November 2016, I walked into my school building to students blocking their peers from coming through my classroom door. They said, “We’re building a wall, Ms. Wing,” I took a deep breath, bit my bottom lip to control my emotions and demanded they move.
My students were regurgitating the hate they saw spewed over the course of the 2016 presidential campaign, and I knew that I had a responsibility to turn this into a teachable and unifying moment for my eighth graders.
I gathered them into a circle, told them to look around, and begin to call out the things they had in common. Through this exercise, my students were able to understand each other, realize that we all deserve to be treated with dignity, and brainstorm ideas to repair the divisions that had rocked the foundation of our learning community.
The ugliness in my classroom was, indeed, the result of just a few months of political campaigning. However, after four years of living in a divided democracy, the former president’s words have ultimately led to increased bullying and harassment in our schools.
As educators, we have a responsibility to not only teach subjects, but also to teach students how to put the unity back in community. Yes, we are divided. But whatever trauma the nation may have felt during this time, please understand, this isn’t new. For BIPOC, we have lived this our entire lives.
We All Own This
Now we have inaugurated a new president—a new president who says he wants to unite the nation. It would certainly be easy to blame the state of our nation solely on the past administration. However, much of what we have experienced as a country was always there—just beneath the surface. The implicit bias, the lack of resources for our students, the lack of belief in underserved students’ abilities, and the damage done to those who are considered the least of these.
What kind of world do you want to leave for those who come after us? Who cares if my students know how to make their subjects and verbs agree if they use language to promulgate hate? Who cares if my students know the Pythagorean Theorem if they use numbers and statistics to minimize others? Who cares if my students know the stories in their history books if they do not use the past to ensure that we create a new equitable future?
More is caught than taught, educators—What unintended lessons are your actions teaching your students? What are they learning when you fail to speak up about what is right? What are they learning when you refuse to teach our whole history—real history?
I don’t know if President Biden will be able to heal the rift in this nation, but a house divided cannot stand. In prayer, I was given the charge to place the unity in community in every endeavor, initiative and project that I am a part of for the next year. So, that is and will be the staple by which I lead—unity in community.
I hope you will join me in being the unifier within your sphere of influence. While we may not be able to change the hearts and the minds of bigots, we can change disparate systems in our teaching, our schools, our counties, and our states to ensure that bigotry can no longer exist. Systems change creates lasting change. And together, we can change this world one lesson at a time.
Kelisa Wing is the author of "Weeds & Seeds: How To Stay Positive in the Midst of Life’s Storms" and "Promises and Possibilities: Dismantling the School to Prison Pipeline" (both available on Amazon). She also is a 2017 State Teacher of the year, speaker, teacher and activist for discipline reform. Kelisa holds a bachelor’s degree in English from the University of Maryland University College, a ...