For the past 20 years, I have lived and worked in Charlottesville and Albemarle County. I have taught every grade, kindergarten through seniors in high school. My son is a graduate of the outstanding educators of the Charlottesville City Schools, and I am currently a high school teacher in the area. When classes resume next week, this is what I plan to do.
I plan to listen more than I speak. This is hard for me because I am a talker. But I like to listen to kids. It’s my job to reflect back what I hear and help them name what they are feeling. When a student tells me he’s upset about what happened, chances are there is more than one emotion in there. It’s just fine to say, tell me more, what makes you upset? We’re not necessarily good at naming emotions, or we tend to name the wrong ones, use blanket emotions, or what I call the baby emotions – mad, happy, sad. What happened in Charlottesville is a good time to start working on those complex emotions.
I plan to model how to do that for my students. What happened in Charlottesville was terrifying for me. We live a short walk to downtown and my son’s workplace is very close to the site of the car attack. I am both grateful that my son stayed home from work, and feel guilty that we chose to hole up in the house, and didn’t go out and support our neighbors who chose to stand up to white supremacists. I will be honest with my students, show my humanity and be a little vulnerable. This helps to connect us. But it also helps to create a sense of safety and trust in the classroom and in the school.
I plan to give them space to grieve. They need to feel safe to say what they need to say and they need a space that’s comfortable to do it in. When students feel valued, they are empowered not just to be honest, but to learn more. I brought in stuffed animals, plush blankets, chairs, and other cozy items for students to use to make my classroom a place where my students can grieve the innocence that they have lost now that their home has been invaded.
I plan to have a serious discussion about what happens when someone comes to your town and incites a riot. This is not the Middle East, it’s not North Korea and it’s not Afghanistan. It’s a small college town in Central Virginia and the home of Thomas Jefferson, whose grave reminds us that he is the author of the Declaration of Independence, who wrote the Statute of Virginia for Religious Freedom, and who was the father of the University of Virginia. Those who invaded our home on Aug. 12 disrespected these legacies in a way we take very seriously here. We need to have a real conversation about Jefferson, whose moral failings as a slave owner are in conflict with the legacy he’s left to us. We will discuss the invasion of our typically peaceful, patriotic town.
I will talk about racism with students. It’s hard to do, and parents and administrators get nervous when teachers want to do this. But there is just no avoiding it now, and there shouldn’t have been a reason to avoid it before. I know if I build a culture of trust and honesty where students can feel safe being vulnerable and where I, their teacher, am seen as a human being, then it is possible to do it in a way that is respectful for all.
We need to talk about hate, a powerful emotion. It’s more powerful than how students feel about Brussels sprouts, or not making varsity, or getting stuck in physics class without their BFF. We need to look at the pictures from Aug. 12 and see the expressions in the people’s faces. Teens are notorious for not being able to identify emotions on faces (blame brain development for you), but these emotions are easy to see. We need to talk about what makes people hate another group of people so much that killing them becomes an option. Connecting these ideas to school is the next step. What are the groups at our school that you are in? Who do you keep out? Who do you let in? Who is always on the sidelines? How can we make changes so that everyone can have an opportunity to be a part of our school culture? Diversity brings a richness of cultures, new chances for creative solutions, different perspectives, and alternative ways of doing things. Our world is better for it, not harmed by it.
I will show that communities are made up of many different kinds of people. Some of them we will agree with and respect and some of them we will not. And almost all the time that will be the end of the story. But it won’t always be the end of the story. Because some people will belong to groups who hate so much that it is their belief that it is okay to invade someone’s city and tear it apart, that it’s okay to run people over because they are people of color, women, immigrants, Jews, Hispanic or LBGT. We currently have a government that has the support of these kinds of people and who feel emboldened to do what they do because they believe the government supports their cause. It is not, and together, parents and teachers will can show their children how to always be the force for good.
If we do a good job as educators, parents and community members in reaching our children now, hopefully our next generation won’t fall for the kinds of populism that brought us terrorists who are comfortable feeling like patriots and patriots who feel like they’ve been through an invasion.
Zoe Padron has been a teacher for 24 years and has taught K-12, gifted education and special education. She is the mother of a freshman in college and the wife to a professor at the University of Virginia.
You might also be interested in: