Yesterday I woke up and did my quick scroll through Facebook, just for some highlights. I haven't paid really close attention to what is happening in the world because, frankly, I just can't take it. I clicked on one of the links my friend and inspiration Julie Frame posted and ended up watching 10 minutes and 16 seconds of the most horrifying and tragic thing I have ever seen. I watched the video of Philandro Castile's murder. I have so much to say about this video, this world, this idea that it is ok to shoot Black people when they are driving a car with no brake lights. But I want to stay focused on the teaching aspects of all of this. After all...this is a teaching blog. And the implications for teachers are endless. Julie challenged her friends to say publicly that Black Lives Matter. Challenge ACCEPTED.
Here is the link to the NYTimes article on the shooting.
The video shows the entire thing as it happened. The police pull the car over and explain that the brake lights are out. The driver, Philandro Castile, was a black man from Minnesota. He told the officer that he had a firearm in the car. Within seconds, the police officer is unloading his gun into Mr. Castile's body...in front of the passengers...including his girlfriend and her young daughter. She is the person I want to talk about today. The little 4-year-old girl taken out of the car by the other officer is the reason for this blog post.
If the video of the event is too difficult to watch, watch it anyways. And stop right at the 1:10 mark. The officer has just been informed that Mr. Castile has a firearm on him. A legal one. Within seconds seven shots are fired and you can hear the officer yelling "Get the baby girl out of here!"
That baby girl may be in Minnesota, but she is MY student. She is YOUR student. She is ALL OF OUR students. While I will likely never meet her, I MUST know that she exists, as do countless other children that have seen and experienced things that no baby ever should. She is going to need teachers that understand that she has experienced unthinkable trauma and that her life will never be the same. I stopped the video for a few minutes when she was pulled from the car and just sat in disbelief. I imagined her as a 7th grader, sitting in my classroom, with a chip on her shoulder. I thought about what teachers will likely say about her. I thought about all of the kids I have had throughout my 20 years as a teacher. I can't count the number of times I have been frustrated with a student and then had to remember what my job really is...to teach them. And that doesn't just mean the curriculum. We get so caught up in teaching our curriculum that we forget to teach the kids. We forget that they may be acting out for a reason. We don't always think we have time to sit down and get to know them, or ask them how they are doing. But we must.
I've heard teachers complain about students more times than I can count. I've complained. We get sick of kids that talk back or refuse to do our work. We get exhausted by the kid that rolls their eyes at us, or questions our judgment when we make a decision. Why do some kids have a hard time conforming to some of our basic expectations? Because some of them are that baby girl.
What can we do when we know that a students is struggling in school? There is one simple answer...kids need to know that you care about them. They need to know their experiences and feelings matter. They need to know that they matter. Kids will do ABSOLUTELY ANYTHING for a teacher when they know you love them and when their voices are heard. We are in a situation right now where Black children are navigating a world the rest of us cannot understand. This is not a world where they feel safe and it is playing out in our schools every single day. They have to hear the argument about ALL lives matter, knowing that if that police officer had pulled over a white man with a gun, this never would have happened. This has to change how we teach. Of course ALL lives matter. It's such an ignorant retort to the message of the Black Lives Matter movement. We aren't experiencing a dramatic increase in violence against white motorists. White motorists aren't getting pulled over only to lose their lives. Black parents have to teach their children things that the rest of us have never considered.
Not only are African-American children more likely to be victims of violent crimes (at alarming rates) but they are also far more likely to have witnessed a murder. One study of seven-year-olds living in an inner-city showed that 75% of them had heard gun shots. I am 45-years-old. I have never heard a gun shot. I have never actually seen a handgun, other than one carried by a police officer. But 75% of little kids in the inner-city have seen or heard gunshots. This changes their lives, and requires that we, as teachers, pay attention.
Kids experiencing trauma like this will lose their sense of safety and trust. Kids that have seen or experienced violence are also far more likely to experience withdrawal, school issues, engage in high-risk behaviors, and display aggression. Of course they are. But there are things we can do as educators to support them. Kids falling behind in reading may not benefit from yet another reading intervention, but they might benefit from an opportunity to connect with an adult, or build a relationship that provides a safe space for them in their school. We have to do this. Test scores are only one measure of a student's abilities.
Teachers: Talk to your kids. Get to know them. Make sure they know you care about them as people. You'll be surprised to see what they can accomplish and become with the right schooling experience.
The little girl taken out of that car, telling her mom not to argue so she doesn't get shot too, is going to be in your class one day. And she is going to need a whole lotta love and a whole lotta patience and understanding.
Next time one of my seventh graders rolls their eyes at me (which makes me crazy) I am first going to seek to understand. It's not acceptable to roll your eyes or argue with a teacher, and it certainly isn't acceptable to fight at school or break the rules that exist for our safety. But sometimes, we can change behaviors...and lives...just by asking a few questions and letting them know that you care about them and will give them what they need. All the reading and math interventions in the world aren't going to turn kids into readers and mathematicians. Loving them, and letting them know you do....will.
To be clear, lots of children experience trauma, black, white or otherwise. And we have to reach out to all kids to find out how they are or what experiences have made them who they are today. But a lot of our Black children are in crisis right now. And for good reason. We have to change it. And I double down on Julie's challenge to say it publicly. BLACK LIVES MATTER.