Why I Left The Classroom During a Pandemic

Posted on March 1, 2021 by

On January 25, 2021, I closed my classroom door for the last time. After 30 years, during a pandemic, I decided to stop teaching junior high.

It wasn’t because I’m retiring, and it wasn’t because I had to. The pandemic itself wasn’t why I left the classroom either. I’m not moving, there’s not been a major crisis in my life or family; nor has there been a major event that would require me to leave a job – a calling – that I’ve dedicated the majority of my life to.

During the Pandemic

March 13, 2020, was the last day students walked into room A-1. They had a substitute that day – I called in sick, challenged to handle the anxiety the as-yet-to-be-named pandemic was causing. I felt vulnerable, unable to protect myself from what I sensed was a bigger issue than my district was acknowledging. They said they were ‘cleaning’, but I was skeptical of the degree that was really happening. I couldn’t risk bringing home any virus. I felt unseen. Unheard. Expendable.

My initial supplies, purchased by me, Ha.

The sad part of that day, for me, was not knowing that it would be the last one I spent face-to-face with my students. We were finally in our rhythm; teachers savor the last third of the school year when we see all our efforts at establishing systems, trust, and building relationships really bloom. It’s the time of year when I feel change is really happening, in a good way.

Gift on the last day from a new student – not because we were leaving, but because she knew I cared about her. I wonder how she’s doing now…

It was a time when 2020 still felt hopeful.

March 2020 calendar quote

Life interruptions happen. We might think we are going with the flow of life, moving in and out of the weather patterns that some days have us throwing our arms wide open to the sun, and others that force us to stay inside, hunkering down, waiting for the sky to clear.

It definitely wasn’t the first time in 30 years that I’d thought about leaving the classroom. When my babies were born, I felt the shift, the push and pull between career and motherhood. I did step away, actually, three different times when L and C were little. But what was different then was that I felt like I’d always come back. The door wasn’t closed on the part of me that was meant to be a teacher.

Pivot?

What made it feel so different this time was not just the pandemic, not just teaching virtually, not being asked to pack it up and turn decades worth of instruction, experiences that relied on the human connection, to magic behind a screen. “Pivot” became an over-used, annoying phrase – how do I ‘pivot’ the eye to eye instincts that develop when I’m greeting kids at the door?

It was all that – yes – and also an affirmation that our country lacks support for teachers. That it’s really a lot of talk, with teachers not in the conversation, and when it comes down to it, many of us are left to improve our craft on our own time. We are forced to just do it, to jump into an educational space without any safety nets. To ‘pivot’ into the unknown. To orchestrate a symphony without ever playing an instrument.

And ultimately, when the notes become off key, and the rhythm breaks, it’s on us.

Pandemic Games

It’s not a team sport, this career of teaching. As we rounded the virtual bases last spring, some of us were greeted with standing ovations, overwhelming thanks and gratitude. It was all over the media, this honoring of teachers. And as the applause faded and pandemic reality set in, grudges replaced gratitude. People wanted somewhere to place their anger, frustration, and yes, grief.

Come September, we were demoted to rookie status again. The star players became the people behind the desks, not the screens – the easy hitters who determined how we would do our work without every picking up a bat. The ones who told us they were doing everything to protect us – everything except coaching us through.

Forget about spring training. Forget about spending the summer cutting our losses and muscling up for the game we knew was coming in the fall – school districts like mine expected that somehow teachers would do it all on their own time. They refused to think outside the box, to support teachers with professional learning and expected that it would simply be ok.

And it wasn’t. Not by a long shot.

I’ve been training myself – and any teacher who would listen – on how to use educational technology in the classroom for nearly a decade. I’ve attended conferences, read, listened, watched, tried, and failed repeatedly. I did it because it was the right thing to do – to continue to develop my craft. My students and I have seen success and challenges with digital integration. And that still didn’t prepare me to accept the heavy workload of teaching virtually.

The Pandemic Teaching Reality

It didn’t prepare me to see the stress, the anxiety, the tears and rage teachers felt.

I saw teachers giving up. Exhausted. Paralyzed with the fear of what they didn’t know.

I saw teachers pounding their desks in frustration, sobbing into breakout rooms and coaching sessions.

