The Diabolical Art of Ostriching

“I don’t want my class to be political.” “I’m not comfortable sharing my views with my students.” “We’re here to learn a language, not take a civics lesson.”

Ostriches stick their heads in the ground. Educators do not have the same ability (literally or figuratively, I would imagine).

These types of statements show up a lot, in my experience, at two times:

  1. During PD designed to explain that the teaching of language and culture is political by nature
  2. Immediately following major events in the target or students’ culture

Now, one would hope that someone coming to PD with a clearly publicized anti-racist, anti-colonialist, or inclusive theme would be ready to engage with their own biases and those of their students, but… well, stranger things have happened. I see a ton of pushback (and proclamations such as those above) after catastrophes.

I kindly, respectfully and lovingly call BS.

The act of being able to ignore the myriad ways in which race and culture intersect–and have impacted and been impacted for hundreds of years–is the very pinnacle of privilege. Going about our lives not seeing things through the lens of inequality means that we’re not touched by it.

When we as educators ignore “unpleasantness” in favor of superficial glances at bland cultural elements, a few things happen. At best, we cheat our students out of the ability to think critically. We deprive them of the opportunity to encounter and process cultural differences and their own reactions in a healthy way. This is a skill that they will desperately need in order to engage fruitfully with people who are different from them, and we have the power to give them a safe place to practice it.

Now we’ve covered the best case scenario: our students leave our class relatively well-adjusted but not particularly enriched. They haven’t really gained any significant critical thinking skills, they’re not any better at regulating their emotions, they might not understand that different doesn’t equal bad. They’re okay, but they don’t have words to describe how their own experiences shape the way they view the world.

The worst case scenario is much, much worse. Our students are disenfranchised. They leave our classes believing even more deeply that they will never fit anywhere. They don’t see themselves reflected in any part of our course of study, and they come to understand that another culture doesn’t have a space for them because they are somehow wrong and flawed. They live in fear of their classmates because they have no assurances that they won’t be bullied or ostracized for their differences; their classmates have no skills to engage with them in a healthy way, because they haven’t learned those skills from us. They are queer, they are BIPOC, they are heritage learners who speak the “wrong” version of the language and they come to understand that it makes them less worthy of respect. They are speakers of the “wrong” kind of English so the grammar rules of a new language don’t make sense to them. They are poor, so they fail to see the value in learning about a bunch of rich people who live in a first-world country and can buy fresh food every day. Parts of their lives that make them uncomfortable or ashamed are not reframed as perfectly okay, because they’re not presented at all.

Let me be clear: that is what we are doing to any student who is outside of the mold of “normal” in any way. In case you’re counting, that’s every student. Some of them might be able to squash part of themselves down and learn anyway, but that’s neither helpful to them nor a credit to us.

When we ignore diversity in favor of white-or-white-passing-straight-cisgender-Christian-upper-middle-class-able-bodied nuclear family with a mom and a dad and 2.6 kids and a dog and a white picket fence, we do damage. Every single time.

We also do damage when we ignore the range of emotional responses that all humans are bound to have in the face of a disaster. (Insert any of the following for “disaster”: terrorist attack, global pandemic, genocide, coup, hate crime, natural disaster, or injustice done to a person or group of people.) I know it’s hard to be the place where students process their feelings while their other teachers and coaches might ignore the reality–I get it. I’m not saying it’s fair or easy. But we are not being effective educators if we pretend. We owe it to our students to help them process and place things in context and come to terms with difficult truths about the world, even when we’re tired and overwhelmed.

“I’m not a therapist.” No one is asking you to be a therapist. The idea that only trained mental health professionals are responsible for a student’s state of mind is preposterous. Would you ignore a kid with a sprained thumb and tell them to write an essay anyway? Would you let them move to a different seat when they forgot their glasses? So don’t pretend that their mental health has nothing to do with their ability to be the best they can be in your class.

“I don’t want to make anyone uncomfortable.” I went to an amazing PD run by a woman who is the mother of a trans child. She explained that there is a difference between feeling uncomfortable and feeling unsafe. Parents and students are often uncomfortable with the new and different. But they are rarely made unsafe. However, a trans student whose classmates do not have the skills to interact with them is unsafe. Education is the best antidote to ignorance, and ignorance begets persecution. Make your students uncomfortable so you can keep your students safe.

“I don’t have it in me to talk about this right now.” I totally get it, friend. Self-care is important, and sometimes things are too raw or hit too close to home for us to be able to keep our cool in front of a class of students. What do we do when we can’t talk about it? We wait until we can, we tell our students so, and then we COME BACK TO IT. Or maybe we approach it from a different perspective that’s slightly more analytical so we can get some distance with an intellectual lens. But we don’t run. We don’t ignore it. We can do hard things.

Make no mistake: this is not an easy task. But it is necessary. I and so many other wonderful educators are here to help you reframe problems into challenges, nix your problematic resources for better choices, and send the message to your students that different is wonderful. Let us know how we can support you.

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