering kids. I happen to think that kids are awesome by nature. Many of us just get the awesome beaten out of us as time goes on. It’s vitally important that we learn from a young age that we are more than passive consumers. The big message I try to send is that someone has to make content, products, services, generate ideas, and there is no earthly reason that it should not be done by any one of the kids in my class. To be creative, we have to be smart, be willing to take risks, we have to dream and work hard. We have to be awesome and stay awesome.

I can do something useful in my position as an educator

A lack of willingness or ability to engage in higher thinking is one reason we are in deep trouble. There are not enough critical thinkers casting their ballots. Too many voters were unwilling or unable to see through paper-thin populist rhetoric, or check the sources of their information. Robert Proctor, a science historian from Stanford University, coined the term “Agnotology” to describe the purposeful spread of misinformation and doubt. He coined this term while studying how the tobacco industry created a massive media campaign to spread doubt about the dangers of cigarette smoking.

The argument hinges on the assumption that there are at least two sides to every story. The real magic trick is making Americans– who love to root for the underdog– believe that the tobacco industry, or climate change deniers, or white Americans are the underdog. It’s a purposeful tactic meant to confuse people, and it’s usually pulled off by really smart and motivated people. When people are confused they are easier to manipulate, simple as that.

Here is where I can clearly see that I can do something useful in my position as an educator. On the ground floor. No frills, nothing fancy, all nuts and bolts. I can do my small part to show young people how to look for signs that they are being manipulated by media. I use my background in graphic design to show them how to make effective posters for class elections. I show them how color can influence emotions, and we talk a lot about what the creator of any piece of work wants the viewer to think and feel. I ask them to think about why the author of these works might want them to think and feel that way. Is it their belief? Are they trying to spread information that’s vetted and accurate? Are they getting paid to make you think a certain way?

To be aware of how they might be getting manipulated they have to be taught how to think critically and deeply. This is a fight. Soldiers fight with guns. Artists fight with art. As I told my plucky student Jason, “I’m a teacher, not an assassin.” Teachers fight with knowledge.

This is the single most irritating part about being compassionate

Trump’s election has emboldened the misogyny, racism, homophobia, rape culture and Islamophobia that have been bubbling under the surface for a long time now. I believe that people should have the right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. No exceptions. If someone tries to infringe on another person’s rights to do just that, I will fight for them. No question about it.

Now, how does this translate to my classroom?

We did an exercise where we filled in the blanks of social justice: “If you are______, you are safe in this classroom.”

{If you Are} Someone who voted for Trump?” One of my students inevitably asked.

“Absolutely,” I answered to gasps of shock. We have the right to freedom of speech, which means that we have to defend the rights of people to say things even if we disagree. It’s a constitutional right, and The Constitution is what holds the Republic of the US together. We can vote for whomever we think is the best choice. More importantly, we have the right and the duty to disagree. We have to talk about why we disagree, and if someone in my classroom thinks that Trump was the best choice, I have to make sure they are safe to say so.

And this is the single most irritating part about being compassionate.

I have made a commitment to being compassionate and giving my time and energy to doing something useful for society by studying to become a teacher. When I take a step outside my own desire and look at what my country needs, it’s not another white man causing trouble and starting a fight. My country needs compassionate people willing to use their talents to hold those in power accountable to make life better for everyone. That means even making room for Trump supporters, because we have to support dissent. We have to acknowledge the need for the voice of the Other, because debate is what keeps democracy alive. It’s not about being right. It’s about having the right to a voice. But it is equally important not to normalize hate. Hate cannot be seen as the Norm, Trump can’t be seen as the NORM, and for that reason Jason’s request to have me assist in taking out the President-elect remains denied.

diverse-kids-happy

When my students and I look at the Civil Rights Movement and the American Revolution in class, I point out that these people were not doing what they were told. The people we celebrate in our history were often despised rebels in their day. But they stood up for what they believed and they fought for it, and some of them suffered and died. Women who fought for the right to vote got beaten and thrown in jail. Black people who fought for the right to be considered HUMAN had to suffer innumerable indignities, injuries and assassinations. Native Americans have been suffering since Day One of the arrival of the Europeans, and it continues to this day at Standing Rock Reservation in South Dakota. A game I like to play in class for history lessons is “whose voice is missing?” We have quite a few budding social justice warriors who love this game.

I like pointing out the radicals, because they define our social boundaries. They provide the example we can look at and say, “No, that’s going too far.” Then we can come back to the middle and talk.

I take every opportunity to mention some little reminder of how important it is to be good to each other and tolerant

A trap that many teachers fall into is forgetting that our passion might not be as interesting to our students as it is to us. If we lose them, they’re gone. And it’s disappointing when that happens, so we have to be careful. I try not to get up on my soapbox too often or for too long, but I’d be lying if I said that I don’t take every opportunity to mention some little reminder of how important it is to be good to each other and be tolerant.

Social constructivism is a theory of education based on the idea that kids want to learn and learn best by working together on stuff that matters to them. So I try to do that. I try to teach them that freedom and kindness and compassion matter in little ways that they can internalize. I also believe in John Dewey’s idea that it’s crucial to teach democracy in the classroom so children grow up knowing how it works, and how to prevent it from being two wolves and a sheep voting on what’s for dinner.

I believe the foundation for peace is and has always been education. When we are able to think better, we can have more meaningful and productive conversations. Communication is the most basic and important tool we have, so it’s crucial that we teach our children to do it well. The amazing and tragic thing about this is it can only be learned if someone teaches it to us.

Teaching is an opportunity to pass along something important to the next generation. I believe we can teach peace if we’re willing to listen to each other, even when we despise the other point of view. Here’s a good example:

Freedom is never more than one generation away from extinction. We didn’t pass it to our children in the bloodstream. It must be fought for, protected, and handed on for them to do the same, or one day we will spend our sunset years telling our children and our children’s children what it was once like in the United States where men were free.” –Ronald Reagan, campaigning for Barry Goldwater, and to the best of my ability to research, there are no records of a speech writer for this.

Man it burns me up when people I don’t like say good stuff.

Most people would rather be right than be compassionate. Maybe it’s naive of me to think that I can influence my 5th graders otherwise, but I would rather be optimistic than to give in to negativity or nihilism.

To go back to my dangerously ambitious little friend, Jason; The better answer to Jason’s question comes from someone I’m more comfortable quoting: “No martyr’s cause has ever been stilled by an assassin’s bullet. No wrongs have ever been righted by riots and civil disorders. A sniper is only a coward, not a hero; and an uncontrolled, uncontrollable mob is only the voice of madness, not the voice of reason.”–Robert F. Kennedy

So there you go, Jason. Request denied because we can do better.

 

ProfilePic Kelly Raine is an artist, writer, and currently, a candidate for a Masters of Education. He likes teaching children and likes the idea that he is pitching in to make the world slightly better. He wears a lot of black and wakes up very, very early.

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