Teaching In Unsettled Times

The older I get, the more I am grateful for my childhood. It was idyllic in every single way. It was formed with a base of hard working, loving parents who not only loved us, but loved each other and genuinely liked hanging out with us. It was built with the security of two younger siblings who, despite having an older brother who could, at times, be a little mean by lining up cereal boxes across the table so he didn’t have to interact with them during breakfast, always had my back.

It was built on sugar muffins waiting on the table when we came home from school, catches in the backyard, running to our sporting events, New Year’s Eve sleepovers at our Grandparent’s, loud family holidays, Aunts and Uncles who loved us as their own kids, and a whole lot of baseball games. 

It was perfect.

Whatever was going on in the real world, we were protected. We went to school without fear. We played our Commodore 64, our Sega Genesis, and, eventually, our Nintendo, but we were also able to just go outside and run around with our friends without fear. Well, we were told to watch out for white vans, but other than that, we were safe to run around with our friends without having to schedule a “play date”. We played our little league games without fear of violence. In school, we were taught that we could be anything we want and nothing would stop us.

Some people consider the 1950’s as the ideal age in our history, but I would argue that my 1980’s were far greater. Looking back, we weren’t perfect, but we were far more accepting of all people than those in the 50’s and we were on the cusp of some pretty fun technology. We were, however, the last isolated generation as the internet became a thing as we entered college. 

My daughter and her generation don’t have those same luxuries. They don’t have the idyllic isolation. They don’t have the freedom of fear that we had. They are growing up in the age of active shooter drills, politicians berating each other and the people who they are supposedly representing, people perpetuating fear of others, fear to stand up for yourself, and the age of nobody caring enough to listen.

We hear.

We don’t listen.

It is definitely easy to get lost in all of the rhetoric of our world. From each side of the aisle, there are people yelling, both literally and figuratively. They are yelling their beliefs as gospel; they are yelling their beliefs in the name of change, reform, protest, or any word in that vain. With that yelling comes the manipulation of research, the manipulation of multiple types of media, and the excessive use of pathos to either persuade or scare someone into taking a side.

We may hear things. We certainly hear the noise. We hear bits and pieces. Some cling to the words of hope. Some use those words to spread compassion, empathy, and a genuine desire to make the world a better place. Others cling to the words that evoke fear. Others use those words to justify persecution, hate, and exclusion. 

But, we definitely aren’t listening. 

We can look at our political figures and see this play out in front of our eyes, whether it is watching them on the news, hearing their speeches, or digesting their social media posts. Certainly not all politicians are bad, but, right now, it all seems that nobody is interested in listening. Nobody wants to come together for the common good. Each side is only interested in winning, holding onto extreme party views, and worrying about their next election, even if citizens’ quality of life are at stake. 

As an adult citizen, this is a confusing time. There are times when I want to add to that noise. I want to scream when the media is treated as if it’s an enemy. I want to scream when the media focuses on the petty distractions—the noise—rather than continue to dig for the real problem. I see people treating each other terribly. I see a world through the fearful lens of what the future holds for my 10 year old daughter.

Is her school safe? Will opportunities still be there for her as a young female? Will the compassion that she has for all people still be valued in the world? Will the world be able to come to grips with its violent tendencies and be able to move past its greed and self interest and focus on a real cure? 

All of these issues impact the students in our classroom. Human rights, gender equality, gun control, immigration, and mental health are just some of the issues that impact kids in today’s classrooms. We can talk about needing to teach students the basics, but the job of a teacher is far more complicated. It is no longer just about curriculum, although, honestly, it never really was only about curriculum. 

With all of those issues–and the infinite others–surrounding our students’ lives, we have an obligation, now more than ever, to teach beyond the curriculum. We have the responsibility to teach them how to be good citizens and arm them with the skills to make sense of a complicated world. 

So many teachers are already in the fight. Many teachers, by nature, have the instinct to go beyond the curriculum. We are passionate about issues in the world and we have the opportunity to influence kids, inspire them to want to make change, to make things better. 

This is the dangerous part.

Our passion and our desire to change the world is vital to our roles as educators. But, no matter the “side” we are on, our political views and our causes cannot be a part of the classroom. We cannot, in any way, force our political or social views on our students, no matter how passionately we feel about them.

That may seem to contradict the concept of making genuine connections with kids, to be open and honest with them. It certainly does not. In fact, forcing your personal views into a classroom discussion or as a class theme only does one thing—it shuts down the segment of the class who may not have the same views. And, perhaps even more importantly, it stops the important thing on both sides—listening. 

The minute you make your personal and/or political views known in the class, you have damaged your class and your credibility. 