I felt the joy leak out of teaching. And consequently, the joy seeped out of my life, too. I’m a ‘do-er’. I like to help, to solve problems, to make life a smoother path for those around me.

And the Universe opened a new door like it always does. I walked through, and into a place I didn’t expect yet always hoped to be. Not in a classroom.

You know how sometimes when you feel everything fall into place? When the big scary things holding you back before somehow melt away, and all you’re left with is what’s right here, right now, and you know exactly what you need to do, and you feel the ease and flow of the world gently moving you along and it is just. So. Right?

And Then, I Was Out

I took a month to close up my classroom – to sort through the memories, to pack the parts of teaching that I wasn’t quite ready to recycle. I smiled a lot. Alone in my room, I walked through thirty years of voices, of words, of emotions and energy and let it ride in and out and through me until I knew I was done.

It was surprisingly easy to let ‘it’ all go. I think when we get still and silent with ourselves, we find our direction. Even when we’re sheltered in place.

Goodbye, Eagles

On the way out for the last time, I paused and snapped one last photo. I didn’t want a selfie – I wanted to remember the door, the space that opened to me and so many others that joined me in love and learning.

Walking down the hallway, I didn’t look back. Not once. I didn’t cry, or laugh, or shout.

Taking a deep breath, I closed the door and walked outside. The sun was starting to set. There was a young man, practicing his skateboard ollies in the parking lot. He looked over at me, and I smiled.

Teaching isn’t about what’s left in there, I thought. It’s about what’s left in me.

And I’m not quite done.

I have a feeling I’ll be writing more about this – leaving a job you loved doesn’t come without it’s own internal power struggle. It doesn’t come without questions. What I’ve done in the last year, like so many, feels still out of focus and unfinished. Dreamlike.

Like being in the same chair, the same space, the same me – with a different Zoom.

Front yard surprise decorations from former students on my last day
primark

Jennifer Wolfe

Jennifer Wolfe, a writer-teacher-mom, is dedicated to finding the extraordinary in the ordinary moments of life by thinking deeply, loving fiercely, and teaching audaciously. Jennifer is a Google Certified Educator, Hyperdoc fanatic, and a voracious reader. Read her stories on her blog, mamawolfe, and grab free copies of her teaching and parenting resources.

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anti-racist

Anti-Racist Teaching and Justice

Posted on January 30, 2021 by

“Power at its best is love implementing the demands of justice.
Justice at its best is love correcting everything that stands against love.”
-Martin Luther King, Jr.

It’s tough to think about the damage done during the last presidency. I remember in 2017 being devastated at the election results and then deciding to choose optimism.

That didn’t last long. Watching people I love, and people I don’t know, live in fear, anxiety, and pessimism is heart-wrenching and exhausting. What Trump impacted on our country hit us hard in education; we teach developing humans who watch and listen and sometimes question. We teach everyone who walks through our door, and for the last year, we did it during a pandemic that didn’t have to happen.

Mostly, the kids I taught struggled with understanding why there was so much hate, injustice, and blatant cruelty in America. To kids, it’s much more obvious in some ways – they learn right from wrong, they learn to be kind and share, and when they don’t see that reflected in their world it’s hard to comprehend. And extremely hard to explain to them – especially from one side of a computer screen, not able to look them in the eyes, give them a hug or high five, and reassure them that they and their family will be ok. That people really ARE good at heart.

And now again with a new president, a female woman of color for our vice-president, and a cabinet that looks more like MY America, I am once again optimistic. I feel a bit lighter. A bit more hopeful that we can be better than we ever have been. That we can begin to break down the systemic racism in our country. That we can all be anti-racist.

I’m not naive – I know what we are seeing in the news really IS our America. It’s not the America I want to live in, but it is where we are now. We have work to do – hard work – and educators can – and should – be huge players. Education IS political. We need to teach our children about racism, show them how it has shaped our country, and expose them to how it impacts our world today. We need to confront it, not conform to it. We need to challenge our young thinkers to make sense of what they see and experience and create opportunities for kids to make change happen – one small step at a time.

Are you an anti-racist teacher?

Not sure where to start, or how to keep going? I’ve been thinking that sharing some simple strategies and lessons that have worked in my classroom might just help “implement the demands of justice”. Here you go!

