Tough Conversations

Last spring, when we started our Project Based Awesome adventure, I was busy thinking about how to frame our ideas for people, how to make these concepts that Chris and I use to frame all our work around planning and teaching and assessing more understandable for others. But now that I’m back in the classroom, my greatest impulse each week is to write about something that’s happened -- or is happening -- in my room, with my students. And today I’m going to indulge that impulse.

Last week, I was gone for two days. When I came back on Monday, my substitute hadn’t left me a single word about how the two days had gone, so of course I asked the students (knowing that it’s always wise to take their version with a grain of salt). Naturally, they said things went fine, and they even admitted that perhaps they could have been more productive. It was a convincing account.

But after school on Monday, I learned that a student in one of my classes had “dropped the N-word.” I was stunned. Really? This is a word that a kid feels comfortable dropping into a casual conversation with their buddies? It’s hard for me to understand; it stretches the limits of my ability to put myself in others’ shoes. To be clear, the context in which the word had been used was not someone quoting hip hop lyrics, and it was not an African-American kid talking with their friends. We could have some debate about the merits of using the N-word in those contexts. No, this was a white kid, using the word with the hard-r ending.

The question became, what to do about this? Do I confront the student directly? Talk to administration about it? I hate confrontation, so I was getting anxious just considering the options. A teaching colleague and an administrator I talked to both said that I’d probably have to talk to this kid.

I stewed on it that afternoon, that night, and all through the next school day. The student in question was in my last class of the day. But by the time I’d made it to 6th period, I had decided to take a slightly different route: I talked to the entire class. I thought, if one student heard this kid use that word, then surely they weren’t the only person who heard it. And the other students in the class needed to know my stance on this issue. So I talked to the whole group.

I did not, obviously, identify the student who had used the slur. I just said that it had come to my attention that the N-word had been spoken in conversation while I was gone, and that that word was never okay to use (while I understand there are a lot of ways this word can be used, I feel confident that the way it had been used in my classroom was wildly inappropriate, and so I used strong terms to condemn it). I went on to say that a student who felt it was okay to use this word probably shouldn’t be in my class. I don’t know now if that was the right thing to say. And I finished by saying that if kids heard their peers using that word, they should confront them.

I watched some students’ faces as I talked to the class. Some registered complete surprise when I said that word had been used; most kids were fairly stone faced. I didn’t look at the student who had said the word, because I didn’t trust myself not to linger there and then out that person to the class. After I finished my speech, I awkwardly moved on to the lesson for the day. Boy, was that a hard transition. The rest of the class period felt a little off, somehow.

Last week on the podcast, Chris and I talked about beginning-of-the-year routines, and one of the things we touched on was why doing icebreakers and teambuilding in the first weeks of school can be so beneficial. You know what I didn’t do with this class in which the incident happened? Yeah. And here’s a prime example of why building positive classroom community and culture is so important.

Now, I’m not saying that a kid said the N-word in my class because I never did any icebreakers with them. However, I haven’t done the work to build an intentional community with these students, and so when difficult moments come up, they’re made that much more difficult.

If I’ve learned anything here, it’s this: that while teaching is wonderful and exciting, it is also devastating at times. And I still need to show up tomorrow, and the next day, and the next, ready to give them all the guidance I can about how not to suck at life, while giving them memorable learning experiences and teaching them how to think. It’s one of the hardest jobs there is. I’m gonna keep doing it.


Erin DickeyComment