Recently, I encountered a student having a significant behavioural lapse. This, in itself, is not a new occurrence in my life as an educator because it occupies a large part of the instructional day. That is, teaching an unwritten curriculum(life learning). From my experience, a lot of time in between subjects is devoted to helping students develop better decision-making strategies and healthier social interactions.
The truth is, it was a normal day at school. Except that particular day’s events took deeper root in my mind because I still felt the need to write about them, even after time to process, several days later.
A lesson was rolling along with the usual interactions between students, teacher, and content when I had to slam the brakes on after a poisonous passing comment directed towards a student’s ethnic background by another. I had to ask if that was what I really heard? Yup, and I was filled with so much disappointment, but I could not let the emotion cloud such a teachable moment even though something emotional had been triggered in me. Something good had to be born from this, but what?
In brief, the student exhibited racist behaviour in their comment, and I called them out on it. Once their denial was dismantled, we got to the heart of the matter and why it was not ever appropriate or acceptable in our school or society. We concluded by mapping out some strategies to use that could repair some of the damage including apologizing and learning more about who their words had hurt. We also talked about what would happen if this behaviour was repeated.
This could never be more true than when it comes to dealing with students, their family, and the system we all function within. That student did not arrive with a racist mindset on their own. Did I mention that the student was only in grade 3? This is where my own form of personal incredulity kicked in. I could not believe what was happening in an otherwise well-balanced and kind group of learners.
How could racism exist in a child so young?
Let’s look at truth from the lens of education. Are teachers the conduits for imparting the most altruistic conciliation(s), and scientifically proven truths? That’s a whole lot of truths over 18 to 20 years of school from JK to BA many of which form the foundations for healthy societal interactions and good citizenship. The truth is, that truth has evolved in education. Despite the shadowy sides of the past, racism, sexism, and intolerance do not occupy such a prominent place on the colonial mantle.
Having grown up in Wyoming during the 1970s the “History” lessons could not have been more indicative of a racist bias to First Nations people. Fast forward 40 years and the steps towards acknowledgement, reconciliation, and resolution are finally beginning to be made. This could not have happened without awareness, education, and resistance to a past built on flawed truths.
Education is meaningless where racist behaviour is allowed to permeate the classroom, if even for a misinformed moment. How can we teach against the distorted truths held by our learners regardless of age?
Initially, I was taken back to witness this from an otherwise “good” kid. That being said, there had to be an immediately teachable moment in order to counter the bad social indoctrination that had already happened.
It is during moments like these that I am sure that all teachers feel like they are tasked with teaching generations of families, not just their children. The scary part for me, is that we work in a country where everyone generally gets along with each other. Yet, it continues to happen in this era of awareness and activism. Our schools are relatively safe spaces for all of our students. Our classrooms are indicative of multiple nationalities and backgrounds all learning alongside of one another without a fight breaking out because of some historical beef between ancient relatives.
A friend shared that ,”There is nothing good or righteous about throwing rocks(real ones or verbal put downs) at your neighbour while espousing how great a religion or culture are at the same time. It would be better that we focus on what we have in common so that we might build on the positives that can strengthen and unite us.” I love the simple and edifying nature of those words and I want to impart their wisdom to all of my students.
I know it takes time, strength, and community commitment to overcome when racism occurs. Teachers must become social agents of the truth in order to establish a foundation of trust first before mis-truths can be overcome. This starts by making sure that when racist behaviour shows up, it gets shown the door.
So our first truth can be; regardless of age, there is no room for hatred and rage.
Let’s start there.
All of this has me thinking about truth and all of its iterations. Could it be possible that one person’s truth ever truly matches that of another. Can we admit that there are relatively 7 billion versions of the truth in our world? Better yet, can we get along with this; never really knowing which version is absolute? What if there are many truths? Psst…there are.