Start with books

Read alouds: My 7th graders LOVE to be read to, both during face to face learning, and even more during the distance learning we’ve been in. I use a combination of picture books and chapter books. I start my back to school read alouds with picture books – I focus on diversity of voice and the themes of empathy and inclusion. Here’s a link to get you started: Back to school read aloud picture book list.

I’ve typically followed the Global Read Aloud suggestions for chapter books in the last few years – last year we loved The Bridge Home by Padma Venkatraman, and this year’s choice, Prairie Lotus by Linda Sue Park was a perfect fit alongside the backdrop of the pandemic and racial justice issues in the U.S. Check out my Wakelet collection to help you build your classroom stack.

Another strategy is to try First Chapter Friday selections – I choose books from all genres with a focus on writers telling stories of marginalized groups in society. I’ve found that using clips of the author reading their work, when available, adds impact – when my students see people that look like them reading their stories, they are inspired to read – and WRITE!

And of course, offering choice – getting kids to learn to love reading means allowing them to have access to a diverse classroom library and agency over what and how they read – any genre, any format. Audio books and graphic novels ARE READING!

Use this link for Pernille Ripp’s Favorite Reads of 2020 – she’s always inspiring and spot on with her recommendations.

Build and maintain positive relationships

Kids need to be able to feel safe and trust that they can express themselves in order to do anti-racist teaching and learning. It starts by listening to your students – what are they passionate about? What’s at the top of their mind?

Ask for reflection and feedback – always. It’s one way kids know you care about them. And be SURE to act on their responses so they feel heard. I love to use this SEL check in form with my students – it’s their ‘do now’ at the start of class and gives me a quick glimpse at how they are, and who needs a deeper check-in.

Teach Empathy and Justice

My first unit of the year is always about empathy. This All Are Welcome HyperDoc allows students to gently understand the concept of empathy and explore how they see it in the world around them. The application of their learning in a collaborative picture book cements the validity of their perspectives while at the same time elevates picture book status in their eyes!

Lisa Highfill offered some Anti-Racist HyperDocs – take a look at Nadia Razi’s  lessons as well as two live shows recorded by the HyperDoc girls on the topic of justice and anti-racist teaching:

Keep learning

Teachers need to be active learners. The world is changing – we cannot rely on outdated textbooks and teaching strategies. Just because we’ve always done it that way doesn’t mean it’s right for right now.

Do your research. Read CURRENT information on anti-racist teaching pedagogy. Read books – biographies, memoirs, non-fiction, poetry, and fiction written by BIPOC. The following are a few resources I find helpful:

Jennifer Wolfe

Jennifer Wolfe, a writer-teacher-mom, is dedicated to finding the extraordinary in the ordinary moments of life by thinking deeply, loving fiercely, and teaching audaciously. Jennifer is a Google Certified Educator, Hyperdoc fanatic, and a voracious reader. Read her stories on her blog, mamawolfe, and grab free copies of her teaching and parenting resources.

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illuminate

Illuminate: Finding My Way Gently Into 2021

Posted on January 15, 2021 by

This is the first year I’ve put away Christmas in stages. The last to go, finally, is the mantel. It’s the lights, really that I can’t seem to take down. They illuminate and comfort me during these early grey January mornings.

This year I figured out that I could simultaneously set a timer to light the room at dawn AND dusk – a way to welcome the day and say goodbye to the evening. It was honestly game-changing, something so simple and obvious that truly allowed me to see my way into and out of the day.

To close 2020, I also added a new wreath to brighten the front door, although not many come through it these days. Battery operated white lights on the front trees, and even solar twinkle lights on the bare bushes near the driveway were all my small attempts at lighting up such a dark year. A way to say hello to 2021, wishing for more light, more joy; a way to remember that all hope is not lost.

2020 forced a profound dive into the deepest parts of my self. COVID, wildfires, and distance teaching require an examination of the physical and mental spaces I live in and what I want my world to be and do and show.

Illuminate

I quickly realized it’s light. Light prompted an urgency to explore the binary need to look so intently into everything hiding within to really SEE, and the illumination to slow down and be present to what is already HERE.

