by Read Karsell
If you haven’t had to come out, you likely don’t know how overwhelming and all-consuming it is. From early middle school when I began to realize I wasn’t interested in women, being gay was all I was thinking about. It's paranoia. Every second you talk, you worry you don’t sound straight enough.
I didn’t say gay throughout high school; yet, a day didn’t go by when it was not on my mind. Throughout my education, I had to insist I was straight whenever I was asked if I was gay (which began in forth grade when I didn’t even know what gay was). In high school:
I’d arrive home, struggling daily, because I had this secret I was keeping from my family. I knew they'd be accepting of me, but every day until my coming out was riddled with guilt because I felt I owed it to them. To combat this, I started setting goals:
What ended up forcing my hand was a combination of my mom asking me directly and my self-made rule that I wouldn’t come out to my dad by bringing a boy home--and I held myself to it.
And, one more thing: my experience is privileged.
My Story is a Success Story
I am privileged to have been born into a family that, for whatever reason, is accepting of me. Having met a lot of queer people after coming out, my story is a lesser known one--one of total acceptance. Most people don’t get that. Many have family they have yet to tell, and/or have family that doesn’t acknowledge them. The family of a person very close to me “accepts and loves them unconditionally, will never accept that part of them.”
So, to sit and write this, know my story is true, but I share it sitting unscathed in the rose garden while so many in my community are being pricked by thorns.
My Character Helps Students Sketch their Own Character
I am was not the first closeted kid in that high school and I won’t be the last. This is and will always be true about every school in every town across every state in the U.S. no matter the laws that are in place. Every day I get to be the teacher I never had: the openly gay teacher
When I told my students I am gay at the start of the school year, I promise you, not one student was fazed. Each class had multiple faces light up, each class had one or two students who gasped with happiness, and one class had two students who exhaled a “YESSSSSSSS” and then turned to high fived each other.
In the immediate days following, those students talked to me more, they brought their significant others to class and hugged or kissed goodbye at my door, and they all showed a relaxedness in the space we had created. It confirmed to me that there are students who are looking for queer educators and it makes a difference to have them.
Help Students Draft Authentic Stories
No matter who you are as an educator, there are ways to support LGBTQIA+ students.
Support Character Interaction
Start by going to GSA (Gender and Sexuality Alliance) meetings.
This was a hurdle for me because I had actively avoided my own high school’s GSA (out of fear of being seen there and being outed), so doing so as an adult in the school I teach was still strangely difficult for me. I found it’s because I still have to come out to myself in different daily moments. The cause of that: internalized homophobia mashed with toxic masculinity. A horrendous cocktail that has a hold over the gay community and could be a doctoral thesis in and of itself.
My first GSA meeting was magical. It is a group of students in many different stages of their journey--some already aware of their sexuality and/or gender, some still trying to figure it out, and some trying to have a place where they can live as their true self for an hour a week.
This group of students--so special and unique--are the students you see in the halls every day, the students you have in the front seat of your class, and the students who just need an adult to say, I see you. I hear you. I am here for you.
Having attended regularly, I have been able to make connections with students who now stop by my room to check in with me. I can share my lived experiences with them, and they teach me about their lives and what they are discovering as they go along--so impressive and so empowering.
A GSA meeting from just a few weeks ago brings me to my next “here’s what you can do” point. A speaker came at one point and talked about a “Day of Silence'' as a day that the GSA could host at school. They explained it could be one of two things: (1) a day of silence for participating students to not talk as an act of solidarity with LGBTQIA+ people who live in silence everyday about who they are, or (2) a day to celebrate not being silent anymore and getting the word out through conversation and advocacy.
It was when the presenter referenced “people living in silence everyday about who they are and out of fear for their safety” that the student sitting next to me, a student I have in class, mumbled, “Relatable. That’s me everyday. Living in silence.”
Hearing that from my student, I was shocked; yet, not all. Living in silence wasn’t a new concept to my personal life, but it hurt that the student I teach everyday felt the need to be silent.
Add Some Dialogue
This student is in one of your classes too. You’ve walked by them in the hall many times, you teach their best friend currently, you’ve smiled at them as you chat with another teacher in their room. They are there: silent.
Consider writing a note.
