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An Ally for Sara – Using Positionality and Teacher Identity to Support Students

My principal came into my classroom during a planning period. While not unheard of, this was pretty rare. She usually skipped past empty classrooms during her walkthroughs.

Typically I could count on my principal’s consistent smile and energy, so when she came into the room with a demeanor of quiet seriousness I knew something  was amiss.

“Sara wants you to be at this meeting we’re having with her parents tomorrow, are you available?”

Innocently, I responded: “Sure, what’s the situation? Why me?” Sara was a reasonably strong student, if a bit goofy in class. She was at an awkward phase (as if any 6th graders aren’t) and she was moving between friend groups so there were a few social concerns. That said, there were never any major issues in class so I figured any sort of parent meeting would be fairly innocuous. I didn’t think I’d established a particularly close connection with Sara so I was surprised that she would ask me to be at a meeting that wasn’t specifically related to my class.

“Well…” my principal hesitated, looking a bit uncomfortable.

This was completely out of character. Just the year before this principal had stared down a student with a handgun while six months pregnant, successfully getting him to hand her the weapon. “There was an issue with another student drawing swastikas on Sara’s notebook. She’d like you to be there when we talk about it because she says you’ll understand.”

Things started to click into place. We’d been studying the Holocaust by reading Daniel’s Story in our social studies class as part of a larger unit on World War II and Sara was one of very few students who proactively identified as being Jewish. When starting the unit we made sure to contact parents and notify other 6th grade teachers because the topic was emotional. As expected, there’d been some parent and student questions about Judaism, Nazis, and anti-Semitism in my class and others, but nothing out of the ordinary by my colleagues’ accounts. This was clearly more serious.

I also started to get a sense of why Sara would say that I’d understand.

 

My Identity Matters When I Teach

That was my first year of full-time teaching and I had four sections of 6th grade social studies. We had a big unit on 20th century Europe focused on the two World Wars and when we started the shift in topic from World War II as a political conflict into specifically studying the Holocaust as a genocide I took a moment to acknowledge that students may get uncomfortable.

Genocide and The Holocaust are uncomfortable even in an abstract sense and I feel strongly that studying genocide, and other forms of oppression like slavery or racism, should handled with respect to students’ age, but can not be sugar coated. We owe our students the truth when we study painful subjects. As such, I had no intention of sanitizing the Holocaust and I let the students know that we would be examining uncomfortable materials including stories and pictures. I told them that is was reasonable to feel discomfort and that they would have opportunities to examine what made them feel uncomfortable. Think of it as a trigger warning before the term came into fashion.

I also told the students about my Jewish ancestry and acknowledged that studying the Holocaust made me uncomfortable every time even though I’d done it before.

It’s also important to clarify that my Jewish ancestry is not obvious to an external observer. I don’t wear a yarmulke or a Star of David around my neck. I haven’t been Bar Mitzvahed and I’m not a regular at the Synagogue. In fact my last trip to temple was for my cousin’s Bat Mitzvah.

I’m the child of an Belarusian, Jewish, mother and an Irish/Scottish, Catholic, father. My last name is McCormick, and with the name for context, I look like I stepped right off the Emerald Isle. The Belarusian genes are more subtle without the Kabakov for context. Essentially, I came out to my students in a small way. I positioned myself for them and gave context for the seriousness with which I planned to take discussions of the Holocaust as related to my identity.

 

It Didn’t Seem Like a Big Deal

I didn’t really plan to tell my students about my background ahead of time. I didn’t write a speech or even play it through in my head. It just seemed like a good idea. I knew I had a couple Jewish students and probably a couple like me who weren’t obviously Jewish. I said it once and didn’t really make a bit deal about it in any sort of ongoing way. I figured f I could teach this stuff, even though it’s painful, then they could learn it alongside me. I didn’t think it would matter outside the classroom.

Sharing my identity in this way worked beyond my expectations. It worked well enough that when a student scrawled a handful of crude swastikas on Sara’s notebook during lunch, she asked for me for moral support. I was the first ally she thought of.

The parent/principal meeting went smoothly. To date that middle school principal is still the best boss I’ve ever worked for. She handled the situation with gravity and compassion without ever letting up on her deep sense of respect for everyone involved. She listened to Sara with the utmost respect with no attempt to downplay Sara’s pain.

The student responsible for the swastikas was treated appropriately for an eleven year old who didn’t really understand the seriousness of his actions. There was no radicalized Neo-Nazi or White Supremacist agenda. He learned the seriousness of his actions and the reason for their unacceptability. All of us were able to move on without further incident.

In the meeting I didn’t do a whole lot. I ended up pretty much just being there for moral support for Sara. The principal handled the whole thing and I learned a lot about mediation. The key was that Sara had an ally. Someone to corroborate her pain. Every time she described how hurt she was she would look at me and say: “you get it right? I mean, you’re Jewish too.” She could confirm that her feelings were justifiable by checking them against my feelings. No one could tell her that it wasn’t a big deal of a teacher agreed with her.

