The Case for Teachers Getting into “Good and Necessary Trouble”

Last week, I posted an article to my Facebook page that resulted in some folks getting their panties in knot. The article from CNN dealt with a 15-year-old high school student who posted a picture of a crowded hallway at her school on their first day back after Covid-19 shut them down in the spring. The student was suspended for 3-days because, according to the principal, she broke a number of school rules. The young woman, Hannah Watters, said the suspension (which was rescinded after she appeared on CNN) was worth it because it was “good and necessary trouble”. She knew the risk and she took it anyway.

“I was concerned for the safety of everyone in that building and everyone in the county because precautions that the CDC and guidelines that the CDC has been telling us for months now, weren’t being followed,” she said.

North Paulding High School, outside Atlanta. Photo taken by Hannah Watters.

The late Democratic U.S. House Representative John Lewis used this term “good and necessary trouble” throughout his life to describe his feelings around the importance of people being brave and standing up for the rights of themselves and others. Lewis was beaten when he marched at Selma on March 7, 1965, but remained unbowed until his death this past July. Throughout his career in the US government, he encouraged others to fight for the causes they believed in. In the final months of his life, he had to put up with the biggest bully of all, the President of the United States, and yet he continued as he always had – fighting for those who needed his help.

Now, back to my post.

The issue that caused consternation amongst some of my friends and former teacher colleagues was not the issue of the student who posted a photo to social media.  

Nope. That received multiple thumbs ups and heart shaped emojis. “Bravo to the whistleblowers of the world!” was the theme of many of the comments.

The issue that concerned people was when I added, “I hope adults will be as brave.”

Whoa, Nelly!

That set off a lightning round of questions, concerns, and finger-wagging in my direction.

I realize Facebook is not the place to explain important issues in detail, so that’s what I’ll try to do here.

Despite the fact that I referenced a story about a picture being posted on social media, I was not saying that in order for adults to be brave, they need to post pictures to social media. That’s silly. Bravery can come in many forms.

I also heard that teachers are tired and afraid and feel that their voices don’t matter. That even if they do speak out, no one is listening.

I hear that.

I taught in the public school system for more than 20 years and every single time I spoke out against something I felt was unfair, I was terrified. I remember walking out of one meeting soaked through with sweat. I remember another time meeting with a board supervisor about a legitimate concern only to have him berate me so loudly and viciously that I ended up sobbing uncontrollably. The fact that he ended up agreeing to investigate my concern did not negate the fact that I was traumatized by the entire incident. I wouldn’t wish the experience on my worst enemy and yet I would do it again.

Some of my respected friends and colleagues have responded to that by saying, “Well, not everyone is as brave as you, Heather.”

Bull.

I’m not brave. I’m stubborn and I refuse to let people be bullied or shamed for wanting to do what’s right. And I paid the price. I ended up retiring from teaching way before I was ready because I couldn’t deal with the anxiety and stress that came along with fighting for what I thought my students and colleagues deserved. So don’t tell me that I have some superpower that protects me from the slings and arrows of attacks from parents and administrators. I continue to advocate for teachers in my current position and will continue to do so until they take me out in a wooden box, just like so many of my colleagues continue to do in their jobs within the school system.

I understand that some of my former colleagues (and that includes teachers, teaching assistants, administrators, custodial staff, specialists, cafeteria staff, after school providers, and anyone else I may have missed) are frustrated and frightened. Speaking out may not have worked in the past. And sadly, that’s life. Sometimes we work our butts off for something we really, really want only to be told, No. Does that mean we give up and never speak again?

To put it in perspective, let’s look at what we teach our students.

Throughout every year of a child’s schooling, teachers offer anti-bullying classes, workshops, assemblies and guest speakers. Students are told, “If you see something, say something.” We expect children as young as 5 to tell the teacher if another student is hurting them or one of their classmates. We tell our students to be brave and speak up, even if it means they could be physically assaulted by the perpetrator. Even if it means they could be ostracized from their peer group for being a tattle-tale. We expect these things from children who are practically babies, from those going through puberty, and from those in the throes of teenage angst, where peer pressure is overwhelming. If we are supposed to be role models, shouldn’t we at least show a similar amount of bravery?

And yet…

As adults it seems to be OK to walk away from our social responsibilities and say, “I’m just going to keep my head down and do my job. I’m going to let someone else do the heavy lifting. Hopefully this will work out well for me.”

I’m not asking teachers and other school staff to put their jobs at risk. I’m asking people to be brave enough to risk getting into a bit of “good and necessary trouble”. What this entails is up to your comfort level. It may be writing an email to your government representative (despite what you may think, they do read these letters and discuss them). It may be helping with the breakfast program at your school, so that no matter what happens with Covid-19, at least you know your students are getting a good breakfast. It may be speaking to the press, anonymously or using your real name, and taking a risk. It could be buying extra masks for those kids who always lose them or can’t afford them. There are a million things you can do that won’t get you yelled at or threaten your employment status. What that might entail is up to you, but I guarantee you, you will know when the time comes.

So, be brave.

Be the person you want your students to grow up to be.

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