I wrote that student a note the next morning. And it simply said,
Student, I heard what you said yesterday during GSA and I want you to know that I see you. I hear you. And when you do talk, know that I am listening and you are heard. When you’re ready and if you need, you can always talk to me or I can help you connect with someone you feel comfortable talking with.
Super simple. No pressure. But assuring. Then, at the end of class, in a tone and confidence that I never saw coming, the student came to me and assured me that if they ever needed, they would talk to me. Then I walked out just as casually as I had dropped the folded note on their desk at the start of class.
You can do that too! You don’t have to be queer or attend GSA, but you do have to listen. You have to pay attention to your students, and you’ll be able to find what to say. You also have to say gay--because gay ain’t going away.
Word Choice Matters
I want to touch on the other side of “Don’t say Gay”--straight isn’t going away either, and neither is being cisgender. The idea of “Don’t say Gay” enrages me because wedding rings won’t leave the ring fingers of all the people in man/woman relationships. The family photos won’t be taken off desks. The stories of my husband/wife, kids, and I went to the water park last weekend won’t go away. The straight and cisgender world will continue.
Meanwhile “Don’t say Gay,” as it is solely meant to, will eliminate a school community where students who aren’t checking the straight and cisgender, 1950’s expectations can be seen and heard.
Please, do say gay. Please, say they/them. Please, say Tanner even though the student roster says their name is Emma. Please, talk about what a healthy relationship looks like and how to get through the rough patches. Please, talk about sex instead of pretending abstenance works. Please, do say gay.
"Don't Say Gay" is a Fictional Tale
The “Don’t say Gay” bill is, at its core, impossible.
Even though it was hard to get the word out of my mouth, it was in my head every second of every day, from my bus rides home to conversations during math class. And, it’s on repeat in the minds of students today too.
Let’s acknowledge these silenced students, and the students who have made their voice heard too:
And, if none of this sits well with you, start with reading a book or watching a movie/tv show about the LGBTQIA+ experience: acquaint yourself with what your students are going through currently. If you’re feeling ready to take bigger steps forward, hang up a pride sign on your door and put an “I accept and support all” paragraph in your syllabi, write that student a note when you hear they need it, go attend a GSA meeting or start your own club.
And, of course, make sure to use the word gay.
by Jean Prokott
I've been thinking about self-portrait poems lately. Not writing them, because I can never get a turn to work, more about what they can offer to students who don't need to worry about a turn.
For Valentine's Day, my creative writing students made self-portrait valentines along the lines of "Self-Portrait as Conversation Heart Trapped between Couch Cushions" or "Self-Portrait with ½-off Valentine's Day Candy." They halved cardstock, cut heart-shaped cards, opened the wings, and wrote poems on the stretch marks inside.
The students weren't overly jazzed about the activity—only a few meandered up front for a red marker—but they wrote little poems and shared with each other, or tried to anti-valentine if that was their vibe for the day (e.g., a persona poem about raccoon roadkill that ends with a smooshed striped tail), and we were able to put a little checkmark next to a cold February Monday, which is harder than it seems.
On day one of that class, we'd modeled Dean Rader's "Self-Portrait as Wikipedia Entry" as a more interesting version of "two truths and a lie." Last fall, we wrote "Self-Portrait as [insert Halloween costume here]," based on Sandra Beasley's poem "Halloween." The students love that poem, and I love the irony that they have to dress themselves up in order to understand what's happening underneath.
For context, a self-portrait poem is not much different than a self-portrait in art. In an essay featured on Silver Birch Press, poet Lisa Russ Spaar notes the poems took off in the mid-20th century with John Ashberry's "Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror" (1975), inspired by the Parmigianino painting of the same name (1524). Spaar observes that all poems are self-portraits—consider Whitman's "Song of Myself"—but the title "self-portrait" itself suggests retrospection thematically and "That the use of 'self-portrait' is an overt nod to its long, fascinating, and complex tradition in art history."