My small act of revealing my Jewish ancestry was just that. A small act. A small risk to share something that was previously invisible. That small risk on my part helped Sara feel more comfortable in class and established a powerful level of trust . I didn’t even know how important that revelation was to Sara until we had the incident with the swastikas because Sara didn’t need to rely on me before that.

Sara told me later in that year that as soon as we started the World War II unit she was worried about studying the Holocaust. She was worried that she wouldn’t be able to handle it, that she would be too upset to stay in class. When I told her I was Jewish that helped her feel confident that I would handle the subject with sensitivity and propriety. (I’m paraphrasing a bit here from 6th grade speaking patterns.) Throughout the unit Sara did have some issues and even had a few nightmares about Nazis coming for her. Each time it happened either she, or her parents let me know and we gave her the option to sit out the class. She only took that option once and she stuck through some of the more emotionally challenging lessons that had some other students feeling overwhelmed.

 

Beyond Sara:

When I shared my Jewish heritage with my class I couldn’t predict that it would become so immediately important for one of my students. I couldn’t predict that another student would leverage Sara’s Judaism against her leaving her desperate for an ally. I shared anyway, without a specific plan or strategy.

There are numerous other times when I’ve shared other aspects of my identity and in most of the cases I wasn’t sure which students would latch on to which aspects of my identity. Will any of my students care that I lived in California? Who knows? Will any of my students care parents got divorced? I have no idea. That didn’t stop me from opening myself when the time felt right. I’ve absolutely mentioned my parents’ divorce when a student’s family situation is making it hard for them to stay focused in class. I think of it a lot like fishing with the philosophy that I could catch more fish by casting more lines into the stream. Without casting my lines of identity I stood a much lower chance of making connections with my students.

That said I am also mindful of when I cast which lines. Like any other professional, educators need to use the right tool for the right situation and the goal is not to share everything. In her excellent book on the power of vulnerability, Daring Greatly, Brené Brown draws a sharp distinction between effective vulnerability and over sharing. I am not a complete open book with my students and there are definitely pieces that I elect not to share and questions that I won’t answer. Students don’t get to hear about my relationship with my wife and they don’t get much about my sister. My general rule of thumb is to be as open as I hope my students to be. If I expect students to write about a challenging academic or social experience in our AVID class, I should be able to provide them with my own example. If I am unwilling to share about my biggest mistake in life I shouldn’t expect my students to be that open with me. As a general rule my AVID class got more than my history because of the content of the class itself.

Educators won’t always have such an obvious area of connection between themselves and a student that ties directly to curriculum. I didn’t plan that by revealing my Jewish ancestry that I would be able to help a student through a difficult experience. I just thought my students would be more attentive and respectful of my own emotions when we discussed a charged issue. I definitely made sure to mention my ancestry again when I taught the Holocaust for a second time.

I also never hope for students to experience harassment due to curricular connections, yet it happens. The country is seeing a rise of hate crimes and emboldened Neo-Nazi and white supremacist organizations since the presidential election that schools can’t ignore. Educators should expect this to continue as racist and hateful rhetoric become more common on the news and across the country. If sharing some of our identities as the adult in the room can help students feel safer in the classroom then we should do that. It is a small risk for the adult with explicit authority to open themselves when the reward could be protecting a vulnerable or targeted child.

If educators can’t prevent examples of hateful speech, graffiti, or actions from appearing in schools (and we have never been able to prevent this) we are responsible for addressing those issues head on. While I think the concept behind wearing safety pins is an admirable one, I think more concrete examples of solidarity will prove to be more effective over the long term. Authentic alliance requires authentic connection. If you as an educator can make an authentic connection to your students this will help them see you as an ally. When I told my classes about my Jewish heritage I immediately became an ally for Sara. I’ve had similar experiences by sharing that I speak Spanish, read comic books, and listen to hip hop along with countless other facets of my identity. I’ve made myself an ally for students battling with substance abuse, gang affiliation, and teenage parenthood. If anything I was shocked at how easily it happened when I allowed it.

As an educator I encourage you to make a strong human connection with your students. Allow them to see you as the full human you are – particularly if you think you can make a connection with a student, or group of students, who may feel isolated or targeted in your school community. This could look like my example with Sara where I connected an aspect of my identity to the curriculum. This could also be early in the school year when you are introducing yourself. You could also use it as a bridge when a student is experiencing difficulty in your class. There is no perfect way to open yourself to others. You’ll need to take a risk and put your line in the water. You won’t catch much otherwise.

In the wake of Alton Sterling and Philandro Castile’s murders this week, a friend reminded me that one of white allies’ primary roles is to “lessen the burden that people of color have for the education process around issues of justice.”

