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How I Learned to Help My Students Talk About Hard Things

Up until a few years ago, I had struggled to find my voice as a teacher. I had internalized a set of classroom management principles best summed up by the common phrase: “Don’t smile until Christmas.” I followed protocol and policies to the letter, and I taught my students to internalize a system that rewarded rule-following, conformity and deference to my point of view. Thus, the teacher I became was not me. My turning point came at the start of school in 2014. I was preparing for another year of English in Bethalto when the tragedy of Michael Brown rocked Ferguson, Missouri, a short 30-minute drive from our Illinois town. Districts were scrambling to figure out what to do. The fear was that our students would want to talk about it in our mostly White, metro-East suburban schools. Strategies were shared for how to pivot any uncomfortable interruptions back to the day’s lessons. My internal teacher voice screamed one goal: Shut down any arguments so that education could go on smoothly. Control the conversation. As you can imagine, that didn’t work very well. My students were not interested in class that day, or the next. They couldn’t stop sharing and talking about what was happening in Ferguson, yet I couldn’t bring myself to have the kinds of conversations with them that they needed. A colleague’s words at lunch one day struck me: “It’s a shame that these kids don’t even know how to talk to each other about the most important things. We need to be showing them how, because where else will they learn?” That afternoon, when my juniors came from lunch still hungry to talk about the latest from Ferguson I hesitated and then took a plunge. I put my old teacher voice aside and we had a conversation about Ferguson, racial inequity and privilege. It turned out that all I had to do was listen, acknowledge pain and say, “I don’t know,” a lot while helping students work their way through what happened. I realized that in the vacuum of real conversation, my students were learning to talk about Ferguson through the internet. Online conversations on social matters rarely demonstrate the humility needed to address the deep trauma of systemic injustice. When I dropped the authoritarian voice and started working towards one of vulnerability, my students and I did much better in broaching the sensitive topics I never dreamed of discussing before—genuine conversations about Black Lives Matter protests, border walls or media bias. Together, we worked towards cultivating a shared language of humility and vulnerability. Three years later, we are still talking. Right now, I’m listening to students wrestle with gun violence and the need to truly see each other. They have much to say, and by having a place to speak they see what it means to listen and to wrestle with their worldviews. This doesn’t mean that my curriculum is now daily talk sessions. Rather, it means that we grow together through conversation. The hardest part for me has been learning how to be quiet again. I’m still learning. I’ve found that when I’m quiet, I can be a sounding board for my students, and they can try on different thoughts and expressions to find what fits. Meanwhile, they can watch me to see how words have impact. Having these conversations means that I must continuously work against myself. I constantly battle the old teacher voice that tries to find its way back in, because it is a safe, familiar voice. When I raise the wall between myself and my students, we know our places, our expectations, our roles. The class can run smoothly. But [pullquote position="left"]for conversation to truly happen, we teachers—especially male teachers—must make time to model vulnerability. I worried that my students saw my vulnerability as weakness until I received an email from a quiet football player last summer. He shared that he had finally learned how to talk about hard things with people who were different than him. He wrote that my class taught him “things that were actually important in life.” He had learned how to see the world from outside of his own perspective and to share his deepest thoughts.
Jacob Carlson
Jacob Carlson teaches English at Civic Memorial High School in Bethalto, Illinois. He is a 2017-18 Teach Plus Illinois Policy Fellow.

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