A self-portrait is or is not an ekphrastic poem. (An ekphrastic poem is a description or narrative inspired by a work of art. One of my favorites is Anne Sexton's interpretation of Van Gogh, "The Starry Night," in which the tree is a woman drowning.) Ekphrastic poems are also wonderful, and they serve as a wonderful transition out of this tangent:
Where I'm going is that a "self-portrait" assignment could serve a number of purposes if you need a last-minute lesson plan on Those Winter Mondays™ when we get up early. Some of our professional development meetings this year have started with ekphrastics of sorts as ice breakers, if you've seen the model—a teacher shows four paintings, the students identify which best represents them or their mood, and they share why or journal about that personal reflection. This is one of few ice breakers I actually enjoy, because humanities lessons should always be snuck into our day—like one might sneak spinach into a strawberry smoothie for hidden nutrients.
Some ideas for self-portrait journals or assignments might look like:
While one could think it a stretch to use a poem in science class, I think the self-portrait works because you don't have to read a poem to get the jist of it. Sure, if you want a summative assessment, but one could simply start class with a review called "self-portrait" and define the term with the students:
Q: What is a self-portrait?
Teachers know that we need to get our students' I, me, my into our content as much as possible to make the schema stick. 
And, truth be told, many of the self-portrait poems I've linked can be abstract, complex, full lesson plans in themselves, perhaps over students' heads in a non-writing or upper-level literature course. If you're interested in a starting point, though, Mary Jo Bang's "Self-Portrait in the Bathroom Mirror" is money:
"Some days, everything is a machine, by which I mean remove any outer covering, and you will most likely find component parts […] there is no turning back to be someone I might have been. Now there will only ever be multiples of me."
Why not throw "self-portraits" in your tool box, or in emergency sub notes this winter/ fake spring/ and then winter part two once again. It freezes, it slushes, the slush freezes. Always a good time for introspection.
 Or, literal self-portraits. I just had a vision of students drawing their faces as a nucleus of a cell, but it looks like the Sun Baby from Teletubbies. Quite haunting. And if you hung the portraits in your classroom, the nightmares alone would be enough for them to remember the material for the test and subsequently the rest of their tortured lives.
by Stefanie Whitney
I hear myself using the phrase “messy middle” quite frequently of late. This meander seeks to make sense of what the term “messy middle” even means.
In my mind’s eye, I imagine the messy middle as a place where one is suspended in an ocean between two shores–both shores well beyond reach. Solid ground no longer underfoot, it’s incumbent upon me to make decisions that will, once again, lead me to a steady, grounded place.
Some moments I have experienced this uncomfortable feeling in the classroom and community have been when I have turned over the reins of control and held my breath in wonder about what my fellow humans will do with them. What will they do with the foundation I have built? What will my role look like now? Will they need me? What if a mess is made of the beautiful ground I crafted? What holds? What falls apart? And what was my role in both outcomes?
We cannot possibly know how all of this (envision widespread hands, palms up, gesturing at our world) is going to turn out, which is a bone chilling reality for anyone who appreciates a semblance of control. A reality that seems all the more staggering as each month passes in this extended twilight zone in which we all exist. (Though, I’d argue that messy middles occur whether we are in the middle of a global pandemic or not.)
From here, my mind wanders to William Butler Yeats’ “The Second Coming,” particularly this stanza:
Turning and turning in the widening gyre
I am always admittedly stalled by Yeats' use of the word “loosed” twice, placed so closely together. In a little search for an improvement that I’m certain Yeats would appreciate, I arrived at Merriam Webster’s definition of loosed:
Loosed: (1) to cause a projectile to be driven forward with force (2) to find emotional release for (3) to set free as from slavery or confinement
Misters Merriam and Webster are speaking my language. For the purposes of this essay, please focus on the latter two definitions. Because of them, I will leave Yeats’ word choices alone. Also, if I may continue being so bold, it seems clear to me that Yeats was stuck in the messy middle of something, and he leaned on language to help make sense of it. The messy middle. Here we are. The middle of the school year, in the middle of a global pandemic, in the middle of hope for progress.
Observing myself and others during this sustained time of discomfort, I am starting to believe that the messy middle really indicates that moment when logic and structure disappear and emotions begin to creep into the fray. Of course, it makes sense to feel like things are starting to fall apart. That the center is not holding.
I find myself considering: Who built the center? And why is it their axis we seek to latch onto?
In fact, what if this discomfort isn't indicative of a “falling apart” at all?
