Last week was a big one.
The 8th graders and I have been studying American Government since the beginning of the year. Usually this content comes in the Revolutions block when the 8th grade studies American History. But, this being an election year, I knew that I wanted my students to have that information before November 8th.
So, since the beginning of the year, we’ve engaged in a thorough study of the three branches of government, checks and balances, the electoral college and all of the other important elements of the American system. Students have been bringing election-related current events and it has been a huge topic of conversation since the end of last year.
So I knew the 8th graders were prepared to understand the intellectual underpinnings of the 2016 election.
But, as I watched the results come in Tuesday night, I worried that this election, and the compassion and understanding necessary to comprehend the results, would be beyond them.
Heck, that level of compassion and understanding was beyond me!
Wednesday morning, I knew that my students would feel disappointed and shaken. We had already had many conversations about how unique the 2016 election process had been. We watched debates of previous elections and found them to be dramatically different than this year’s debates. We discussed the biographies of the candidates and noted how dramatically different they were.
Throughout all of our conversations, I had been cautious to never share my own political leanings. After having a high school teacher who constantly expounded on his own political views, influencing young future voters, I’ve vowed to never use my influential position as a teacher to further my own agenda. My students asked again and again who I was voting for and though they eventually guessed my political leanings (Waldorf schools are not terribly diverse ideological communities) I never confirmed their suspicions.
As I watched the results roll in that night, I was filled with shock and concern for our country. And, as usual, my mind quickly turned to my students. As I thought about them, my own children and the implications of this election . . .
I felt overwhelmed by my own emotions.
I felt irresponsible and ashamed of the world that was being handed off to them.
I felt incapable of instilling them with confidence that the world is a good place.
These are things I know to be my job as their teacher and I had never before felt so incapable. As I went to bed Tuesday night, shortly after the news of our president-elect was announced, pushing aside tears and worry, I considered my options for the next day’s lesson.
Face it. Head on.
I could let the students come into the room and vent. They could share their reactions. They could discuss all of the things they heard as they watched the results with their parents the night before.
Perhaps this approach could help us to understand the situation better. We could discuss the electoral college and consider the complexities of doing away with this system. We could investigate and analyze all of the circumstances that brought us to this result. Maybe if we processed it we could get out all of the hard feelings and come out the other side with some renewed hope in what our new president-elect could do to benefit our country.
Since they were 8th graders, I thought my students might be able to handle this kind of discussion, and with some confident coaxing, we could end up feeling good at the end of the conversation. I would follow their lead, but know that I needed to strongly guide the conversation to end up at a reassuring place.
After considering this approach for a time, I decided that emotions were just too high to allow for this kind of discussion. I knew there would be students who felt so shaken they would feel uncomfortable showing that emotion. And, though I am usually a fan of allowing for difficult conversations and complex emotions, I worried that my own emotional state would be unable to manage, navigate and guide the conversation in a healthy way.
Go on. Life as usual.
Sometimes carrying on is just the right thing to do. In fact, I can’t tell you how many times my classroom has been my safe haven.
When life is topsy-turvy and emotions are running high, the classroom is a great place to be. The steady, reassuring environment of my classroom has seen me through a difficult divorce, the death of my father and family health crises. Children live so strongly in the moment, there is just no room for the confusing events of last night or the fearful wonderings about the future.
School, with its safe, consistent rhythm, is a comfortable place to be. At school, we can forget about all of the worries of the world and immerse ourselves in the joy of learning, in the moment, with our classmates.
If my students had been any younger, this would have been, without a doubt, the approach I would have taken. But, given the amount of time we had spent studying American government and learning about the election process, it didn’t feel right. It actually felt a bit disingenuous to ignore the results and their reactions.
What I did.
When it came down to it, I followed my intuition in the moment and it ended up being just the right thing.
Hillary Clinton was due to speak right when the students were arriving. I set up an overhead projector streaming the news commentary and as the students arrived they settled in and watched. By the time Hillary Clinton appeared, the entire class had arrived.
We watched her concession speech together in silence. Then, we knew that after a short break, President Obama was coming on to speak. We used the opportunity to go for a walk around the neighborhood. The students talked to each other as we walked, sharing their reactions to the news and what they thought would happen next. By the end of the walk, they were relating with each other like they always have — discussing teenage topics, laughing and enjoying each others’ company.
We came back to the classroom in time to watch Obama’s speech and observe, in action, the model that we learned George Washington created — the peaceful transfer of power. We saw that, even though we had questions, many adults had questions, and, we guessed, even our president had questions, President Obama talked about how our president-elect would be welcomed into the White House.
At the end of Obama’s speech, we turned off the broadcasting and I stood in front of them.
I looked at them full of the understanding that I was talking to the future.
I looked at them suddenly filled with hope and confidence that these were the people who would care for our world moving forward.
Though their education and daily care has been trustingly placed in my hands, I suddenly realized how willing I was to place my future in theirs.
I wasn’t sure what I was going to say, but I wanted to inspire them, fill them with hope and let them know that everything was going to be okay. I also wanted them to know how powerful they are.
I wanted the girls to know that though Hillary Clinton may not be the first woman president, one of them could be.
I wanted the boys to know that every day I see them stand up for what they believe to be true, and that they should continue to do so, because it really does matter.
I wanted all of them to know that they are powerful, important and they should not despair. I told them,
The difference between disappointment and despair is action.
As I spoke to them my voice shook with emotion. I worried that I was inappropriately showing my own biases and judgments. I worried that seeing their teacher so full of emotion would be unsettling and disconcerting. When I finished talking, my words felt woefully inadequate. The usually happily boisterous and social 8th graders were silent and intent.
We stood for our closing verse and I asked the students to speak it “with their whole hearts.”
May wisdom shine through me
May love glow in me
May strength penetrate me
That in me may arise
A helper for humanity
A servant of sacred things
Selfless and true.
In the following days, we just worked.
We dug in and got things done, working through our disappointment with action. Our American Revolutions block continued with the stories of the Battle of Yorktown and Benjamin Franklin. The students worked on their election projects. And on Monday the entire middle school went out for a service day and hike in our local park.
The day after the election I came to school and found an envelope on my desk. I opened it and this is what was inside.
This letter is just what I needed.
I feel so proud and hopeful being the teacher of these students. This work is such a blessing.
It was a hard, good week.