Until Change Takes Root

One teacher’s quest and call to action

The first year our school was open, the sink in our English department staff lounge worked great. When we returned the second year, it had developed a steady drip, unless you turned the handles wayyyyyy back, past where you’d expect them to stop. Well teachers are busy people and have a lot on their minds, so most never noticed.  I did. 

The Infamous Sign

Sometimes unfortunately, my brain zeros in on the steady drips in life. Long story short, after submitting multiple work requests, it never did get fixed, and to this day (well at least before the ‘Rona) the sink…still…drips.  While the faucet was undeterred by my “Greta-shame” poster I put up, my colleagues did take notice, and made more of an effort to push the handles “farther than you think they need to go” – as stated on my poster.  

This story, while perhaps silly, reflects teaching, as being a teacher is in fact noticing the drips in the sink and being passionate about fixing them. I was fortunate to be raised with the belief that all people are worthy of respect, and I appreciate the lessons I have learned through my 12 years in education that have helped shape and reinforce my moral code.

To be honest, I must admit my awareness has grown more in the past three years than it did over most of my previous life. I’m ashamed to admit that while I did maintain that basic level of “respect for all”, I didn’t really understand what that meant, fully…or at least not what the idea of actual “respect” meant. Domestic and world events of the past three years have opened my eyes and caused me to realize the level of privilege I have been given in life.

Once I realized what I had been blind to for so long, I began my journey into unlearning my biases, by listening to and learning from those who willingly share their lives with the world.  I have learned that respect does not just mean “oh yeah cool of course everyone is equal”, stated out of the side of my mouth while I carry on teaching How to Kill a Mockingbird in my classroom.  

What I can do, and what I aim to do each new school year, is speak for those who are unable to speak up themselves, and to elevate those voices that need to be heard.

Sara with Writer Elizabeth Acevedo

RESPECT, in a real sense of the word, means to “consider things from [another’s] point of view…climb into his skin and walk around in it.” (Thank you, Atticus Finch. You have many drawbacks and I see now why teaching you in class is problematic, but I will acknowledge that you, Scout, Jem, Tom Robinson and Boo Radley taught me many life lessons and helped shape my moral code.) Now, I know that I could never truly walk around in anyone else’s skin…but I have a duty as a human being to dive in and listen to those who do have skin that’s not like mine, and who have very different life experiences from me.  I would be remiss to walk into a classroom year after year and not acknowledge who I am, and that I cannot dare to speak for everyone else. 

What I can do, and what I aim to do each new school year, is speak for those who are unable to speak up themselves, and to elevate those voices that need to be heard. We all have a duty to do this. I use my white lady teacher voice to advocate for students who have IEPs, students who receive English Language services, and students who struggle in a million different ways. I advocate for diverse texts in our building, to better share the experiences of humans who don’t look like me, or know the path I walk.  As noted in my earlier story, I also do my best to advocate for our planet Earth.

The drips will continue until change takes root in the education world.

I know I know, it’s a lot of advocating.  It gets exhausting, honestly.  But when I look at my students sitting in front of me, and I think of the students I’ve taught in the past, and I look at my own children at home, I know that I have to fight to expand our worldview.  As Nahliah Webber, the Executive Director of the Orleans Public Education Network, states in her essay If You Really Want to Make a Difference in Black Lives, Change How You Teach White Kids, “The system that killed George Floyd and the system that raised and educated the cop who killed him are the same. … I am tired of folks acting like there’s no direct connection between the schools where White children sit and the street corners where they choke out Black life.” 

The drips will continue until change takes root in the education world. There are still too many systemic structures in place that suppress true enlightenment, and that hurts all of us.  We have a lot of work to do, white teachers.  Let’s get to it.

-Sara Watkins

For Even One Voice

7/29/2020

Editors Note: I have the honor to not only teach with Sara, but to learn from her as a professional. When I first reached out to her to write this piece, I thought of her ‘sink sign’ that still hangs in our department workroom because that, to me, is Sara in a nutshell.

She made a group of adults think about our responsibility to the world we inhabit, and we did. We changed our behaviors because of her. That is also what she does every day in her classroom, and she does it from a place of genuine love, compassion, and vision for a better world.

And on a personal note, thank you, Sara. Thank you for writing this piece in the midst of quarantine with 2 kids. And thank you for trying to save our planet. You have saved me, on more than one occasion, from the brink of a melt-down, perpetual self-doubt, and you know you ALWAYS save my lesson plans with the perfect article for Women’s Studies.

It is an honor to be your friend.

Love,

J.Berg