What if we are active participants in the collision of our outdated systems and our ever-evolving value systems? And what if the result of this “turning and turning” is the suggestion that logic and structure do not hold without an awareness and grounding in values and emotions? Maybe the feeling of a messy middle simply indicates we are now entering a phase that cannot hold upon the foundation and structures of the past, without an approach that requires us to tread water while we look around, feel things more deeply, and root ourselves in updated, albeit still developing, value systems.
Safir and Dugan, in Street Data: A Next-Generation Model for Equity, Pedagogy, and School Transformation, address this type of uncertainty:
The idea of throwing yourself into a change process with no known outcome and just a line of inquiry may feel uncomfortable and revolutionary all at once--a blast of fresh air on the stale econometric framework, which assumes we can data-fy and plan our way into new results. By contrast, emergence calls on us to slow down, listen deeply to those at the margins, bring folks to the table to reimagine the landscape with us, and move in partnership to build a new reality. It is a liberatory change model, freeing us from the fantasy of control while pushing us to maximize our influence in service of equity and antiracism.”
“...fantasy of control….” – “...the centre cannot hold….”
If we are finding that our old norms, our old systems are not working right now, then perhaps we need to investigate what those systems are built upon. If our souls are unsettled and we feel the bottom dropping out, then maybe our old systems are crashing head-on into our developing values; we are trying to hold our old systems up against an evolving human experience. It’s uncomfortable because that system felt safe and I knew my role, but I see more clearly all those not meant for that old system. They do not belong in it. So we don’t belong here, either. Change is crucial, and hard.
A bit about belonging
Brene Brown’s latest work, Atlas of the Heart, aims to help us identify and name experiences and emotions in order to gain power of “understanding, meaning, and choice.” While delving into the experience of belonging, Brown interviewed 8th graders about what it feels like to belong in a place. In their words:
Belonging is being somewhere where you want to be, and they want you.
Brown juxtaposes the definition of “belonging” against the definition of “fitting in,” which they describe as:
Being somewhere where you want to be, but they don’t care one way or the other.
Brown further explains,
Because we can feel belonging only if we have the courage to share our most authentic selves with people, our sense of belonging can never be greater than our self-acceptance.
Which begs the questions:
Heart is sea,
(1) Belonging to myself–getting square with my values (for me, compassion and curiosity).
For an exercise on isolating your core values, check out Brene Brown’s Dare to Lead value activity.
(2) A sense of belonging within my communities.
It’s not lost on me that I have the privilege to seek out agency in most of my experiences. Do our students have this same privilege? All of our students, I mean? Social and emotional learning is an educational hot button right now, and rightfully so. The more language I have as an adult to work through my discomfort, my emotions, and get clear on my values, the more agency I have when working for equilibrium. As an educator, how can I build systems in my spaces that allow all of us to get grounded in our values, to belong in this community?
The Students’ Take
Inevitably, the responses of all 43 students, grades 8-12, revealed themes surrounding relationships, trust, and belonging. Feedback is an action, often a system at play. As an English teacher with limited time, logic centered my feedback, even if emotions (pride, frustration, excitement, passion) bolstered my feedback process. Students also acknowledged the existence of emotions at the heart of their feedback experience. All of the students spoke of how feedback, their teacher, or the classroom environment, made them feel.
Rarely did students talk about grades as the sole reason feedback is helpful, but all students discussed the need to have a relationship with the teacher or person giving feedback and a need to feel a sense of identity and belonging in the class. Some even spoke of the need for passion–from the teacher regarding their quest for students to learn and within the student for the subject area or topic. In short, students want to feel like they belong, like they are seen, and that their voices matter.
I’m struck by how students spoke of values and emotions, yet as adults we often find ourselves rumbling about external systems.
Of course, in this sustained discomfort, we are apt to fight harder to reach one shore or the other; some form of solid ground. But what are we hoping to accomplish with all the splashing, thrashing, and death grips on past systems that don’t serve everyone? What if we normalize the kind of discomfort that bends toward progress, inclusion, and shared humanity?
