We’re going back to school soon. You’re probably going to hear some teachers talk about how they won’t smile at their students until October. At some point, an older teacher might have given you the advice to start the year off cold and gradually warm up to your kids. But only once you’ve broken them in.
Ignore this advice. This advice is bullshit. Smile. Laugh. Be a human being and treat your children like human beings.
Schooling is often a dehumanizing process. We do not teach within structures naturally designed to inspire joy, love, and agency. The pressures around us to develop strong test-takers, to produce children who spark, to teach critical thinking (but only if what they’re challenging is safe and approved), to break identity and relationships into a tidy set of lessons, is often overwhelming.
Don’t give in to it on your first day back.
Don’t give in to it at all.
Give your kids a hug when you see them. Tell your students a few stories about your summer. Share an embarrassing story. Provide opportunities for them to share their stories. Develop a culture where it’s okay for kids to laugh with each other, where it’s okay for kids to laugh with you. It will be louder than the stoic next door. It might take you a bit more time to get into the standards. You might find yourself having more conversations with kids about their choices and their words than you usually do. I hope you find yourself having more of those conversations.
Those conversations are when we, as a collective, are at our finest. They’re when we build relationships, when we build community, when we build love, and when we build high-performing classrooms. See, people learn better when they feel safe and validated. They learn better when they feel included. They learn better when they don’t want to let one another down, and when they can call one another out when they do. They learn better when the focus is on education, rather than schooling. They learn better when the process belongs to them, too.
We are complex creatures. To erase our humanity, to reduce us to action/reaction, input/output, or to a script, is to devalue and dehumanize us. Celebrate our complexity. Embrace our messiness. Wonder. About us; about yourself. Learn. Seriously, learn. Not about classroom management or popular new educational trends, but about the human beings with whom you co-exist each and every day.
You aren’t lowering the stakes by smiling on the first day. You aren’t establishing a year of low expectations. You’re doing the precise opposite. You are constructing one of MLK’s Beloved Communities; you are dancing in the margins of Gloria Anzaldúa’s borderzones. You are setting yourself up for a year of stories and change.
Am I being overly optimistic right now? Hell yeah I am. It’s the beginning of the year. I have to be. Things are going to be messy. There are going to be days where I lash out, where I’m more punitive than I’d like to be, when I rely upon my power too much. There are going to be kids I feel like I just can’t get to. Some days I’ll feel like they only respond to yelling, and so I’ll yell. It won’t feel good.
We need the messy, beautiful, chaotic joy of living to be embedded in our classrooms.
I’ve been around this block before. I am under no illusions that classrooms are utopian, harmonious places. But then again, I’ve never particularly trusted utopian narratives. We need a little friction. We need the messy, beautiful, chaotic joy of life to be embedded in our classrooms. We need to let kids screw up, love them, expect better of them, and help them expect better of themselves. We need to grow together.
For many teachers, summer is a refuge, a time to recharge. Netflix and chill. But it isn’t so idyllic for everyone. Maybe you or your colleagues are returning to your classrooms while living through your own trauma. Many of our students certainly will be. For many of them, summer is a time of heightened family conflict and missed meals.
So when they walk in your classroom on the first day, they don’t need your bullshit about how serious school is. They don’t need your insecurities projected onto them. They need your love. They need to know that laughter and learning go hand in hand. They need to know that it’s okay to be vulnerable.
We all do.
Written By: Dan Thalkar
J flipped her teacher off the other day. A quiet, straight-A student, J generally isn’t one to act out. She comes to school, cinches her hoodie tight, and goes about her business. Except, of course, for that time she threw her teacher the bird.
J didn’t have much of an explanation for what happened, just a general, “I was feeling angry. I shouldn’t have done that. I’m sorry.” We shrugged our shoulders, talked to her parents and had her write an apology letter, and moved on. J’s a good kid. It won’t happen again. We have bigger issues to deal with.
Except, well, do we? There are plenty of kids who more regularly commit larger harm, but what does it say about our community when one of the “model students” starts lashing out at teachers? And, more importantly, how have we not taught her more effective modes of protest?
It is logical for our young people of color to feel rage. They are deeply enmeshed in a web of injustice and oppression that they feel but do not understand. Why would they not react by hiding within their hoodies, flipping their teacher off, or ignoring their instructions? This is their defiance.
Defiance is an ugly word in education. In California, it’s no longer legal to suspend students for “willful defiance”, but defiance and compliance are still part of the standard nomenclature when describing student behavior. He was being defiant and wouldn’t sit down! This is a great class — they’re so compliant. She was being defiant and talking back. It was so rude.