It’s been years since we’ve seen the tule fog around here – used to be that kind of mist was commonplace when I was growing up. We learned to drive slowly, to concentrate, to pay attention. Tule fog is deceptive; one minute you can see clearly, the path obvious, and the next you’re sunk into the midst of obscurity.

Just when I noticed I missed it, it’s back. It’s grey, calm, and oddly quiet when I take my morning walk. I’m required to look intently around me to what’s coming into view, attentive to what’s hiding within me that I need to see. Now, the mornings open their opaque arms wide, the sun determinedly popping melon-colored aura behind the trees.

All things are inventions of holiness.

Some more rascally than others. 

-Mary Oliver

These mornings are neither dark nor light, clear nor completely obscured, just intriguing enough to keep searching. Fog-walking forces me to find my way, helps me move forward, or when it becomes too much, sends me home to a cup of tea and a good book.

I naively thought 2021 would be a fresh start, desperate to leave behind the pain of a year that brought us to our knees. Quickly, I’m reminded that it often gets worse before it gets better and that as I walk those foggy streets I have a new day no matter what, a day to just start over and pay attention to the illumination just ahead. And as Mary Oliver said, a reminder that “all things are inventions of holiness”.

The Wren From Carolina

by Mary Oliver

Just now the wren from Carolina buzzed

through the neighbor’s hedge

a line of grace notes I couldn’t even write down

much less sing. 

Now he lifts his chestnut colored throat

and delivers such a cantering praise–

for what?

For the early morning, the taste of the spider, 

for his small cup of life

that he drinks from every day, knowing it will refill.

All things are inventions of holiness.

Some more rascally than others. 

I’m on that list too,

though I don’t know exactly where.

But, every morning, there is my own cup of gladness,

and there’s that wren in the hedge, above me,

with his blazing song.

https://www.anythinklibraries.org/blog/poetry-picks-wren-carolina-mary-oliver

Jennifer Wolfe

Jennifer Wolfe, a writer-teacher-mom, is dedicated to finding the extraordinary in the ordinary moments of life by thinking deeply, loving fiercely, and teaching audaciously. Jennifer is a Google Certified Educator, Hyperdoc fanatic, and a voracious reader. Read her stories on her blog, mamawolfe, and grab free copies of her teaching and parenting resources.

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books in 2020

Books in 2020 Were A Saving Grace

Posted on January 1, 2021 by

Books in 2020 were my saving grace.

I’m not going to write an end of the year post about how awful 2020 was. I’m not going to tell you, either about how I had to dig deep (I did) to come out the other side of the year intact. In fact, I’m not going to talk about 2020 at all right now – except for all the AMAZING books I read!

I learned to love my Kindle and free ebooks from the local public library. I also learned I really, really like people who like books (you know who you are!).

And according to my website statistics, lots of people who read jenniferwolfe.net liked books in 2020, and also like lists of books and book recommendations!

In 2020 I surpassed my Goodreads goal of 70, and wound up reading 76 – unless I finish The Silent Patient tonight, then it’ll be 77 (I’m also reading and loving A Promised Land, but there’s no way I can finish it tonight – it’s awesome, but I NEVER stay up till midnight)! This year I read lots of historical fiction and memoir, as well as some powerful non-fiction, young adult fiction, anti-racist books and works by inspirational new writers.

One more thing about 2020- I really committed to abandoning books that didn’t catch my attention in the first 1/3. I’ve had that creepy realization that there actually ARE a finite number of books I can read in my lifetime, and I’m not going to waste one more minute on a book I don’t love – or at least, like very strongly.

So, the books below are ones I actually liked/loved enough to finish! And the 17 BOLD titles with ** are my 5-star MUST READS! I hope you make it to the bottom of the post – there were some FABULOUS titles pre-COVID!

Also – if you DO make it to the end of this post, I’ve listed some of my FAVORITE picture books that I use as read alouds to my 7th graders! And if this list of books in 2020 isn’t enough, be sure to check my 2019 and 2018 lists, too!

so 2020, right?

