Teaching is hard work. Election aftermath.

Yesterday, I told one of my precalculus classes how it was an exciting day. I was setting them up because it was election day, and kids at my school are heavily interested in politics, so I thought they’d say “yes! Election!” And I would say: “Actually, it’s because one of my best friends from college is having a baby.”

Of course that setup didn’t work, because of course a kid asked “why is today exciting?” Thanks, kid. But I told the class about my friend’s baby.

Yesterday evening, as the election results came in, I got more and more anxious. And when it was clear that Trump won, I was destroyed. I am not going to use this blogpost to explain my love for Clinton, or why Trump makes my blood boil. Instead, I want to just share how my day has gone.

I teach at an independent school in Brooklyn, and the population of kids and parents we serve are (for the most part) liberal. The kids are politically active and aware and interested. Today, I came to school and kids were destroyed.

In my first class, I talked to kids a bit, and then asked them what they wanted to do. After hearing them, I came up with the following plan. The kids who woke up to the news and wanted to learn more and get informed could read articles online. (There were about 4 of those kids.) I just asked that before they started reading, they take 3 minutes to type out all the questions that they have — so help them start processing. (Like “How could this happen? What was wrong with the polling? Who was voting for Trump? What does this mean for issue X?”). For the others, we formed a circle with the desks and I let kids talk. At points, kids cried. I didn’t join in — I wanted this to be a space for them. They expressed real sadness, hopelessness, optimism, anger, frustration, embarrassment, terror, empathy. I really heard my kids, and when talking about this election, they were speaking their truth, about their hopes and dreams (and how those hopes and dreams were altering). It destroyed me inside to hear them. To see how much this election has affected them. I guess I hated the fact that my kids are feeling what I’m feeling. I don’t want that for them.

I went to my second class, that precalculus class that I told about my friend’s baby. The first thing a kid said to me was inquiring about my friend’s baby. That small gesture — that this student would remember that — lifted my spirits. In this class, more wanted to read the news, and a handful of us talked. This discussion tended to a bit more political punditry — about the what’s and the how’s and less about their emotional state. I suspect they got many of their feelings out in their previous classes.

In my third class, we watched Hillary’s concession speech.I teared up twice during the speech. One kid left to gather themselves for a few minutes after the speech. I didn’t know what to do after. Kids said they didn’t feel like discussing things anymore — they were discussed out — but they also didn’t see how they could focus on work. I made the executive decision to spend the last 20 minutes of class having my kids watch the pilot of the West Wing. I hoped that some optimism in politics might help.

I have one more class to go. It’s a 90-minute block. I’m drained, right now. I don’t have much more in me. I suspect kids are also drained, but I don’t know. I’ll suss out how things are, and try to get through it.

I’m exhausted. Yesterday I woke up at 5:30am to vote. Yesterday I didn’t get to bed until very late (maybe 1pm), and then woke up at 3am to watch Trump’s victory speech. I then read articles until I forced myself to sleep from 4-6am.

Teaching is hard work. Yes, there are lesson plans and grading and meetings and a zillion other things. But days like today, days like today keep me in check. And reminds me how hard the hard work can really be. Because the hard work is being an emotional support. To let kids cry. To let kids know you cry. And to get through the hard times together.

Update: My last class came in with bags under their eyes. I was also tired. I asked them what they wanted to do. A few wanted to continue talking, a couple wanted to do some math and do some talking about the election (a mix), and one just wanted to do math. I decided we would go over the nightly work first, and then talk about the election.

When going over the nightly work, kids were actually focusing better than expected. They asked questions. They were able to answer questions. It was going well. I then ended up going on a fascinating tangent about fractals (related to one of the questions we talked about). And when I realized kids had never heard of fractals before, I showed them a youtube fractal video. Then they wanted to know how it was made. So I gave a short 10-minute lecture on the complex plane, and how the Mandlebrot set is formed. Kids were entranced by the video. I gave a 5-minute break before we sat down to talk about the election. (During the break, kids were in the hall watching more of the fractal video on one of their phones!) When we returned, everyone was silent. No one spoke. I just let it hang there. Eventually one voice. Then another. It wasn’t a rowdy discussion. Not everyone was in it. But most kids had something to say. And then when the day was close to ending, and there was a natural lull, I used a comment about “voting systems” to show a video about alternative voting systems. And then I let kids go home.

I just made the first four slides for class tomorrow. They’re not fancy. I’m tired. But I think they encapsulate what I’ve taken away from today.

pic1pic2pic3pic4

***

Now I must end. I now have to change all my lesson plans for the upcoming days, prepare for parent visiting day tomorrow, and write narrative comments. This feels impossible. But I needed to process today.