Defiance — bold resistance to power — is not something we encourage from our students. Of course, we like to tell ourselves otherwise — we design engaging math projects analyzing mass incarceration, we study the civil rights movement, we show our students pictures of us at protests, and we preach about the importance of voting. Maybe we even bring in police officers and community activists for a panel with our students. Maybe we tell our kids how powerful they are, that they must be activists to fight for themselves in this unjust, oppressive society. We are all for liberation struggles.
Unless they’re directed at us.
Hey, we have standards to teach. We have 34 other kids in the class. We are running on four hours of sleep because we were up all night writing feedback on your essays. We have your best interests at heart. How dare you be defiant.
At best, these mixed messages are confusing; at worst, they are deeply traumatizing. Students, especially our boys of color, do not need us to remind them that the world has deemed their feelings irrelevant, their very being ancillary. They come to us with this knowledge. Then we tell them they matter, they have the right to speak up… but they should not be defiant. It isn’t nice. It isn’t respectful. It isn’t responsible.
Our school system was designed to produce nice, respectful, responsible workers. For all of the reform movements over the years, this hasn’t really changed much. Compliance is rewarded, defiance is punished.
By stifling our students, we aren’t just silencing them and teaching them how to be obedient workers, we’re backing them into a corner. Of course they flip us off, ignore our instructions, refuse to turn in work for our classes. Self-harm is the only form of recourse — of defiance — we leave open to them.
What if, instead, we operated from a pedagogy of defiance? Imagine the novelty — speaking truth to power includes speaking truth to us. Even if we don’t want to hear it. Especially if we don’t want to hear it. We do not fail our students if they leave us defiant, we fail them if they leave us unable to articulate their defiance.
Defiance should be a celebratory act. I have a voice and I have power and I will rise up! It should be joyous. Hear me sing! It should be communal. We are here!
Celebrating defiance will not be easy. It will require us to humble ourselves and let go of our control. It will have to involve our whole school communities. It will be messy and flawed. It will require us to educate with, rather than to or for our communities. It will require us to re-educate ourselves.
I’ve heard plenty of teachers extol Paolo Friere with one breath and praise students for being compliant with the next. Our lip-service social justice will not serve us here. A pedagogy of defiance is going to involve some serious soul-searching if we are to move from theoretical to actual liberation.
If we truly embrace the discomfort of defiance, we begin to see the world through a different lens. We remove the shiny veneer from American Hero Martin Luther King, Jr., and remember that in his day large segments of America wanted him dead and thought him dangerous. Remember that his defiance was scorned. We see defiance as a noble pursuit, and learn how to wield it with wisdom and purpose. We see our history, our movements, and our people, in a clearer light.
Most importantly, by elevating defiance we provide our students with options. As their sphere of power increases,their actions are no longer limited to reactionary self-sabotage. Instead, they can draw from a rich lineage of defiance in order to assert and empower themselves. And so we develop a community where truth, and not niceness, is a sign of respect.
In elevating defiance, I am not endorsing the false generosity of low accountability and expectations. Defiance, I believe, entails the opposite. Many of our students have not yet developed the consciousness to articulate what they are actually raging against; they may not even know. We have to build a foundation.
Harming one in the community, even if that one is yourself, harms the community and must be addressed. We hold choices to a higher standard and, when we speak up, have purpose behind our words. We analyze the sources of our own feelings and reactions. While honoring defiance, we learn that it is a precious resource, and that each time we misuse or abuse it, it loses power. We lose power. Rather than judging and labeling students for their defiance, we see it as a symptom of an oppressive disease and seek to understand. We seek to help them understand. We seek to help them own their stories.
We need not just mindsets and philosophy, but the critical thinking and literacy skills necessary to actually name and engage with our worlds. Critical literacy must be explicitly taught, the tools our young people need to access, question, and critique their worlds instilled, and a sense of agency and empowerment developed. Without this foundation, our rage is impotent and self-destructive. Learning to read is a revolutionary act.
Like I said, this isn’t easy. But it’s doable. Even aspiring to the ideal, I believe, is transformative progress.
I do not want compliant students. I want students to tell me when I’m being oppressive, to let me know when they think an assignment is bullshit. I want my classroom to be a lab where students can experiment with their voices and discover their transcendent powers of creation and transformation. Rather than hide or submerge their anger, I hope for them to transform it into something beautiful. If they feel like flipping me off, I want them to think about why and to feel emboldened to speak their truth.
The myriad interlocking systems of oppression our children of color are raised within will not disappear overnight. They may never disappear. But if we empower defiance, we can snip a few threads, and from there, who knows what unraveling will begin.
Guest Post by: Dan Thalkar (@dthalkar)
Humanities Teacher in Los Angeles, CA
Dear Donald: You’ve been on my mind a lot lately. You’re the first thing I think about when I wake up, the last thing I think about when I go to sleep, and my dreams — oh lord, Donald, you are all up in my dreams. You’ve got me feeling some kind of way.