DECEMBER 2020:

  • Normal People by Sally Rooney
  • The Night Tiger b Yangsze Choo
  • American Dirt by Jeanine Cummins**
  • The Family Upstairs by Lisa Jewell
  • This Tender Land by William Kent Krueger **

NOVEMBER 2020:

  • Shadow of Night (All Souls Trilogy, #2) by Deborah Harkness
  • Red at the Bone by Jacqueline Woodson
  • Searching for Sylvie Lee by Jean Kwok
  • A Discovery of Witches (All Souls Trilogy #1) by Deborah Harkness

OCTOBER 2020:

  • The Book of Lost Friends by Lisa Wingate
  • Prairie Lotus by Linda Sue Park
  • Something Worth Doing by Jane Kirkpatrick
  • The Hard Way Home (The Star and the Shamrock Book 3) by Jean Grainger
  • The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt**

SEPTEMBER 2020:

I ordered this book from a used book seller – imagine my surprise when it arrived, gently illustrated by a kindred spirit!
  • The Dutch House by Ann Patchett**
  • The Nickel Boys by Colson Whitehead
  • Blue Horses by Mary Oliver**
  • The Vanishing Half by Brit Bennett
  • The Emerald Horizon (The Star and the Shamrock#2)
  • Born A Crime: Stories from a South African Childhood by Trevor Noah
  • The Star and the Shamrock by Jean Grainger

AUGUST 2020:

This title is EXCELLENT for teachers during virtual teaching and learning times!
  • Hunger: A Memoir of (My) Body by Roxane Gay
  • A Woman is No Man by Etaf Rum
  • Inheritance: A Memoir of Genealogy, Paternity, and Love by Dani Shapiro
  • The Gown by Jennifer Robson
  • Conjure Women by Afia Atakora
  • The Distance Learning Playbook by Douglas Fisher**
  • Small Great Things by Jodi Picoult
  • The Water Dancer by Ta-Nehisi Coates**
  • White Fragility: Why It’s So Hard for White People to Talk About Racism by Robin DiAngelo**
  • The Fountains of Silence by Ruta Sepetys

JULY 2020:

  • Blended Learning in Action by Catlin Tucker**
  • Stamped: Racism, Antiracism, and You by Jason Reynolds**
  • Save Me The Plums: My Gourmet Memoir by Ruth Reichl
  • The Heart’s Invisible Furies by John Boyne**
  • What I Know For Sure by Oprah Winfrey**
  • Heads of the Colored People by Nafissa Thomson-Spires
  • On Agate Hill by Lee Smith
  • Across the Winding River by Aimie K. Runyan
  • The Boston Girl by Anita Diamant

JUNE 2020:

  • Golden Poppies by Laila Ibrahim
  • Mustard Seed by Laila Ibrahim
  • Yellow Crocus by Laila Ibrahim
  • Opium and Absinthe by Lydia Kang

MAY 2020:

  • What the Wind Knows by Amy Harmon
  • Where the Lost Wander by Amy Harmon
  • The Paris Hours by Alex George
  • A Fire Sparkling by Julianne MacLean
  • The Universe Has Your Back: Transform Fear to Faith by Gabrielle Bernstein
  • The Other Wife by Claire McGowan
  • The Ragged Edge of Night by Olivia Hawker

APRIL 2020:

  • Inside Out by Demi Moore
  • One for the Blackbird, One for the Crow by Olivia Hawker
  • Between Breaths: A Memoir of Panic and Addiction by Elizabeth Vargas
  • The Parisians by Marius Gabriel
  • When We Believed in Mermaids by Barbara O’Neal
  • Miss Mary’s Daughter by Diney Costeloe

MARCH 2020:

  • Verity by Colleen Hoover
  • Braving the Wilderness by Brene Brown**
  • A Pledge of Silence by Flora J. Solomon
  • The Dressmaker’s Gift by Fion Valpy
  • The Path Made Clear by Oprah Winfrey
  • This Terrible Beauty by Katrin Schumann
  • The Dressmaker by Kate Alcott
  • The Widow’s War by Sally Gunning
  • The Third Angel by Alice Hoffman

MARCH, pre-COVID

  • Sea of Memories by Fiona Valpy
I had just purchased these for my classroom library the week we shut down in March 🙁

FEBRUARY 2020 pre-COVID

  • The Outer Banks House by Diann Ducharme
  • The Bridge Home by Padma Venkatraman**
  • A View Across the Rooftops by Suzanne Kelman**

