A decade ago, when new to the teaching profession, the real world interrupted the classroom with the murder of Trayvon Martin. The very next time we had class after his murder, I spent the entire day wrestling with what happened with all my classes.
It was a day well spent—where we discussed all the various circumstances surrounding the murder: racial profiling, racism, law-enforcement and the history of these. We also discussed what solutions were necessary and how young people could get involved to bring those solutions about.
I had similar days with the murders of others, including Mike Brown, Walter Scott, Freddie Gray, Eric Garner, Sandra Bland, and Philando Castile.
A decade later… after the supposed “reckoning” that came after the murders of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor… there’s Tyre Nichols, who was brutally murdered by five (Black) police officers. What was different was my approach to it with my students—or the lack thereof.
Our first day of classes after the video footage of his murder was released, I didn’t show it. I had showed previous murders of the above-mentioned individuals where there was footage, but this time, I didn’t. As I was teaching, I was asked by one of my students about the murder of Mr. Nichols. I took 90 seconds to share my thoughts with her and the room. Afterwards, I returned back to what we were doing… learning the seeds of the American Revolution.
We were engaged in a lesson about the Molasses Act of 1733 and how it was remixed into the Sugar Act of 1764, and with the British high court case Somerset vs Stewart, the colonies of the north and south were united in their desires for independence.
I explained to my students that the spirit of racial capitalism (settler colonialism and enslaving, both by the might of the gun) was at the heart of the country’s revolutionary spirit; that independence from Britain was about being free to be Britain all themselves.
Years ago, I would have shown the video and we would have had a discussion. But in that moment, I believed that what we were doing—discussing the formations of the country, helping to crystallize our current state—was more substantive than having a conversation absent an understanding of this country’s formations.
These conversations with students, exploring the impact and reasons for anti-Blackness and white supremacy, have their place in the context of reacting to current events. But over the years, I’ve come to recognize that many students are without the historical and theoretical foundation to enter these discussions from a place of insight and understanding, as oppose to sheer anger and frustration.
Don’t get me wrong, I am angry and frustrated. However, a knowledge of history provides a level of insight where folks can assess an event and follow that up with a prescription for resistance as a means of empowering themselves to participate in activism.
For me, the prescription for resistance involves educating young people. The more young people I can educate concerning the history of this country, the more individuals can navigate a society that is anti-Black, anti-poor, and pro-war.
This is the work that, in my case, will help young people navigate moments of injustice; whether police brutality or income inequality. It’s certainly an evolution I’ve made over a decade.
Despite our current climate against teaching an accurate portrayal of U.S. history, there are teachers who desire to have real discussions with their students about how history is rooted in tragedies like the murder of Mr. Nichols. I applaud those educators for their desire to do that. Our students need that for sure. There is certainly a time and place to do that.
But my advice to those educators, including my younger self, is to consider that classroom content (whether history, English, Math or science) has the ability to support young people’s navigation of our society as they see injustice happen in real time. But to activate the content to do that, teacher pedagogy must be in alignment. In other words, if your pedagogy isn’t informed by a desire to support young people in this way, the content can’t be what it can be for students.
The murder of Mr. Nichols will fade from the top of the news cycle and students will move onto the next thing. But your content will last throughout the year. Rather than simply discuss matters of injustice, reshape your pedagogical philosophy so that social justice is deeply rooted within your teacher praxis.
In other words, you have to live a life of justice to activate students.
You don’t have to be a history teacher to use your content to promote justice. It simply takes a pedagogical commitment to reframing your art of teaching, so that the fight for justice oozes out of every lesson plan; that your commitment to fighting injustice is seen in how you instruct young people; and the fruits of young people internalizing the need to be people of justice shines through the assessments that you give.
That is way more impactful than a one-off conversation.
I don’t cast aspersions on conversations that we have with young people on the issues discussed within the public square. It’s in those conversations that they teach us as we inform them. But if you’re failing to use your classroom content to critically engage young people with the injustices of society, that they may be triggered into action in advocacy, then you’re doing your students a disservice.
We must live the truth that instructing young people in an effort to empower them to strive for justice doesn’t just happen on days when injustice is the most egregious or the most jarring. Rather, seeking justice is an everyday thing that we must live out; whether it is calling out injustices that we see in society, or calling out injustices that we see in the cafeteria or at the school board meeting.
But that starts in the classroom on day one of the school year… not another day a Black man is killed by law-enforcement.