What should a local leader say during a national crisis?

Reflections of a local president on Jan. 6

On the afternoon of Jan. 6, I was in a meeting when my cellphone started exploding with texts and emails from colleagues and friends. After the meeting, I turned on the news, and, along with the rest of the world, was stunned by what I witnessed. I was speechless. I received calls from several close friends and family members, but couldn’t articulate anything beyond “What is happening?” and “How could this be happening?”

As an NJEA member and local president, I received statements from NJEA’s officers and the officers of the Bergen County Education Association. I published those statements on our association Facebook page and continued to stare at the news in disbelief. I tried to work out what I could possibly say to my high school history students in class the next day, but I kept coming up empty.

When another local president in a group text asked if any of us were planning on making statements to our members, I very quickly responded “No.” I could barely figure out how to process these events for myself, what could I possibly say to anyone else?

But the question stayed with me over the next day.  Should I be addressing these issues with my members? Do I have a responsibility, as a leader, to help members sort through their own feelings and figure out how to address these challenging times in their classrooms? Should we, as educators, be talking to each other about what is going on in our country, and helping each other find context? 

As I suppose it always does, a little bit of time started to bring some clarity. I spoke with fellow history teachers, and we shared resources and bounced ideas off of each other. I spoke to my classes on Thursday, and was, as I often am in the face of chaos, so impressed by their clear-headed thinking, the intelligent questions they asked, and their insight.

On that Thursday afternoon, I joined in the NJEA REAL Talk conversation about the insurrection. In our breakout session, we shared our feelings, our experiences in the classroom, and what we felt we could do moving forward. One colleague expressed distress that they hadn’t heard anything from their local leaders about the insurrection, which left me again wondering what my responsibility was in a time like this. (You can learn more about the NJEA REAL Movement at njea.org/real.)

I saw the tweets: “Imagine coming into school the day after 9/11 and not talking about terrorism because you’re a science teacher or a business teacher, and not a history teacher.” I knew how difficult it was for my history teacher colleagues to try and figure out what to say, how much more difficult would it be for members of other departments or at other grade levels? Could I possibly do something to make that easier?

And then I was struck by the incredibly important reminder from Fatimah Hayes that every person attacking the Capitol on Jan. 6 was once a student in someone’s classroom. And somewhere along the line, their education had failed them terribly. If there was something I could do to prevent failing Bergenfield’s students in the same way, no matter how small, I had to try.

So, on Thursday evening, I composed this letter to my members. I gathered resources I thought could be helpful to certified staff and educational support professional (ESP) members, for classrooms from kindergarten through 12th grade, and at all subject levels. I reached back out to my local presidents group text and let them know I had decided to make a statement. I shared it with them.

My hope is that my letter, and the accompanying resources, gave some people the courage to bring up a difficult topic in their classrooms that they might otherwise have tried to avoid. I hope it inspired conversations about democracy, the peaceful transfer of power, insurrection and white privilege. I hope that perhaps those who couldn’t quite find the words to address these issues in their classroom at least took some time to talk about it with their colleagues, friends or family members. I hoped they challenged themselves, the way I was forced to, by asking themselves what responsibility they hold, as an American citizen or resident, and as an educator. 

Dear BEA Family,

Like the rest of you, I had to face my students today, while still processing yesterday’s terrorist attack in D.C. I know it will take time for all of us, individually, and as a nation, to fully understand the consequences of yesterday’s events, but I wanted to share my initial thoughts, along with some resources I have compiled to help you address this attack with your students and colleagues. 

I had an opportunity to discuss the events, and what they mean to educators, with other NJEA members this afternoon, and something was said that is weighing very heavily on me.  “Each and every one of the participants was once a student sitting in someone’s classroom.”  Something went terribly wrong in those classrooms for these people to believe they were carrying out some sort of patriotic duty by violently disrupting our most sacred democratic process and breaching the security and sanctity of our Capitol building. 

We have an immense responsibility to our students, to ourselves, and to our country, to address this wrong, and to right it, inside of our classrooms.  I know that it is painful to think about, and difficult to process as adults, and the thought of addressing it with children can feel overwhelming and even impossible. But our students are watching us. Our students are watching our lawmakers and newscasters and political leaders, but they watch those people from a distance. They will look to their parents and educators for immediate comfort, reassurance and, most importantly, for an explanation. If we fail to address the severity of what happened, they will believe this was an acceptable form of protest, or, even worse, a normal part of our democratic process. The cornerstone of our republic is the rule of law, which will be lost if Americans do not fully understand the importance of a peaceful transference of power.  We have a responsibility to ensure that the next generation knows this and believes in their own responsibility to protect it. 

Choose your words carefully, because our students will be listening carefully, and they will hear what you say, and what you mean. But please know that if you choose silence, they will hear complicity. If we fail to address how systemic racism, white supremacy and antisemitism played a role, we will be guilty of telling half-truths out of our own fear of addressing a painful topic. I have found courage in this quote from Bayard Rustin: “To be afraid is to behave as if the truth were not true.” I hope that it will inspire you as well. 

I am thankful that our school district recognizes the educational importance of these difficult conversations, and I am looking forward to the productive work that will be done during our Martin Luther King Day Professional Development Workshops. The Equity in Education PD Committee has put together an incredibly strong collection of choices, and I know it will be a meaningful day for all of us. 

These events transcend grade level and subject area. I hope that in this collection of resources, you will find something of value; something that might help you process what happened, and help you broach the subject in an appropriate way with your students and colleagues:

Unpacking January 6th with Students:

   Google Slide – See, Think, Feel, Wonder (bit.ly/3aH8h6m)
   PBS Classroom Resources (to.pbs.org/3a14l1h)
   Timeline of Events & Quotes from Lawmakers (bit.ly/3tyT1Bf)
   Facing History and Ourselves Resources (bit.ly/2LzRrxO)

Social & Emotional Learning:

   NEA Resources  (bit.ly/3aPI31o)
   EdWeek Resources for Teaching in the Wake of a Traumatic Event (bit.ly/2LuU9o6)
   Advise for Parents and Educators from Kate Messner (bit.ly/3tEMzso)
   Talking about Justice At All Grade Levels (bit.ly/3cUXJn4)

I wish you all health, happiness, peace, and democracy in the new year,