JANUARY 2020 pre-COVID

This book…so strangely beautiful. Thank you, Lisa Highfill!
  • With the Fire On High by Elizabeth Acevedo**
  • How To Catch A Mole: And Find Yourself In Nature by Marc Hamer**
  • The Wife Between Us by Greer Hendricks

PICTURE BOOKS: MY FAVORITES

I read aloud to my 7th graders every single day during 2020 – I didn’t count these in my yearly total, but they are worth mentioning:

  • La Princesa and the Pea by Susan Middleton Elyr
  • Each Kindness by Jacqueline Woodson
  • The Day You Begin by Jacqueline Woodson
  • Fry Bread by Kevin Noble Maillard
  • All Are Welcome by Alexandra Penfold
  • Come With Me by Holly McGhee
  • Hey, Little Ant by Phillip Hoose
  • Swashby and the Sea by Beth Ferry
  • We Are All Wonders by R.J. Palacio
  • Wolf in the Snow by Matthew Cordell
  • You Hold Me Up by Monique Gray Smith
  • Woke Baby by Mahogany L. Browne
  • Antiracist Baby by Ibram X. Kendi
  • When Aidan Became A Brother by Kyle Lukoff
  • Tomorrow Most Likely by Dave Eggers
  • Small World by Ishta Mercurio
  • Bilal Cooks Daal by Aisha Saeed
  • Max Attacks by Kathi Appelt
  • I’m Worried by Michael Ian Black
  • Mommy’s Khimar by Jamilah Thompkins-Bigelow
  • Introducing Teddy by Jess Walton
  • Hair Love by Matthew A. Cherry
  • Gargantua by Kevin Sylvester
  • Mali Under the Night Sky by Youme Landowne
  • The Whispering Cloth by Pegi Deitz Shea
  • My Beautiful Birds by Suzanne Del Rizzo
  • Alma and How She Got Her Name by Juana Martinez-Neal
Add these titles to your bookshelves!

You made it! Now, please tell me what were YOUR favorite books in 2020? Any of these?

Jennifer Wolfe

Jennifer Wolfe, a writer-teacher-mom, is dedicated to finding the extraordinary in the ordinary moments of life by thinking deeply, loving fiercely, and teaching audaciously. Jennifer is a Google Certified Educator, Hyperdoc fanatic, and a voracious reader. Read her stories on her blog, mamawolfe, and grab free copies of her teaching and parenting resources.

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mother and daughter on grass

Choosing Anti-Racist Teaching in 2020

Posted on December 1, 2020 by

When I first became a teacher 30 years ago, I knew my true self wouldn’t be 100% acceptable in mainstream public education. Suddenly I became ‘Miss Mason’, someone who instantly became an adult around children not all that much younger than myself. Definitely not what we would call anti-racist teaching today; that part of my self was shadowed as I set about doing what was expected.

I knew that my days of extremes were over. The jet black hair was artfully shaved and teased. Dark eye-liner, perfectly powdered skin, and personal statements adorning my body were no longer acceptable in my chosen profession.

The days of twenty-something expression of individuality – let alone political beliefs – were shelved. That’s a huge reason why I chose NOT to teach in my hometown; the idea of 24/7 censorship terrified me. I thought anti-racist teaching was impossible.

Slowly, though, I got used to doing what I should do.

Doing what I thought I should do as an English teacher, one mask replaced another. Teaching days became years. It was easy to fall into teaching reading strategies, traditional white male texts, journaling, book reports, reading logs…I was doing a great job teaching the content of English.

Just not so great at being myself.

And I did a good job. Kudos came my way: awards, great relationships with students. Marriage. Motherhood. Maturity. All the parts of life that are supposed to add depth and shape us into who we were meant to be.

mother and daughter on grass

Photo by Daria Obymaha on Pexels.com

Slivers of my real self slipped out occasionally, followed by sleepless nights. You know, the kind of teacher nightmares we have when we think we might have accidentally said something controversial? That anxiety of waiting to be called in, to listen to a parent complaint that teachers shouldn’t be saying those kinds of things in the classroom…

And then…2017

anti-racist teaching

One day in early 2017 one of my young UCD AVID tutors, “L”, pulled me aside and whispered, “I’m really sorry Mrs. Wolfe, but I can’t work here anymore. I have to lay low. I’m DACA, and I can’t do anything that might impact my enrollment here. I’ve got to go back home.”

