The Job of Teaching in Uncertain Times

by Michael Hill

In 2014, back before we had a president who would explicitly admit that he didn’t trust Muslims, I had a Muslim student who was convinced he being followed by Immigration, the FBI, and local police. He told stories of black SUVs, of white dudes where there should be no white dudes, of squealing tires and corners. Now, to be clear, it would not be such an unusual situation to have immigration or the FBI tailing someone in our city. My college is a community college in Dearborn, MI, the Middle-East of the Mid-West. White dudes have been watching people in this town since the Iranian hostage situation and the situation of watching has only grown more intense, more oppressive in the past twenty years. Still, this student’s claims were a bit laden with conspiracy theory, a bit performative, a bit boastful, a bit tinged by the “what if?” It was as if he was testing out the possibilities of a reality and scaring himself (and his classmates) with the hint of that reality.

As we progress through a semester that has been made tense by factors external to the classroom–rumors of war, trials about presidential misdeeds, campaigns rife with political conflict, and daily news stories on racist and violent crimes–I’m thinking about that student and the pains that have been inflicted upon his community and his extended family. I’m thinking about how, even if his being followed was partial fantasy, he has still experienced the cultural trauma of constant suspicion from his internet, TV, and world. How he was four when Muslims became evil; how he was ten when the citizenship of an American President was questioned because of his Arabic-sounding name; how he was just learning to drive as black men were being shot for walking the streets; how we have neglected to create for him world where he can feel welcome no matter his religion, his name, his skin. And I’m thinking about how my classroom provided him a bit of a haven where he could test out his fears; express his anxiety–and for a moment feel a little welcome to just be.

As a nation, we are once again, perhaps inevitably so, being drawn into ever more propaganda and rhetoric encouraging us to disparage and deny the humanity of our Arab, Muslim, and Middle Eastern citizens, neighbors and world-sharers. We all have our 9/11 stories, of course, and many of them involve fear and sadness. Part of my 9/11 story happened in the classroom. I was teaching a Comp I course at 11:00 am, thirty-two minutes after the second tower fell. I was a new Lecturer teaching a class full of first-year students in the second week of classes, so I did what I was supposed to do, I went to class even though I was blind with shock and fear. During that class, a class where we forgot about everything except questions and feelings, I had two distinct moments of clarity: 1) My male students of military age were about to face unyielding pressure to give up their education and 2) My Muslim students were going to have to wake up the next morning in a nation with a rekindled hate for their identities. During that class, we listened and cried and talked about whether we would have class on Thursday and I ended the class by asking students to love and support each other, to think through the jingoism and hate they were going to hear over the next few days, and to reach out in friendship to Muslim students in their midst.

I tell you these stories as a precursor to asking you to think about your classroom as a haven for students who may well be feeling uncertain in the world this semester. College students are in a particularly precarious emotional position—they are, by their very nature, people who have not yet attained, or are in the process of changing, their authority in the world. The college classroom is the one space that allows them the freedom to experience authority, to practice it, to find out what it means to use their voice to declare their truths in the world. This semester we are certain to have students whose entire understanding of the world around them is being challenged by the events and the voices talking about those events. If our classrooms are already spaces that invite students into paradigm change, imagine how students might be experiencing those classrooms in a tense, war-torn, politically volatile, hate-filled world as the one they are going to experience this semester.

We should–we must–consider the well-being of our students in this setting. Student well-being is at the center of our jobs.

The consideration of how our students are doing as developing people, as citizens, as individuals with emotional lives is fraught, of course. Feelings are icky and student-care can be sloppy. I can just hear how some of my own undergraduate professors from the 1980s might have responded to this: “I’m a writing teacher,” one might say, “Not a social worker.” Another might say, “Look, the world might blow up or not, but I just teach Geology.” As instructors though, we open ourselves up to the responsibility to look out for those students who enter our classroom. Certainly, we are responsible for curriculum, but we are also responsible for the lives experience within that curriculum. Indeed, how can we possibly expect students to engage in our classrooms if we never consider how the world outside our classrooms might be affecting their capacities for engagement?

