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Published on October 16th, 2020 | by Candace Simpson

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Teach the Children: Life Lessons from My Most Beloved Teachers

My former coworker, Gabrielle Gayle, was a teacher, wife, and mother. She passed due to complications of the coronavirus, and I’m still angry and feeling very helpless in mourning her life. She was so smart and so welcoming. She showed me how to use the copy machine at our school and always had sweet things to say. Even before coffee.

I can’t stop thinking about all the teachers who are being made vulnerable due to capitalism’s refusal to see workers—especially Black workers—as human. We are entering into a very politically charged season where our elected officials will pander to their constituencies using teachers and students as bait.

Our people deserve more than that.

In honor of some of my most beloved teachers (who either were my personal teachers or coworkers), I want to share some lessons that are important, no matter what. Whether you’re a teacher, a parent, an organizer, a pastor, an artist, a grocery worker or a dentist, here are some lessons that translate across industries.

  1. People can’t learn when they’re scared.

On the first day of Freedom School some years back, we met a student who had never been to school or daycare before. This was her first time with other kids. Both Mama and Baby Girl were nervous, and there was so much noise in the fellowship hall that it was hard to say, “Hey, can we talk?” Except, our teaching guide and Deacon, lovingly called “MIZZ Zelma” spotted it. She was mindful enough to check in with Mama and Baby Girl. She assured them, “This is a fun space, you can meet new friends!” She took them both on a tour to see the space and to see the book corners. On this tour, they were able to establish a connection that made it easier for Mama and Baby Girl to take the risk of being away from each other for a few hours. People can’t learn when they’re scared. Education takes risk. You have to trust the people in your boat.

  1. Always make coffee.

When I started teaching at the United Methodist Women Seminar Program after seminary, my two colleagues, Jay Godfrey and Chantilly Mers, showed me all the ropes—including where the coffee was. I had not thought much about it because I’m a tea-drinker most days. I drink coffee when I need to be VERY ALIVE™. We hosted groups from all around the country to come and learn about various sociopolitical issues through a Christian, anti-oppression lens. I found in those years that the most intimate and vulnerable conversations happened at the coffee station. As people poured milk and sugar into their cups, they also checked in with each other.

“How’s the family?”

“Where did you find out about this organization?”

“I also grew up on a farm!”

“I watched Black Lightning. Did you catch it when they…?”

Small intimacies like these help us recognize each other’s humanity. Since we’ve been keeping our distance for our own safety and the safety of others’, we have to be creative about building such intimacies.

  1. Ask for feedback.

In every workshop she’s facilitated that I’ve ever been to, Shahara Jackson (who also happens to be my first-grade teacher) has had a feedback form for participants.

What resonated most with you about this workshop?

What are you still struggling with?

What could be done better?

I used to think this was a silly exercise. I naively believed you did a good job if the people were smiling. But this is an illusion. People don’t always feel empowered to tell the truth or give feedback. Offering a low-risk opportunity to reflect on their interactions with you is a good thing. Making yourself available to feedback is an act of trust. Offering thoughtful feedback is an act of generosity. And it fortifies our community. A leader who cannot hear feedback without getting defensive is a dangerous one.

  1. All rules aren’t ethical. Break them.

You’re technically not allowed to send snacks home from the cafeteria, but I know plenty of cafeteria workers who do it anyway. You’re technically not supposed to teach children how to analyze rap lyrics because it “won’t be on the test,” but I know plenty of teachers who do it anyway. You’re technically not supposed to let students organize against a school’s racist policies in your office, but I know administrators who do it anyway. Not every rule is worth following. At some point, we have to ask questions about the expectations given to us during professional development. Track students into leveled reading groups, why? Write them up for wearing the wrong tie, why? Mark them absent when they don’t have wi-fi to log into school, why? These teachers remind me of Shiphra and Puah, the Hebrew midwives who conspired to save Hebrew children under Pharaoh’s genocidal rule. Sometimes freedom requires telling the right lies.

Now that some schools are opening back up, we will inevitably see stories about “hero teachers” who braved the elements to teach children. In fact, we’ve already seen it. Our government and our school systems have a moral responsibility to minimize harm and death, even if they don’t want to accept it. As I reflect on some of my most life-changing teachers, I lament my looming feelings of heavy impossibility. What is the best way to take care of our children and their families in this season? What saves lives? What prioritizes the wellbeing of the most targeted? What can we do?

So, I think about my teachers—their words and their actions.

People can’t learn when they’re scared.

Always make coffee.

Ask for feedback.

All rules aren’t ethical—Break them.

Candace Simpson is an educator, minister and writer. She believes that Heaven is a Revolution that can happen right here on Earth. She invites others into that philosophy at www.fishsandwichheaven.com

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