I don’t get to just wake up and choose to be an ally because it feels good to me. Allyship is “an active, consistent, and arduous practice of unlearning and re-evaluating, in which a person of privilege seeks to operate in solidarity with a marginalized group of people

Another friend of mine recently put out a request through Facebook for help in explaining privilege to a frustrated young white man who couldn’t see it.

I’m posting the request and my response here in the hope that my lived experience with privilege can help other straight white men think more critically about how systems of oppression function for us while oppressing others as well as our role in dismantling those systems.

The Request:

Good People of the Internet: A friend sent this to me. I don’t know the person who posted it, nor do I even know where to start. How would you respond?

“When I was a teenager… I wanted nothing more than to be seen. Now as an adult… who also happens to be white, male, straight, cis-gendered, religious and conservative… I want nothing more than to be invisible. People hate my kind because of some innate privilege I supposedly have. How is it not racist, sexist, or discriminatory to judge me based on the above mentioned features/characteristics? – Oh right, I remember, because we’ve always had “power” and for that reason – we’re incapable of having justified feelings of pain, suffering, frustration, being misunderstood. Right… Okay.

That’s a pretty twisted and inconsistent way of viewing the world if you ask me. How can you expect the “people in power” to be sympathetic toward your cause if you constantly paint our entire group as the source of your problems, if you consistently segregate us from the conversation because “white tears”…. because “mansplaining?” ………….. ARGH!!!! So tired of this.

You know if I really am someone with “privilege” I’d sure like to know where it is? Considering by today’s social standards I’m part of one of (if not the only) group(s) that it’s okay to be prejudiced toward? I sure would love some of this white wealth that I’m supposed to have too…

Go ahead though, keep making us the enemy, keep making an entire race, gender, sex…. the enemy. Thats done us all so much good in the past.”

My response:

All I can do here is speak my truth and relate my lived experience with these ideas. I could drop in research on identity development stages and all sorts of scholarly work, but I’m not sure that’s the place to begin, so I’ll just begin:

I hear you. I am also white, male, straight, cis-gendered and while my politics are pretty left and my religious identity is “complicated” I’d like to think you and I generally move through the world in similar ways.

It’s often challenging for me to negotiate the concept of white privilege while not always feeling particularly privileged as an individual. That’s the bummer right, just because us white people have societal power and wealth as a group, that doesn’t mean that I will experience that power and wealth as an individual. There are plenty of poor white people in this country. When I start thinking about systems and structures though, patterns emerge.

I think it’s normal to see my people represented positively in literature, on TV, and in history class.

I think it’s normal to buy a book for my little white cousin with characters that look like her.

I think it’s normal to make a point at work and have people seriously consider my opinions.

I can dress like Bernie Sanders and maintain my credibility.

I can skip shaving for a day or two and maintain my credibility.

When a white person does something undesirable I don’t have to worry that society will think that all white people are bad.

Some of those things shouldn’t be privileges. Those are experiences everyone should have, but it turns out they don’t.  Since I think those things are normal, it’s easy for me to miss how others don’t share my experience. I’m more aware of my own privilege thanks to incredibly helpful and dedicated white women, women of color, men of color, and students I’ve had the privilege to teach who all call me on my shit and help me see life from their perspective.

I had to learn to thank my wife when she called me out. (This was not easy. I promise.) You need to be willing to be wrong and willing to fix things when you fuck up.

If I love the people in my life who hold identities other than my own than I have to support them on their own terms. I need to trust them when they tell me they’re hurt, oppressed, or angry.  I still fuck up a lot and my relationships with various people I love are more important to me than my need to be right.

I don’t experience people telling me that I won’t do a good job because I’m white so I don’t know what it’s like to be told you can’t do a good job because you’re Black. I have to respect my Black friends’ truth on the matter.

I don’t experience people telling me that I’m untrustworthy because I’m heterosexual so I have to respect my homosexual friends’ truth on the matter.

I want to live in a world where each person can be treated as an individual and live their life the way they want to. We don’t live in that world yet because people that look like me set up structures to maintain systematic advantage over other people and I benefit from those structures whether I want to or not. It shows up in housing. It shows up in schools. It shows up with police.

I can feel guilty, but my guilt changes nothing. Feeling guilty is a passive act. Dismantling oppression requires ongoing action.

As trite as it may sound Peter Parker’s uncle Ben is correct: “with great power comes great responsibility.” This means that sometimes I do need to hold on to my feelings of guilt and suck it up. It also means that if I am going to engage in anti-racist work I have to do it for the betterment of people of color, as opposed to seeking credit for myself like I’m trying to earn the one woke white guy merit badge.

My own shift came from thinking about other people as individuals the way I wanted them to think about me. It’s as simple as the golden rule of treating others as you wish to be treated. I want to go through my life getting my identity affirmed therefore I should want that for other people as well and I should actively affirm others’ identities. In my lived experience the most anger comes from those who have experienced the most pain. The least I can do is believe what I’m hearing and work toward removing structures that cause pain.

The next step is to help other see the structures and systems that I can see to bring more allies to the cause.