During my time teaching, I have had students experience emotional breakdowns and physical seizures; I have watched students cower in fear during an active shooter event; I have hidden students from violent partners; I have seen students pass out from hunger; I have had students come to class the day after their child had died. My experiences are not all that unique, particularly for a community college instructor. In each case, I had to both deal with the humanity that was presenting itself while also considering how these moments of humanity might affect student learning. As an English instructor, I have, perhaps, slightly more access to the interior lives of my students simply because they write about those lives, but I know my Math, my Electrical Engineering, and my Culinary Arts colleagues all have similar experiences. One cannot have such experiences without building capacity for care and a sense of responsibility for one’s students. Or, at least, one cannot have such experiences without this capacity unless one is a very bad teacher indeed.

This semester, we are going to have students who are afraid of war. We are going to have students who are angry at people who do not look like them. We are going to have students who are stressed out by the rhetorical leaps that our politicians will take as they campaign. Our students are going to experience prejudice, violence, and hate because of their names, their beliefs, the colors of their skin, and the fact that their families originated in a country different from that in which they go to school. We are going to have students who experience death and destruction.

We should be aware of this impending pain. And we must be aware of our jobs. The lives of students are at the center of our jobs.

The classroom, of course, is the space where we, as instructors, might best and most appropriately put support for student well-being into action. This doesn’t mean that our classrooms need become spaces of sharing and processing, though we should be open to that possibility if a day comes when traumas in the news are so overwhelming that there could be no other curriculum than each other. We don’t have to hug, bring cookies, or even put on a veneer of sweetness. But we should be aware that our students have a possibility of safety, self-awareness and empowerment in our classrooms and we can enhance that possibility by building supportive and caring spaces.

So, how can we build such spaces? I will humbly suggest a few guidelines for building a haven for students within our classrooms. There are probably better techniques out there; indeed I would argue that every teacher within every individual classroom with every specific set of students builds their own techniques. These suggestions are largely meant as reminders or as markers to assess how our classrooms become spaces where our students experience support:

  • Welcome students to class, even in April when you are tired. Welcome them daily and let them know that you are there with them.
  • Invite students into the process of your class. Help them be engaged. Make them feel like they are a part of what’s going on. Try creating a more active classroom, a more communal classroom, a more discursive classroom.
  • Create a democratic space wherein students’ voices have authority, power, and validity. Allow them to showcase their abilities in a space where those abilities are appreciated and valued at whatever level they are displayed. Show them how to read with intention and to create with power. Avoid hectoring judgement.
  • Protect your students. Protect them from each others’ biases; from thoughtless and harmful language in the hallway; from oppressive institutional forces; from commentators in the news; from your own fatigue, snarkiness, and cynicism about student efforts.
  • Let students know you are a person. Be open with them and let them experience your ability to listen. Share your thoughts and feelings and experiences so far as they are relevant and helpful to building your classroom.
  • Tender your own political opinions with discretion. Reduce your own hate and fear about what is happening in the world around you to make your students feel more secure in the classroom around them. Don’t be afraid to reach out and ask students if they are OK. Be particularly aware of students who might be experiencing stress because of their identities. Don’t push, but reach out and let those students know they are loved by showing them you know they are in your classroom and that their presence matters.

Taking these steps, or others that you will discover with your own students in your own classrooms will help students build the capabilities they will need to walk out of your classroom door to engage the world around them. Our job, ultimately, is to help students move from one intellectual space, one type of authority, into another by taking them throughout the work of our courses in a semester. That’s important work, but we must also be cognizant of the humanity involved in our work. For this semester, for all semesters, really, this job requires a great deal of care for the people in our classrooms in order to attenuate teaching to the vulnerabilities of our students. Let your students in and provide for them a space to experience the awesome power of being safe as students who are sustained within your class. That is your job.

 

Michael Hill is an English instructor at Henry Ford College in Dearborn, MI. He is a Michael Hillformer chair of the Council on Basic Writing; a former Writing Center director; a former teaching center director; and a current searcher of his next project. And he’s a proud union thug.

Author: darinljensen

I am a writer and a teacher who is interested in issues of class and social justice.

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