Maybe the next best step is to calmly look inside at what is causing the turbulence, ground ourselves in our values, and then confidently and slowly start moving in a direction that aligns our value systems with the external systems that demand our attention? In that slow motion, one shore starts to loom larger. We can belong to our messy selves, and we can move with those folk who want us among them exactly as we are.
Stefanie Whitney, EdD, works with the Curriculum and Instruction team in Rochester Public Schools (RPS). She's also been an English teacher, an AVID instructor, and both a high school and a middle school instructional coach in RPS.
Every once in a while, a kid finds a perfect peach of a topic and writes about it in a way that unties me. I want to share with you the story of “nonnie” so you see what I mean.*
That structure with time, to start and end with death, to bring nonnie to life in the middle.
Her metaphor is one we all know. There's a defining moment in our lives when we learn about death. nonnie represents the literal of this coming-of-age, but also her struggle up the hill represents how my student felt when she lost nonnie.
One would have to be a callous car crash of a person if they didn’t feel their heart explode when they learned about nonnie’s fate and the effect she'd had on my student, and the day I read this, the time of year I read this, that this had been the 80th out of 95 essays I’d read—nonnie’s story was literally the saddest thing I’d ever heard in my whole sad life and I would spend the rest of my days mourning nonnie and my student’s loss.
After I read about nonnie, I had a flashback to an experience I’d had on my grandparents’ dairy farm and a cow named Flopsy, who’d been born with a messed-up leg. The end of that story is predictable: while eating hamburgers one evening, my father brought it up.
That wasn’t the impetus of my response, however.
Since the assignment was not one short scene, but three, when I conferenced with my student this week, I reviewed more rough drafts. One was about a horse named Iago (and I’m sorry, but find a more perfect name for a horse). An excerpt:
He broke through the fence the first day we had him […] Iago became my favorite horse. First I was brushing him, that soon turned into riding him, performing tricks like standing on him, spending hours in the barnyard making different ¨5 star meals¨ out of oats, potatoes, and grass (sushi was the favorite).
The third scene was about a chicken.
the chicken I refuse to name
While we’re all nonnies this year, struggling up the hill (and praying we don’t meet her fate) maybe we can also be my student. It’s been a year of loss, so let’s talk about it. Maybe find the metaphors. Learn from our students.
And the next time you have a glass of milk, please pour one out for nonnie.
* The student has given me permission to share.
Jean Prokott is an English teacher in the Rochester Public Schools. She is also the author of the book The Second Longest Day of the Year which won the Howling Bird Press Book Prize, author of the chapbook The Birthday Effect, a recipient of the AWP Intro Journals Award, and has both poetry and nonfiction published in numerous journals. Learn more about Prokott online or connect via email.
When stuck in a situation (or a series of situations, to be honest) that is disquieting, it can be easy to dwell on the on the negative. When drowning in a glass that’s half empty, it’s hard to acknowledge that it’s also half full.
Which is why here we lean on Amit Sood, who we’ve collaborated with before, to highlight (1) a way we can reengage students and (2) a way we can reengage ourselves.
1 | Reengage Students with Voice
Want to help someone feel good? Let them speak
Do you know what is common between dark chocolate, surprises, gambling, winning the house in bingo, and meeting people who agree with us? Each of these experiences causes a surge of a chemical dopamine in our brain’s reward network. That surge feels uplifting, sometimes intensely so.
Another activity that increases dopamine in our reward system is talking about the self (saying the word “I”). “I do this,” “I do that,” “This is how I feel,” “I like this,” “I don’t like that,” and so on. Research shows when we talk about ourselves, our reward network activates, and we feel happy.
No wonder 40% of speech and 80% of social media content is people talking about themselves.
When you choose to listen to others mindfully, even if you cannot solve their concerns, you are helping them. This is because when they inform you, their brain’s pleasure center activates. People would even give up a monetary gain in favor of the joy of sharing information. At least that’s what the research shows.
So, a simple way to connect with others and make them happy is to sit back, relax, and enjoy hearing them speak — about themselves. Try this today with someone who may have missed an engaged sympathetic ear for a long time.
Listening to others with complete presence is such a simple way of spreading happiness. No wonder we have two ears for each mouth!
