Updated: Feb 22, 2021
There are many types of teachers, but only one way to teach…
In the fall of 2012, I sat in my seventh grade homeroom listening to the announcements as my students came in and unpacked. I was tightening up some visuals to use later in the day for my Spanish 2 class--simultaneously wishing the lesson would make any difference and accepting that it wouldn’t.
For my overwhelmingly Hispanic population of students, I’d committed to relevant and substantial content for their Spanish classes: Taking them across the street to unpack the heroic statue of Christopher Columbus then viewing a video on Día de la Raza; helping them perform a choral reading of La Muralla by Nicolás Guillén to surface unresolved racial tension within the Latinx diaspora; organizing and executing a simulation of the World Cup in the gym that brought together all language classes to compete and commune with chants, jerseys and full-on soccer play...
Yet each year I returned to segregated classrooms and instances of racial aggression. Like colleagues who told me not to visit my white counterparts at their homes so as not to lower their property value, and teachers who forbade students from wearing their hoodies to express grief and solidarity at the Trayvon Martin verdict that let an aggressive murderer go free. As I entered my 6th year of teaching, I was psychologically and emotionally bereft. And it had begun to show.
Just before the passing bell rang, Julio looked at me as I stared at my computer. He said softly, “Don’t worry señora Austin, we don’t want to be here either.”
That was the week I put in my notice.
It pained me to think I’d leave behind students I loved dearly who, in my experience, needed as much representation and legitimate protection as possible. But I had promised myself at the outset of my career that I would not become a part of the problem. I knew I was spent and that this was the right decision, but I have nonetheless carried the guilt of that decision for years.
Fast-forward to 2020 as I support my university students and work with my son in the era of “distance learning.” I revel in letting his questions meander into natural discoveries and am more heartened by my decision than ever. We engage in lessons around propaganda (he was perplexed by the uncomfortably happy Black woman on the syrup bottle) and the notion of property being more valuable than humanity (as his book on drones featured the desirable feature of identifying “illegal” immigrants for deportation).
He sees opportunities to learn in the banal, and, Spanish language lessons aside, a spark for creative instruction has engulfed my interactions with him. Coupled with Gov. Murphy’s announcement, I suppose that is a good thing. Still, upon learning that schools would not reopen this year, the first image that my mind conjured was Julio's.
With school doors closed, how many students might now spend their days in a loving environment that respects their culture, race and assets (which should have been the case all along)? How many teachers might have the iota of time they require to actually reflect upon whether this pandemic is creating an instructional difficulty, or revealing one? How much grace can we now grant ourselves in acknowledging that education is a big field with many roles that are not all meant to be “lifelong?”
I hope that at this point we all take the time to consider if our current roles fill our hearts in a way that benefits children, or if those children are seeing us as shells of hopes passed, enacting an empty pedagogy. Children know. They always know. And when we choose silent suffering over courageous change, we model complacency.
The good you have done will never be forgotten based on your decision to evolve in your practice or discipline. What will be remembered is the heartfelt contribution you made and its lasting impact.
One of the last advisory meetings I took before school closed was with an undergraduate student who was surprisingly a classmate of Julio’s. I couldn’t believe she had reached out, and at the site of her name my heart skipped. I knew I was on my last leg when I taught her, and I literally apologized at the outset of our meeting thinking of the many ways I had failed to “be my best” for her and her classmates.
To my surprise, all she remembered was my passion.
She cited activities and experiences, trips and conversations. I was floored and humbled. It forever changed the way I look at that “burnout” year of instruction and made me thankful that I was brave enough to walk away when I did. It was my last opportunity to teach passionately in that setting. Now I realize that my final gift to my students was to model self-love and steadfast hope by remaining an educator while transitioning my role in order to teach from my heart without martyring my very soul.
I appreciate teachers. Whether you teach in schools, in your home or from a computer, you are needed - with your heart and soul intact.