Leading Courageous Conversations

October 13, 2016

This piece by Jane Ehrenfeld, Inspired Teaching’s Executive Director, appeared in Inspired Teaching’s October 2016 newsletter. 

In the first presidential debate, the moderator prefaced a segment on America’s direction by saying, “Let’s start by talking about race.” He elaborated, “The share of Americans who say race relations are bad in this country is the highest it’s been in decades… So how do you heal the divide?” The protests in Ferguson, prompted by the death of teenager Michael Brown over two years ago, continue to reverberate; meanwhile, recent shootings of African-Americans by police have provoked further protest in cities such as Charlotte and Tulsa. These issues occupy our national discourse. Educators simply cannot ignore their impact upon the lives of our students.

Leading courageous conversations about topics such as race, protest, and policing is no simple task – but it is essential. And for educators in diverse, urban school districts like Washington, DC, these topics are often unavoidable; students will prompt the discussion, whether the teacher has planned for it or not. Great teachers navigate these moments with grace. The principles of Student as Expert and Mutual Respect, two of the 5 Core Elements, guide Inspired Teachers.

Every individual brings into the classroom a unique body of experiences, perspectives, and personality traits. It is the responsibility of the Inspired Teacher to accept that expertise without judgment, and to build off it with respect. Connecting to students in this way not only strengthens relationships with the teacher – which studies have proven time and again are a key factor in student success – but it also enhances the learning experience. By relating lessons to the reality of students’ lives, learning takes on new meaning, extending beyond the bounds of the classroom walls.

When I was visiting the classroom of Inspired Teacher Michael Taylor, I saw a powerful example of this in action. Michael, a social studies teacher at McKinley Technology High School in DC, was leading a lesson on genocide. He broke his class into four groups tasked with advising President Obama on the situation in Darfur and advocating for a response. Students chose their groups based on their desired response: isolationism, advising other nations, joining a coalition, or going it alone. The students discussed how they would make their case.

I sat in on the group of isolationists. This conversation took place a year and a half ago, but due to the subject matter, it could have just as easily been today. A student brought up the topic of police shootings of African-Americans. He said, “I think this is genocide, happening in our own country, in our own communities. Why should we go intervene somewhere else when we haven’t even handled the forms of genocide happening in our own backyard?”

It was a provocative question. Some teachers may have chosen to shut down any ensuing conversation, fearing it would be too inflammatory – perhaps doubting their own ability to navigate the fraught emotions and complex realities behind the student’s claim. Instead, Michael chose to listen. He understood that the student was speaking from his own experience about a topic of great personal import. He honored and respected his students’ need to express themselves. Keeping the conversation within the confines of the topic at hand, Michael created a safe environment to explore and debate and learn.

Michael did not tell his students what to think, but he taught them how to think. Like all Inspired Teachers, he recognizes his role is not that of an information provider, but an Instigator of Thought™. We educators have a tremendous opportunity – and responsibility – to equip young people with the tools to approach the world, in the classroom and beyond, with empathy and thoughtfulness. Our students are eager to engage in these conversations. More importantly, they need a safe space to engage in these conversations. Inspired Teachers meet that need head-on.

The next time someone challenges you with a difficult question, listen. Leave open the space for a courageous conversation. Share this newsletter with friends and colleagues – there are great stories and resources within from our teachers, staff, and collaborators. To stay apprised of relevant topics in the news, subscribe to InspirED Reads. If there are any aspiring educators in your life, encourage them to apply to the Inspired Teacher Certification Program. Together, we hope to build a more empathetic world.

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