While no one came out and told me not to do anything “controversial” my first year of teaching, they didn’t have to. It’s an unwritten (sometimes spoken) rule of being a new teacher. You just don’t take risks your first year. The tenure culture encourages new teachers to just get by and blend in. Some even say not to smile the first few weeks to show your “tough side”. Those who know me know that it’s an impossible feat for me not to smile within the first five minutes, nonetheless a few weeks. Regardless, I was dropped into the deep end of teaching, and it wouldn’t be long until my beliefs about teaching social justice would creep into the classroom.
During my first year of teaching, I found my fifth to eighth grade journal buried in a closet at my parent’s house. As a seventh grade English teacher, I was curious to see what my writing revealed. I wrote about some pretty typical stuff regarding social groups and self image, but weaved throughout I noticed a strand that I have now come to know as part of my identity and role as an educator. In a few entries, I wrote about the way people treat each other, how I felt disgusted and dirty inside when people were disrespectful. This entry was a prelude to my crowning as Class Queen in high school for the sole reason that I said hello to almost everyone in the hall instead of pretending I hadn’t just spent four years with them.
I believe in the power of empathy and the respect that comes along with that belief. It’s pretty obvious, in this day and age, that there are some things you just don’t say to people. You just don’t make racist or ethnic remarks, but remarks about homosexuality and the word retarded are much more common. These remarks are so common, in fact, our new president even slipped up in this realm.
I am a tried and true Obama supporter and I have only ever had one moment in which I have cringed at his words. In a recent appearance on Jay Leno, Obama alluded to a bowling performance as more of a Special Olympics performance. He was clearly mortified by his snafu, and we all make mistakes, but watching this made me have the same dirty feeling I have had on so many occasions when others have made comments that put down a group of people.
Obama’s mistake occurred during my fifth year of teaching, five years after I first began No Name Calling Week with my students. I have taught a specific lesson that addresses the word retarded as a word born of ignorance when used out of context. Hearing the President’s mistake especially hit home.
My involvement in No Name Calling Week began my first year of teaching when two colleagues suggested I read The Misfits with my students. This book by author James Howe was seen by others as a risky book to bring into the classroom because there is a gay 7th grade character. Even though it was my first year of teaching, I stuck with my gut, took the chance and I have now been reading this novel with my students for the past five years. I wanted to take this chance to allow my students to be just who they are (gay, straight or otherwise) and to let our class discussions naturally flow into the realm of empathy and society.
I believe in pushing the envelope in the classroom in a way that keeps kids honest about who they are and who they want to become. That first year of teaching, I ended up being true to my past and present self by bringing social justice into the classroom. It’s a constant struggle to address the way young people speak to each other, but at the end of the day I can look back to my journal from middle school and know that I am living my belief. This I believe.