Back to School Hopes and Fears
Kids and teachers around the country are heading back to school. In New York City, we have a few weeks more of summer vacation. But like many teachers, my mind is already thinking about the year ahead.
I’m curious about the kids I’ll teach, and the families I’ll work with. I’m a little nervous about the new math and reading curriculum we’re adopting. I’m excited and also nervous about trying to build on the racial equity conversation my school community started last year.
Along with my hopes and fears for the coming year that are specific to my school community are fears about the world that my students and I will be teaching and learning in. Recent mass shootings and deportations have been a sobering reminder that our country is dealing with a very deep spiritual sickness. The elevation of profits over humanity has always been a part of American culture, starting with the genocide of Native peoples and theft of their land alongside the kidnapping, rape, and enslavement of Africans. Rampant gun violence and family separations are only the latest iteration of this country’s commitments to what scholar bell hooks calls white supremacist-capitalist-patriarchy.
The fact that these atrocities don’t represent a break from America’s historical behavior doesn’t make them any less horrific. And as I prepare for a new school year, I find myself wondering what can we as teachers do about them?
What Can We Do?
The last school year, teachers around the country showed tremendous strength from West Virginia to Los Angeles, Oklahoma to Oakland. They won important gains — monetary and otherwise — for their students and their selves. I have been daydreaming lately about what we teachers might achieve if we demonstrated our collective strength on a national level.
Why teachers? The inspiration came to me while reading How to Do Nothing: Resisting the Attention Economy by Jenny Odell. In her chapter “Anatomy of Refusal” Odell describes several instances of civil disobedience from art and history. She also explains, “The relationship between fear and the ability to refuse is clear when we consider that historically, some can more easily afford to to refuse than others.” In other words, some of us have more privilege and protection (financial, legal, social) than others.
We are at a time when approximately 1 in 9 US workers belong to unions. This is a historic low. While not all teachers enjoy union protection, recent data shows approximately 70% of teachers do. With the Supreme Court’s ruling in the Janus vs. AFSCME case, this number is likely to continue declining. So, while our union power is under attack, we do enjoy a level of power and protection that is rare for American workers.
Even if only unionized teachers went on strike the effects would be profound. The American Federation of Teachers claims 1.7 million members. The National Education Association has close to 3 million members. Imagine the magnitude of a national strike?
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“You can’t be neutral on a moving train.”
Some might argue this isn’t an appropriate course of actions for teachers’ unions. Teachers should stay out of politics, this line of reasoning argues. It would be one thing to strike for better pay and more respect for our profession, but immigration and gun control are partisan issues, not educational ones.
Does this argument sit right with you? It doesn’t with me. Howard Zinn famously wrote, “You can’t be neutral on a moving train.” When police are murdering Black people, when children are put in cages, and people of all ages and races are in constant threat of being gunned down by white nationalists, there is no apolitical stance we can take. Silence and inaction are offers of tacit consent.
The fact of the matter is this: These issues that some like to marginalize as “social justice issues” are central to our working conditions as teachers. When young people are traumatized (whether directly by experience or indirectly by the news), we teachers are tasked with responding to that trauma. Why else is trauma-informed practice such a trending topic in education today?
We are in the middle of a crisis. We are going back to school with bulletproof backpacks on sale and active shooter trainings as part of professional development. ICE practically orphaned children in Mississippi on their first day of school. These events are not distinct from our teaching. They are a clear and present danger to us and our students.
Instead of accepting bad-faith offers to equip us and our students with coping strategies for trauma, we should be fighting for a society that doesn’t traumatize us or our students!
In the past year teachers in several cities have modeled a path for us. Teachers in Oakland and Los Angeles demanded counselors and school nurses, and made it clear that teachers will fight for issues beyond our salaries.
More recently, the AFT called on Walmart to stop selling guns, and threatened them with a boycott. This is a powerful stance. But couldn’t we go further?
We can put pressure on Walmart this way, but isn’t it time to put real pressure on the elected officials who are responsible for this epidemic of violence we’re living with?
To be clear, the traumas of gun violence, deportations, police violence, and climate change-related natural disasters are interrelated. We can and should imagine using our collective power as teachers to demand action. We take care of our nation’s young people, and we cannot stand idly by while our nation’s leaders abuse them through complacency and corruption.
It has been so easy for me to feel hopeless and helpless these days. When I attend protests, I feel inspired by the power of community and collective action. When people of different ages, races, genders, and faiths come together for a common cause, there is nothing more powerful. As we head back to school, I am imagining what might be possible if teachers raised our voices together. I am imagining the world that we might make possible, and it makes me hopeful.
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