If that’s true, how does a teacher help students understand the happenings of the world and arm them with skills to deal and problem solve?

The answer lies within the question. 

A teacher’s job is to arm students with skills that not only help them cope with the world, but to synthesize and internalize issues and to have skills that allow them to solve those issues. In other words, we have to teach them to listen. That can be done, and truly can only be done, without forcing our views on them. 

Genuine Discussion

The culture of any class has to be one of genuine discussion that values dialogue backed with logic. We must teach students the three basic appeals of an argument: ethos, pathos, and logos. We teach logos so students can latch onto facts and base the core of their arguments with them, not with fallacies or rhetoric that often comes from the appeal of pathos. We teach them pathos so they can see how emotions can be used to persuade and just how dangerous that is when trying to navigate today’s world. By nature, humans are emotional, fearful. We must be able to identify when public leaders play on those emotions to hide facts.

We teach ethos so that students can learn to identify reliable, credible sources and acknowledge potential bias. And, by doing that, we are also putting ourselves on notice. If the facilitator of the genuine discussion is biased, is the discussion truly genuine or simply a staging of what the teacher wants students to think?

Socratic Seminar is one form of discussion that values a dialogue free from teacher bias and promotes students to examine their beliefs, genuinely listen to others, and look beyond emotion. An excellent resource for creating that open, genuine discussion is the Paideia Institute. 

A Socratic Seminar or any other form of genuine discussion can be centered around an issue, a piece of literature, a piece of art, a news article, a speech. Essentially, it can be centered around anything that requires student thought beyond the “yes” or “no” type of questions. The goal for the facilitator of the discussion is to ask thought provoking questions that will encourage students to think, explore texts beyond the literal, listen and internalize other points of view, acknowledge when their thinking is being challenged, and to express their point of view in a respectful, cooperative way.

Doesn’t that sound like something we want our students to enter the real world with? Don’t we wish our leaders could have a dialogue like this?

The only way we have that genuine discussion is by playing the facilitator role and allow students the freedom to be genuine, rather than have them worry that they may be opposing a teacher’s beliefs, which could impact their grade in class. If we want students to think for themselves and truly listen to others, we must get out of the way.

Reading Beyond Content

Far too often, classes are reading for only the message of the story. Obviously, that is important. Students must know the “what” and the “why”. But, it is equally important–perhaps more important–that students and citizens read for how something was written. We must examine how a writer lays out an argument. We must analyze appeals that he/she used to construct it. Did the writer rely on an emotional appeal (pathos) to cloud the fact that the logic was spotty? Were poor sources hidden in rich language? Did the writer use a specific writing technique to amplify emotions? Is there a way to prove bias in the writer’s work? 

All of those questions are important to answer. Those are the skills that will allow students to consume media in a more thoughtful way. It will allow them to synthesize that information, acknowledge any potential distractions of fact and bias, and use only reliable information in those genuine discussions we hope to foster. 

Again, the only way to develop these skills is to allow students to have an authentic experience with text, rather than a staged reading where a teacher is guiding them towards a prescribed answer. Kids are too smart for that. 

Teach Empathy

We can teach kids how to read for content and construction. We can provide a classroom environment that fosters genuine discussion and one in which all viewpoints are validated. We can and we must teach those skills. But, as teachers, we feel the obligation to go beyond. That’s why most of us got into the game in the first place, right? We wanted to make a difference. We wanted to help kids and give them everything to go take on the world and make it better.

As adults, we have our beliefs and our passions. And, for many, we want to pass those along to our students. But, passing our beliefs is the wrong message because it limits kids. What we are really to do is to teach empathy. By fostering an environment where empathy is valued, we are automatically opening kids up to a world beyond their own self. Empathy allows them to listen to ideas that they may not agree with. Empathy allows them see opposing viewpoints as opportunities to expand their knowledge, rather than points to completely silence. Empathy allows them to develop compassion for others and a desire to help. Empathy allows them to work truly collaboratively, even with peers who have far different beliefs.  

If we focus on empathy, that passion we want to ignite in this generation will be developed. They will be able to see the world for what it is; they will see the fearful, often hateful rhetoric that is out there and be able to go beyond that. They will not only have the skills we taught to see past all of that, but the emotional skill set to want to do more and not just sit by. 

Our goal isn’t to develop students who care about our issues and our passions.

Our goal is to develop students who care enough to listen, who care enough to take the time to seek the truth, who care enough to develop a passion for an issue, and who care enough to do something about that issue. 

If we’ve done that, we have done what we set out to do. We will have made a difference in a kid’s life and made our mark on the world. But, we can only do all of this if we take ourselves out of it. 

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