- I felt this book was challenging because…
- I think this rubric wasn’t fair because…
- I turned this assignment in late because…
It doesn’t mean we can’t still push deeply into content:
- I felt this book was challenging because…might lead to ➡ and here are three examples from the text that highlight my point!
- I think this assignment too hard because… might lead to ➡ I still don’t understand how to use math mountain—can I use another way to get the answer?
- I turned this assignment in late because… might lead to ➡ I don’t understand how this applies to the field I’m planning to go into. Does it apply? Can you show me?
2 | Reengage Ourselves with Antidotes
Give no one the power to affect your health
Hera was the wife and sister of Zeus, the sky and thunder god in ancient Greek religion. Hera was known for her jealousy and vengeance, which came partly as a reaction to Zeus’ infidelity.
The difficulties Hera faced weren’t unique to her life or her times. Many of us face difficult interpersonal situations that awaken a different Hera within us — the Hera of Hatred, Envy, Revenge and Anger (the kind that produces violent rage). Research shows this HERA predisposes us to a multitude of medical conditions.
Just as a physical body fighting an external infectious agent becomes inflamed and injured, and a country at war finds it difficult to keep its citizens peaceful, when we intend to hurt others — either because they hurt us or because we feel hatred or envy — we hurt ourselves.
Research shows a mind fighting itself or others predisposes the physical body to cardiovascular disease, cancer, infections, inflammation, dementia, and even premature death. In one of my workshops on forgiveness, a participant got up in the middle and said, “I can’t give my ex the power to increase my risk of dementia. That’s a good enough reason to forgive him, as much as I hate to do that.”
The other reason HERA damages our system is that once we are mired in the habit of getting angry, feeling hatred, harboring envy, or seeking revenge with one person, we deploy these missiles to the rest of the world. We paint the world with our negativity and seek out reasons to validate our inner negative feelings. These feelings start defining our life’s course.
Locked in the HERA prison, we start despising the world, jeopardizing our peace.
HERA often sneaks in from an unguarded corner of the mind when you aren’t watching. It then multiplies, like a newly hatched virus against which you have no immunity. Carefully guard your mind — not just its living room, but also its attic, basement and backyard — from any elements of HERA, and sweep it clean when you find them hatching.
Crowd your space with the antidotes — gratitude, compassion and forgiveness. Transform your negative thoughts, so they surrender to these higher values.
When you convert your hatred into compassion, envy into inspiration, revenge into forgiveness, and anger into acceptance, you’ll save yourself and the people you love from much suffering.
I’m going to lose my prep hour to sub for a teacher out quarantining…might shift to:
- …but this way at least I can meet the students who I’ll have in class next year. (gratitude)
- …I hope he doesn’t actually end up getting Covid. (compassion)
- …yet I’m not going to make do with the lack of sub notes considering he likely had to leave on short notice. (forgiveness)
I can’t believe she used that racial slur…might be followed by:
- …at least I have a strong relationship with her and we can talk about this. (gratitude)
- …it hurts me to think she may be others who thinks that okay. (compassion)
- …but I’m going forgive this instance of poor word choice now that we have discussed it and start fresh with her tomorrow. (forgiveness)
That email I just received really cut to the quick…might be followed by:
- …yet, at least I know they’re engaged and passionate about this. (gratitude)
- …I wonder what’s troubling them that they felt the need to be so curt and condescending (compassion)
- …I’m going to share this with my principal to loop her in, and then just delete this so I can move forward. (forgiveness)
The blinking image in my mind: “tl;dr.” (In case you too are late to this party, “tl;dr” is an abbreviation for “Too Long; Didn’t Read,” which I feel summarizes every email I have ever sent.)
My internal struggle for this article vacillates between two contradictory thoughts:
- a need to meander gently through what is on my mind so not to offend
- no one has time for meandering
The latter is winning out; so, today I aim for brevity—windy introduction notwithstanding.
The pursuit of a degree required me to delve into existing research before developing my own theories, which is a process that I understand and, frankly, enjoy. I’ve always believed that answers can be found through enough digging. That we can lean on the expertise of others to help us find our way. Namely, that someone else has been there, done that, and drawn a map with coffee shops clearly marked.
“I develop theories based on lived experiences, not existing theories. Only after I capture the participants' experiences do I try to place my theories in the existing research. Grounded theory researchers do it in that order so that our conclusions about the data aren’t skewed by existing theories that may or may not reflect real experiences by diverse populations.”
