But, It’s not on the Curriculum: Mentoring to Support Controversial Topics

The Setting: A first year teacher and mentor meeting during a planning period. The mentor was in to observe earlier in the week, and is back to debrief. It’s late in the year and while the teacher started off with some significant challenges, they’ve improved substantially as the year progressed.

Novice Teacher: Hi thanks for coming. I know we planned to talk about the lesson you observed 3rd period on Tuesday, but I feel like I have to talk about Charleston in class, I can’t figure out what to do about it. All these different race related issues keep coming up and I just don’t know how to bring them up in class.

I want to talk about Charleston and I want to talk about Baltimore. I care about my students and I want them to understand how current events are informed by history. That’s our whole course theme, how events of the past inform current events, but I just don’t know how to do it.

Mentor: We can definitely talk about this. Thanks for letting me know it’s been on your mind. What makes these events hard to bring up in class?

Novice Teacher: I just don’t know how to have this kind of conversation with the kids. It’s hard to talk about this stuff and I don’t just want to pay lip service to it.

Mentor: What might happen if you bring it up?

Novice: Things could get totally out of hand. I don’t want my students calling each other racist. I don’t want them calling me racist! The last thing I need is a parent complaining about my class. What would the principal think if he heard that I’m talking about Charleston instead of teaching the curriculum?

This is a very reasonable concern. Teacher education programs do not spend a lot of time helping pre-service teachers handle controversial issues in class. In some cases the new teacher may have been explicitly instructed to shy away from controversial issues for a variety of reasons: parent concerns, sticking to the curriculum, or the importance of preparing students for their exams. Additionally, teachers don’t want their students to be upset, so it can appear easier to just not bring up hard conversations. A new teacher may also fear for their job security as new teachers are regularly hired on one-year contracts. It can make a lot of sense to keep your head down and just teach the curriculum, but this teacher is having a bit of an identity crisis about that.

In most classes it’s reasonable to expect some controversy, however. Controversial issues can take many forms regardless of the content area, so  it would make sense for the mentor to attempt some connection to areas where the teacher is already working with controversy, and then build a bridge to the new topic.

Mentor: This can be a pretty controversial issue. Do other controversial issues come up in class, and how do you handle those situations?

Novice: Sometimes, like when we cover the Civil Rights Movement. This is different though.

Mentor: What makes this different?

Novice:  It’s one thing when it’s history. The Civil Rights Movement is academic to most of my students. They don’t really feel it, but you can’t just dismiss the church shooting in Charleston as a product of a different time. That happened this week. That’s a lot harder than saying “those old white guys in the south used to be racist, but we have a black president now.” It’s more emotional to talk about current issues. The conversation could get really heated with some of my students and I don’t want them getting out of control.

Conversations about race can definitely get heated and the teacher is reasonable to be concerned, especially if this is their first time bringing the topic to their students. It is also possible that the new teacher does not have many techniques for diffusing difficult situations. The mentor would do well here to reassure the teacher that there are ways to structure class discussion to discourage outburst and keep the conversation measured. There is still more work for the mentor to do before they plan the actual lesson though. The teacher still needs to come to the conclusion that they will bring the topic to the class.

Mentor: What might your students think if you don’t bring these issues up?

Novice: What do you mean?

Mentor: Right now it seems like you have two options. Take some time to discuss Charleston. Or don’t discuss it and keep going with the lessons you have planned. You’ve talked about your concerns with bringing the shooting into your class, what are your concerns about not addressing those topics?

The mentor here changes tactic. It’s very easy for the teacher to imagine their situation going awry from something they did, in this case bringing up issues of race and race-based violence. The teacher imagines that if they do this thing, then it will get out of hand, and they might lose their job. Better to not rock the boat and keep their head down.

When the mentor switches to the other side of the equation by asking “what might your students think if you DON’T bring these issues up?” This is a key benefit to the mentoring relationship, the mentor’s prompting can help the teacher imagine a set of circumstances that they would be unable to imagine on their own. The teacher is now forced to reflect on what happens if they maintain the status quo, something that is easy to ignore without the mentor.

Novice: I’d feel like I’m ignoring important current events. That I’m acting like it didn’t happen.

Mentor: What’s wrong with that?

Novice: That’s like saying it doesn’t matter, but it does matter. Our whole district mission is to prepare students for college, career, and life. And the life part is pretty important. In social studies I want students to be able to read the newspaper, or watch the news and understand what’s going on. Not just by understanding the news itself, but everything else that goes into it. Potential biases, the importance of using multiple sources, and the long historical context that makes current events happen. They need to know that Charleston wasn’t an isolated event. There’s history here. They need to know the history of the 16th Street Baptist Church. They should know that Alberta Williams King was killed while playing the organ at church. There’s a deep history of racism that connects all these events. I mean, what’s the point of history if we don’t connect it to modern issues?

The mentor’s change in approach shifts the conversation dramatically. Now the teacher’s sense of self, and their purpose for teaching are potentially on the line. This is a critical point in a new teacher’s development. In order to be effective in the highly autonomous role of classroom teacher, a teacher must have a sense of identity. Your sense of identity and your values are what you fall back on in difficult situations. When you have to improvise, you do so based on your core values. Thus it is essential that a teacher develops a set of values they can rely on. This teacher clearly values her student’s ability to make sense of current events in a historical context.

Mentor: What is the point?

Novice: There isn’t any.

Mentor: So what are you going to do about it?

At this point it’s a safe bet that the teacher and mentor have come to an agreement that the teacher will be bringing up Charlestown in class. The teacher now likely needs more practical support alongside the previous emotional support the mentor provided. It would make sense for the mentor to work on co-planning the lesson the novice will teach. This could take a number of forms including advice on facilitating challenging conversations, setting discussion norms, and roleplaying particularly difficult situations. It would also be wise for the mentor to encourage the teacher to inform her principal about the class, and possibly even invite the principal in. A possible lesson could include generating students’ questions, providing the students with a few sources on the topic, a mini-lecture on the historical context of racial violence in the U.S., and a discussion about current issues. (Each of these could be done by devoting a couple days to the topic.) The specifics of a lesson would depend greatly on the students’ age, the course, and the students prior knowledge and lived experience with race and racial violence.

Throughout this mentoring conversations it is important to note that the mentor is not dictating what the novice teacher should or should not do. It is not a mentor’s place to create a carbon copy of the mentor’s teaching style, moreover, they are helping the novice create their own identity. The teacher led with their desire to bring up the topic, but wanted guidance on how to make it work. This means that it is essential for the novice teacher to come to her own conclusion about how to address the topic. Once the decision is made, the mentor works to support that choice.

There are issues like Charleston every single year. They are not always as tragic, but there will always be an event that occurs in the world that is off the curriculum. Controversial issues come up in every classroom. It is essential that we find time to help students discuss and process how they experience the world around them. My previous district’s mission was explicitly to prepare students for “success in college career and life.” The Boston Public Schools have the same essential statement. The Los Angeles Unified School District claims their mission is to “educate all students to their maximum potential.” These mission statements require that teachers go beyond the curriculum.

Teachers must be flexible to respond to their students needs and interests, yet this can be challenging for a novice teacher who needs more skills to be effective. With a mentor’s support, guidance, and perspective a novice teacher can take on challenges they would not otherwise take on. The mentor accelerates the novice teacher’s growth.

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