***

UPDATE: A student gave me a paper flower she made today, to thank me for facilitating a conversation about the election in our class on Wednesday. And that flower is going to stay on my desk all year to remind me of the other things we do as teachers that can be meaningful.

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10 comments

  1. The first thing a student said to me this morning was, “I’m ready to be deported. I packed my stuff.” He’s Mexican. Most of my students are. Thanks for this. post.

  2. I ran an errand to drop something off in a UPS box. Two people were standing outside talking about the election and the people who apparently had “voted for him” even though they didn’t talk about it. I commented that I’d heard a lot of people say that today. (I’m in a blue state, btw.) He commented that “everybody I know voted for him.”
    I did my errand and got out as he finished his, so we met again, and he challenged me: “So, what I want to know is, do you think it’s a good thing or a bad thing?”
    Having some certainty that he voted for the guy (the whole “everybody I know voted for him so it must be okay!” vibe), I said, “We’ll see.” He agreed enthusiastically.
    I wouldn’t want to meet him with all those people he knew if I were alone.

  3. My school’s vision is to ‘inspire global hope’, founded on 5 core values: commitment, courage, compassion, respect and, integrity. While I think you think your kids have given you hope, I daresay you have done the same.

    Thank you for sharing your story. It’s beautiful.

  4. You are truly a wonderful teacher. My school is also liberal and all female so they took the news very hard. We stopped Geometry class to watch the concession speech.

  5. Thank you, Sam. As a parent, I am most grateful for your good care of your students by offering a safe space to begin to process what happened. My daughters would have also been grateful.

  6. Thank you for sharing how you handled class on this particularly difficult day. I am a student in a secondary teacher ed. program and several of my own instructors held discussions about how we would have conducted class had we been full-time teachers this year. I was especially struck by how you redesigned your day to fit the students’ needs. So often we hear that schools should be designed around kids, but so often too I see students’ personal needs unaddressed in the classroom. Your giving students multiple options for how to spend class time was admirable and no doubt provided the outlets needed to process their emotions and opinions. I can imagine the re-planning was burdensome, but it sounds like it was well worth it (and I’m sure it was). Thank you for being an excellent example!

  7. Thank you for setting aside time to allow students to create a space for what they needed. I’m a pre-service teacher so it is hard to imagine what I would do in the same situation. I think part of the reason it went to well was because the school is filled with liberal students and parents. I’m curious how you purpose this would work if there were students who supported Trump. How would you deal with this new tension between those who support Trump and those who do not?

    1. Hi Jocelyn,

      Thanks for your comment. I absolutely know teachers in that situation, and I’ve thought about what I would do, and I think it would totally be based around the culture of the school. I can’t quite answer that question knowing if my actions — which would be guided by empathetic listening — would be supported by the school.

      If I knew that I was trusted and supported by my admins…

      I probably would design an activity around how to listen empathetically, and talk about ways to support each other even when others aren’t feeling similarly to ourselves. I would also make it clear that I am a person who can be a listening ear for those who feel frustrated/angry/hopeless by the election and would want to talk to someone about it. And if a student took me up on it, I would do exactly what we practiced in the lesson: empathetic listening.

      Sam

  8. Hi Sam,

    My name is Tina Jordahl, and I am a pre-service teacher at the University of Illinois. I have been following your blog, among some others, but wanted to let you know that this post has truly touched my heart. I have had very strong, similar feelings towards this election and much of what my concerns surrounded was: how do we tell our children? Our students? How are we able to make them feel safe, and welcome and loved and important – all while our system is continuing to fail them. It is a very heavy situation. In our classes, we have very briefly discussed what we would do or how we would react in a situation such as this, and I can only imagine how truly difficult it is. To not only see your students hurting, but to be able to facilitate this conversation with them and be that emotional support. I really do think it takes a lot to be able to do that and especially with all of the curriculum we have to get through, I have so much respect for the fact that you allotted this time for a discussion, a much needed one. I am pleased to hear your students responded so well to this, and it is very clear that you care about them very much. Those relationships can easily get lost in the shuffle of grading, standardized tests, being the authority figure, etc. But you really seem to have a passion for what you do, and who you do it for and I think that is outstanding – something I hope to carry through in my own classroom. Thank you for your post.

    Best,
    Tina

  9. Thank you for your thoughtful post about the election. As a teaching intern and mother, I was devastated by the news of the election, and one of my first thoughts was how I would handle this in a classroom. It is tempting to simply not address it, to decide this space is about math and math alone, and discussing the election will only be divisive and confrontational. And I’m sure some teachers decided to handle it that way.
    But, like it or not, this profession is more about math. We are models and leaders for these young people. I appreciate the way you created a safe place for support, for discourse, and for question-answering, and the ways you tailored those opportunities to meet the individual needs of your students.
    The message you sent the next day was just what those young people needed: Care, Value and Hope.

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