Ours is not a healthy relationship. It leans more towards abuse than support, but be that as it may, I can’t quit you. I would hazard to say that I’ll be dreaming about you an uncomfortable amount over the next four years. So, if I can’t leave you, I may as well talk to you. In fact, I’d like to thank you.
Thank you for reminding me that “post-racial” is a bullshit phrase that signifies nothing more than a deliberate misunderstanding of what racism actually looks and feels like.
Thank you for reminding me that in a populist movement, pathos always beats logos.
Thank you for reminding me of my roots. I grew up in rural Northwestern Pennsylvania, which turned out very strongly for you. I live in California now, and it’s easy to forget how dangerous entire communities ascribing to a single story can be. Because that’s what you tapped into at a primal level, right? The story that the Rust Belt lost its sheen, not because of inevitable technological and economic changes and decades of stubborn loyalty to a lifestyle that did not return the favor, but because of Democrats, affirmative action, and those goddamn immigrants.
Thank you for forcing us to examine our demographics and realize that — holy shit — we are more segregated now than we have been since the Civil Rights Movement.
Thank you for revealing that not everyone thinks segregation is such a bad thing.
Thank you for enabling the worst in us. I don’t know if you’re following news that matters, but hate crimes saw a large spike the week you won. In towns across the country, Muslim Americans were told that they do not belong. In schools around the country, Latino students showered with deportation chants and fake deportation letters. In schools across the country, silent teachers modeled cowardice.
Thank you for teaching me that I cannot make assumptions about my fellow educators, for revealing that many of them are uncomfortable challenging the status quo in any real way and would rather silence our children’s questions than stumble towards justice with them.
Thank you for consistently modeling who we do not want to be, for allowing me easy, lazy examples when discussing racism, privilege, misogyny, corruption, bullying, othering, and good-ol-fashioned meanness.
Thank you for enabling one of the most beautiful and heartbreaking days of teaching I have ever experienced. Teachers at my school were texting one another at 1 a.m. on election night, trying to decide how to discuss this reality. We held healing circles. We read Langston Hughes. We paused first period to watch Hillary’s concession speech. We paused second period to watch President Obama’s speech. We wrote letters, because if you know us, maybe you won’t hate us. We drew self-portraits, because if you see us, maybe you won’t hate us. We dreamed our dreams, because if we love us, maybe it won’t matter that you hate us.
Thank you for reminding me how powerful community is. You almost broke me. I couldn’t sleep Tuesday night. Couldn’t see a way forward. Couldn’t find much beyond despair. I spent most of Wednesday morning crying in fits and starts. Every time I looked up, there was someone else crying, and we could hug and lift one another up. Or someone would cover me for a restroom break so I could spare my children from the worst of my sobs. By the end of the day, I was so surrounded by love and by the insurmountable optimism of 12-year-olds, and you cannot kill me anymore.
Thank you for, in your bigotry and small-mindedness, unleashing our greatness. Your fear-mongering, hatred, and small, selfish angers cannot match us. See, that’s the thing about anger, Donald, it consumes itself. In the years ahead, you are going to hurt us. You are going to make our lives more difficult. You are going to make us feel unsafe and unwanted in our own homes, in our own bodies. But your efforts to other us will also make us discover our bodies again, and even we might tremble at how beautiful we are. We aren’t going anywhere, Donald. We aren’t backing down. We aren’t cowering before you. We are standing and we are speaking, and you and everyone who supports you is going to be forced to see us. When you see us, Donald, when you know us as human beings with faces and flaws and bottomless stores of strength, you are going to realize how small you are.
Thank you for underestimating love. When we talked about what we should do next, none of my students spoke of destruction. None of them spoke of acceptance. We decided that a title will not force us to respect you, that our respect for that title means that we cannot force ourselves to respect you. So, rather than subscribe to your story of America, we are creating our own. “America will be. . .” is our project, our protest, our citizenship project. We are developing and sharing our dreams for America. We are learning about trauma and healing. We are learning from the wisdoms of our elders and the mistakes of our past. We are practitioners of restorative justice, of truth and reconciliation. We are artists and we are poets. We are designing a community day of healing and justice, where we will practice empathy and learn about our rights and stand in solidarity with the most vulnerable among us.
Lastly, Donald, thank you for being wrong. You tapped into the fears and anger — not all of it unjustified — of a disappearing white America, and you called it greatness. You spoke of making America great again, and you thought you knew America. You do not. You don’t even know the again of which you speak. Come to East LA, Donald, and meet America. Come to Watts, come to Baltimore, come to St. Paul. Come visit us, Donald. Talk to my 7th graders who are wise beyond their years, wiser than you, and realize that you never knew us at all. Realize that our greatness will undo you.
Humanities Teacher in Los Angeles, CA