The Neutral Lives of Teachers

I teach at a school that once was a church, and the steeple still resides atop the elementary school building. Most of the students I teach identify as Christian or Catholic. So far as I am aware, there is not a single Muslim student in our school. Based on what my students have disclosed in class, they have never met or regularly interacted with someone of the Islamic faith. Most of what they know about Muslims they have heard on TV or seen on social media.

Lately the media has abounded with hateful, degrading, and dehumanizing comments toward people of the Islamic faith community. After a certain politician took degrading comments about Muslims to a new level last week, I decided to tell my students that regardless of religious beliefs, we owe every faith and non-faith tradition the respect that we would expect to have from them. I gave my kids the option of sharing a letter on social media to tell Muslims that they have value, they are beautiful, and they have a place at our table. I myself wrote a letter which—although I stand by the overall message—I will not repost here as I wrote it quickly in class while keeping one eye on my working students, and thus did not polish my words to communicate everything exactly right.

After posting a picture of my letter, a (former) Facebook friend commented that I should not “indoctrinate” my students with my own personal opinions. And, although I generally do not take teaching advice from people who have never taught, I thought seriously about his position on the issue. Should teachers reserve their opinions in the classroom at all times? Does taking a stance in front of my kids inherently push my values onto them? Are educators expected to remain neutral in the professional setting of their classroom? Indeed, a poster above my desk says, “The best teachers are those who show you where to look but don’t tell you what to see” (Alexandra Trenfor).

I spend a lot of time teaching my kids where to look. If I had to guess, I would say that I spend more time than the average teacher talking about how to critically analyze the messages my students see every day. That is no dig to other teachers; if anything, it is a dig at a government that has consistently placed high stakes testing over the ability to actually think. I have an advantage by teaching an elective that focuses on the vague principle of “postsecondary preparation.”

I believe a large part of postsecondary preparation is having the skills to critically analyze media messages. Many college courses are student-driven discussions based on readings, and I believe that I am preparing my students for college by teaching them to critically read about current events. I just wrapped up a unit with my students where we studied the basic principle that (1) all media messages are constructed (2) using a specific language (3) with an embedded set of values and (4) are typically seeking profit or power. We talked about the myth of “unbiased news” and spent a lot of time reading, writing, and debating the messages we observed. Who is giving us this message? What message are they giving us? Why? And, ultimately, do we accept it or not, and why?

One of the best lessons my kids have taught me in the last three years is that you have to earn a relationship with someone; your age, expertise, or authority do not excuse your need to know someone before you start trying to teach them something. One of Maya Angelou’s many pieces of wisdom was that “people don’t care how much you know until they know how much you care.” Thus, my kids have learned to not take any message at face value. It doesn’t matter if they like the person saying something: what are they saying, and do I agree with it?

As their teacher, although many of them seem to like me (fingers crossed), my position doesn’t make my words gospel to them. I know they feel comfortable disagreeing with me, because they do it all the time. And I don’t mean in petty arguments about their behavior; I mean in the real issues that drive at the heart of what it means to be human in 2015. I have deeper and more respectful conversations with my students about political issues than 99% of Facebook is having right now.

I would hate to leave the classroom someday and have my students wonder who I really was. I like to think that they are getting all of me, not some paid pawn reading from a script. I am a fan of NPR’s Secret Lives of Teachers segment, but in my classroom, there is no secret life of Mr. Taylor. I am the same to them as I am to my friends. We argue about rap, I use my trademark self-deprecating humor, and I occasionally share an opinion about topical issues. On my birthday this past Monday, one said, “So you’re 25. No wife. No kids. No prospects.” This is indicative of how much they know me, and how sad my life sometimes seems to them.

I think more of us should recognize the distinction between telling people what we think and telling people what to think. In telling people what we think, we trust them with part of who we are, the experiences and environmental conditions that led us to believe something about the world, ourselves, and others. Conversely, in telling people what to think, we insult them by forcing our own experiences onto them and expecting them to fall in line with us.

If I could destroy one cliché, it would be “because I said so.” It implies that authority supersedes a relationship. It says that your power outweighs all other considerations. It says that an adult’s words are good enough evidence, when we live in a world where adults often abuse, mistreat, and otherwise disregard the feelings of children.

Instead, I tell my kids what I think and why I think it, and then I let them, as fully functioning humans, determine if it is true for them or not. They don’t absorb my words as facts; they have more critical eyes than all of the conservatives and liberals who read the same news sources every day and repeat what they’re told.

I also wonder what effect it has on kids to put them in front of eight adults a day and expect those adults to never share personal opinions. Take a look at your social media, your last family gathering, or the last time you were in the break room and Donald Trump was brought up. Did everyone stay neutral? Did everyone sidestep the conversation and reserve their personal opinions? I highly doubt it. And if in most cases adults do not maintain neutrality amongst their peers, what kind of false reality are we building for our kids when eight times a day they interact with adults who don’t seem to think anything about anything?

I would rather my kids know where I stand on certain issues and strongly disagree with me than assume that adults mostly feel nothing about critical issues. I would rather they know that the world is not a neutral place, and they need to know how to disagree with people and still maintain relationships. The person who posted on my letter has never actually hung out with me one-on-one, or spent any time in the last four years with me, so I felt compelled to remove him from my Facebook (and essentially, my life), and move on. I don’t want to teach my kids that eliminating friends with different viewpoints is how life works, nor is imposing viewpoints on people when there is no relationship present.

When it comes to neutrality, I think teachers need to do two things. The first is to teach kids how to think, because without teaching them how to think they will never truly be prepared for the realities ahead of them.

The second is to teach them, by example, how to be human. More often than not, when my students have class debates and discussions, I step out of the way and allow them to learn the ins and outs of forming opinions and having respectful conversations. I don’t share my opinion, because I don’t want to be the loudest one in the room. It’s a good way for everyone to try to live.

But every once in awhile, when the world seems to be going awry, and not enough people are speaking up for Muslims, or women, or people of color, or children, I open my mouth and I speak from the heart. And my heart, more than my brain, more than my opinions, more than anything else, is what defines me as a teacher and a person. I would rather be wrong in front of my kids a million times than not speak my mind to them even once.

4 thoughts on “The Neutral Lives of Teachers

  1. briannalozito December 17, 2015 / 2:03 am

    This is exactly what every teacher should be doing! I struggled a lot last year with how to frame conversations with my students around Ferguson because I wasn’t sure they were old enough, mature enough, or ready for those deep conversations. I did not feel like it was my place to step in and share my thoughts, but in reality I was the one who needed to be coming from a place of vulnerability and honesty, and speaking up for those who couldn’t represent themselves. Sometimes I feel like our duty as educators is to step back and acknowledge that our students are people to. People who are going to vote, raise families, start careers, and who need to understand that they do not become civic minded at 18, we can have adult conversations with them especially when the adults who “represent them” are trying to say and do ridiculous things that will directly affect their lives. Keep up the amazing work Ben, I’m so proud of all you do!

  2. Sandy Yokeley December 17, 2015 / 4:35 am

    As always, I’m impressed with your wisdom and how beautifully you write! Your students are truly blessed to call you teacher.

  3. Libby Brooks December 17, 2015 / 11:43 am

    Keep up sharing your love for teaching. Honesty with your students is such a great value to them.

  4. mrslmartini December 24, 2015 / 5:32 am

    I love that you share honesty and humanity with your students. They deserve it, and so do you. When we talk to eachother from a place of acceptance we are greater – together.

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