A Thing I Wrote Post-Parkland for All My Teacher Friends (but Especially for My Students)

I’m a teacher educator. That means my job description is, at its core, to help prepare my students – the next generation of high school English teachers – for the reality of their own classroom. So each day we talk about how to transform reluctant readers into passionate bookworms and how to provide a classroom of anxious writers with authentic writing experiences that will bolster their confidence. We experiment with different methods of class discussion and try out the different instructional opportunities afforded by technology. I show them practical examples of how pop culture can be used to teach literary theory and how images can be read as critically as any print-based text. We write lesson plans and writing prompts and daily calendars. We complain about standardized testing. I hope we laugh more than what’s considered acceptable.

You know what we don’t do?

Talk about how one day they may have to use their own bodies to shield their students from the bullets fired by a semiautomatic rifle that our politicians are too cowardly and greedy to regulate.

Maybe I should. After all, there’s zero evidence that even now, even after Columbine and Sandy Hook and Parkland and too too too many others, anything will change. The Democrats will make a few feeble overtures toward gun control, the Republicans will ignore fucking everything while pocketing the NRA’s money, and I’ll see you back here again in a couple days at the next shooting. So does finding a closet to hide in work better with a lesson on Shakespeare or vocabulary?

The reality is that I don’t know what to tell my students. The craven response is, “Hey, this is the new normal. They need to be aware of it.” But how cynical is that? How defeatist is it to refuse to entertain the notion that maybe there are some practical things we can do to curb gun violence in this country?

But this isn’t an essay about solutions. I don’t have them, and that’s not my job. This is an essay about triage. About doing what I can in my own context.

The best I can do in the short term is keep my focus where I increasingly believe it needs to be: on teaching with kindness and empathy. I can only control what happens in my classroom (and some days even that is a stretch), and so at these terrible times all I can do is be present for my students and make sure they know I care about them and I’m listening to them. Curriculum is important. Of course it is. But whatever content I’m teaching, it has to have at its foundation the aim of helping students be more thoughtful, more sensitive, more empathetic.

If I can impart that to my students, and they can go out into the world and impart it to their students – and, crucially, other teachers begin to understand that all the book learning in the world is meaningless in a society where human life is devalued – maybe, just maybe, we can begin to move the needle.

Typing those words makes me uncomfortable. I’m not accustomed to sharing hippy-dippy idealism. Snark is my default. But one of my mentors told me when dealing with students she always tried to err on the side of kindness. That seems more important now than ever.

Be kind. Be kind. And help others to do the same.

The unavoidable flipside, of course, is that this means having some uncomfortable conversations with our students and colleagues. And I say this as someone who, when faced with confrontation, usually just mutters something passive-aggressive while scrolling angrily through his phone. But we need to let people know when they’re acting shitty. I don’t mean lecturing tediously from a place of dubious moral superiority. I mean literally saying, “That was a shitty thing to do.” Sometimes it’s enough to let people know we see them acting shitty – because if no one calls them on acting shitty they’ll think no one saw them acting shitty or, worse yet, they’ll start to believe what they did wasn’t shitty in the first place.

Being kind doesn’t mean being easy. Letting people get away with shitty behavior is just another way of saying we could have done the right thing but chose to look the other way.

So what do I tell my students? These passionate young people who want to get out there and make a difference?

You’re the front line in the battle against all this ugliness, and I can’t imagine anyone better suited for it.

You will make more of a positive impact on this world than you realize. I’m in awe of your willingness to take on this most vital of responsibilities, I will be here to support you in your efforts, and I’m so, so sorry for the mess we’ve left you.