As children returned to school after their Winter vacations and the end of the most collectively traumatic year of their lives, beleaguered school teachers around the country attempted to put on their most hopeful faces, looking forward to a better 2021.
But, we all know by now, only two days later, on January 6, while 3,964 Americans lay dying of COVID-19, the President of the United States, Donald Trump, organized, gathered, rallied and then instructed an angry mob of his own supporters to “take back the country with a show of strength” after falsely stating that a legitimate election held on November had been stolen. In doing so, he incited violence against the US Government, which is not only a dereliction of his duty as a sworn government official, but as a citizen of the United States, he committed the act of seditious conspiracy.
What are our students to think and feel when their president knowingly encouraged his followers to forcefully prevent, hinder, and delay the execution of the laws of their country? Young people all over the country watched as Trump’s followers took possession of the U.S. Capitol Building. We now know that five people died as a result of the riot, including a Capitol Police Officer.
What are you as their teachers, who are also shocked, dismayed and scared, to do and say in response? Yes. This is a teachable moment, but it is also a traumatic one.
Many children, even adolescents will have trouble understanding what has happened. They will take on the stress of the adults around them, mirroring it back on us. As a teacher, you will be confronted with a wide range of behaviors, that seem both appropriate and inappropriate for the circumstances. It is important to keep in mind that their behaviors are a reflection of their feelings of confusion, helplessness, fear and also a reflection of our feelings.
Since we don’t know what to do, since we feel powerless, shocked and upset, they too will feel powerless, shocked and upset. And, that is ok. It is natural to be shocked and feel upset, but we are not powerless. As Haim Ginott says, we possess a tremendous power. And, now is your time to use that power. Your students will be distracted. They will have questions. They are scared. So, are we, but this is your moment. This is the time for you to be the bold and courageous leader that the president is not.
So, take a moment to gather your own emotions before logging into your remote-learning platform or stepping into your classroom and making eye contact with your students. Take a deep breath, cry, scream if you have to, but ground yourself first, and then, as Vice President, Mike Pence, said, “Let’s get back to work.”
Keep in mind that he said this after escaping a besieged Senate chamber where he, lawmakers and their staff in ran in fear for their lives, only to return to that very chamber hours later to preside over the certification of the election results. These election results were what his partner, President Trump, wished to stop. He tried to stop democracy, but the Vice President and Senators from both parties would not let that happen. Just after 3am that morning they certified Joe Biden as the legitimate winner of the election.
Does that mean teaching will be business as usual? No. When is it ever business as usual. Is that even a thing any more? Does that mean that academic lessons must continue? Maybe. Maybe not. Observe your students’ behavior and then trust your own judgement. Should you talk about these events? Perhaps you should discuss the current events with your students, or maybe that’s too much for them right now. Listen to your intuition. You know what to do.
Yes. This is hard. It may not be what you think you signed up for when you decided to go into teaching, but like the Capitol Hill Police who protected members of congress from the angry mob, like those lawmakers who got back to work in both the Senate and House, hours after the Capitol building was overrun, teachers are guardians of this democracy’s future.
Your students may be our next lawmakers. Some teacher is right now teaching our future president. Your students will some day either choose to join the mob, or become Capitol Hill Police Officers, who protect the democratic process, health care workers who care for COVID patients, scientists who create a vaccine, reporters who truthfully report the results of our elections, soldiers who fight for our freedom or teachers like you.
Whether they trample on our Constitution, like Donald Trump does or defend it like Mike Pence did depends on our example. Today is less about what you do or say as a teacher than about who you are. Let’s get back to work.