As the first hour bell rang on a mid-October Tuesday morning, I heard myself declare two words to a gaggle of colleagues who I also consider friends. “Save Yourself.”
Who am I to suggest such a thing? I have been assured by this group of colleagues that “save yourself” was sound advice, perhaps in the vein of Brene Brown’s “clear is kind” approach; however, I did find my confidence waning as I stepped cautiously into the hallway. How loud was my voice moments ago? Who heard me?
Initially, the meaning behind my words came from a place of compassion; I want my colleagues to be okay. I hear you; I see you; I know this year is incredibly challenging for reasons beyond our control. The oxygen mask version of saving yourself first. I meant this then and I still mean it now.
It is critical for our teachers to be okay—for themselves and for students. On that particular Tuesday morning, the suggestion was couched in thoughts like, “create your own asynchronous learning environment once a week so you can give students feedback and perhaps alleviate some of the work you are taking home.”
A side note: I’m currently interviewing kids about feedback that encourages action and 86% of students I interviewed indicated the most effective way to receive feedback for them is verbally, in person.
Enter grounded theory: If we know these are indeed unprecedented times. And that no one alive today has dealt with a global pandemic, a divided nation, an assault on critical thinking, social inequities and the long overdue need for justice, an ongoing climate crisis… then why are we looking around to someone else for answers? Why am I delving into books and “experts” and looking to leaders who also have not lived through this before?
We are the leaders we seek. In our families and classrooms and schools and districts. And if we aren’t sure where to begin, let’s do what grounded theory researchers do: listen. We need to ask—and not just the loudest voices, those who expect to be asked and who find it comfortable sharing their opinions. Ask those who are quietly watching, observing the chaos and experiencing its impact. Ask. Ask students who are sitting in class—avoiding eye contact. Ask those who went to the bathroom 30 minutes ago—when they return, of course. And then settle in to listen to their answers. Share power.
- Are our departments and classrooms models of the culture we seek in our building?
- How can we manifest these cultures in our spaces?
Let’s ask students, in the same way we hope our leaders ask us, what they need in order to feel a sense of belonging, a sense of agency.
In a time when ‘powerlessness’ is the pervasive feeling:
- How can we manifest power?
- How can we lead in our spaces?
True to form, when trying to determine how we can manifest power, I’m struck by how ready we are to give it up. We are living through a time where nothing feels familiar, known. Our past touchstones now look and feel different in our hands and in our minds. That which comforted us and made us feel successful in the past no longer carries reassurances that we know what we are doing. Unsettled is an understatement.
But we are not powerless. The rally cry six months ago was that we cannot return to the way things were. Yet, it feels like we returned to school, dusted off our old talisman, and are using standards previously deemed ineffective to measure our current success and the success of everyone around us. And we look to others to be the change we hoped to see.
Gandhi said: “If we could change ourselves, the tendencies in the world would also change. As a man changes his own nature, so does the attitude of the world change towards him. ... We need not wait to see what others do.“
“If what’s under cynicism and sarcasm is despair, the antidote is cultivating hope. According to the research of C. R. Snyder, hope isn’t a warm and fuzzy feeling; he actually defines it as a cognitive emotional process that has three parts. The three parts are goal, pathway, and agency. We can identify a realistic goal (I know where I want to go), and then we can figure out the pathway to get there, even if it’s not a straight line…. Agency is belief in our ability to stay on that path until we’ve arrived….”
- Voice in my head: Are you really joining the ranks of folk who are telling educators this is our problem to solve?
- My hopeful, logical voice: No—I’m not. I’m saying—save yourself and, in doing so, contribute to a community of folk, the power of whom can make collective change.
I do not have this mastered, nor am I an authority. Today, I’m simply following Brown’s advice: “Write the book you need to read.”
I needed to read this—this article—to reclaim some of my hope, my action. If you are feeling this way, too: save yourself.
Stefanie Whitney, EdD, works with the Curriculum and Instruction team in Rochester Public Schools (RPS). She's also been an English teacher, an AVID instructor, and both a high school and a middle school instructional coach in RPS.