I remember my shock, my confusion, and my anger as I looked into her eyes. “L” was a few years older than my own daughter, but she was Mexican, first-generation, and mine was white, from college-educated parents.

My daughter wasn’t feeling the need to go into hiding to save her education.

My daughter wasn’t moving back home, giving up her job, her friends, her life because of her ethnicity.

But “L” was. And I realized that staying silent in the classroom wasn’t going to change anything. Avoiding anti-racist teaching wasn’t going to create equity, or help someone else’s daughter or son. Teaching is a political act. Education is a political issue. And no longer was it a question of should I speak my truth – but I must.

“Just do right’

“Just do right”, Maya Angelou told us. But what does ‘doing right’ look like in education when it comes to anti-racist teaching? The last four years have shown America that whites must use their privilege to effect change. We must examine and change what we are teaching our children at home and in the classroom. Teachers must question if they have a job versus a platform for change, or if they teach for the money versus the opportunity to mold minds? 

I must ask myself if I’m afraid of anti-racist teaching. My students aren’t. They say, Why should we be afraid to talk about race? It just is.

So if we must talk and teach about it, why is it so hard to know where to start? And if kids aren’t afraid, why are adults?

Look for the leaders

In the article ‘America’s schools are failing black people: When will education have its own #BlackLivesMatter movement?’ the author S.E. Smith asserts:

Instead of confronting racial and cultural divides, American education only serves to further them. Racial division is an inescapable fact of primary and post-secondary education itself, thanks to huge gaps in education quality that are closely tied to race and socioeconomic status. Some of the nation’s most underperforming schools are in primarily minority areas, reflecting the diminished opportunities for the nation’s children of color. Moreover, students of all races and backgrounds are subject to wildly differing history curricula, with Southern students often instructed that the Civil War was a “War of Northern Aggression.” Those distinctions matter.

Discussion of race in the U.S. varies across the board depending on regional and district policies, the inclinations of an individual school, and a teacher’s personal approach. In a nation where some students learn about the civil rights movement and church burnings in detail, while others complete units in history class where slaves are treated as commodities just like cotton and sugar, race relations are going to be a serious problem.

So what are WE going to do about it?

Is it a question, finally, of should versus must? Is it even a choice?

Choosing must is a scary direction. It’s the place that pushes us outside of ourselves, that opens us up to criticism and ostracism. It leads us to vulnerability, to hurt, to isolation. But not to silence.

Author Elle Luna says, “Must is different. Must is who we are, what we believe, and what we do when we are alone with our truest, most authentic self. It’s that which calls to us most deeply. It’s our convictions, our passions, our deepest held urges, and desires — unavoidable, undeniable, and inexplicable. Unlike Should, Must doesn’t accept compromises.

Must is when we stop conforming to other people’s ideals and start connecting to our own — and this allows us to cultivate our full potential as individuals. To choose Must is to say yes to hard work and constant effort, to say yes to a journey without a road map or guarantees, and in so doing, to say yes to what Joseph Campbell called “the experience of being alive, so that our life experiences on the purely physical plane will have resonance within our innermost being and reality so that we actually feel the rapture of being alive.”

Choosing Must is the greatest thing we can do with our lives.”

Teaching my truth

The greatest thing I can do with my life as an anti-racist teacher is to teach my truth. I can’t hide behind worrying about what might happen when I step out of the shadow of expectation. Kids deserve to talk about racism, to hear their white teacher be honest about what is…and what could be. They deserve to hear the truth.

I must call it out and must be intentional about talking about books by BIPOC. Teachers must prod students’ thinking to make connections between what they read and write and what is…and what has been. We must teach about empathy, and justice, and equity.

I must be me, even when it’s scary – even when it’s easier to be someone else.

 

 

Jennifer Wolfe

Jennifer Wolfe, a writer-teacher-mom, is dedicated to finding the extraordinary in the ordinary moments of life by thinking deeply, loving fiercely, and teaching audaciously. Jennifer is a Google Certified Educator, Hyperdoc fanatic, and a voracious reader. Read her stories on her blog, mamawolfe, and grab free copies of her teaching and parenting resources.

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