A Mile In Whose Shoes?

This afternoon, I walked a mile around the kitchen island. I was on the phone with a student, having a one-on-one discussion after a tough “public” discussion at the end of class. I wanted to really listen to the student, to hear the thoughts behind their words, because I had the sense that I was missing their deeper truth.

During those last minutes of class, I heard this young person complaining about “too much emphasis” on “Black issues” and “victims” in our English class. I heard their desire to stop talking about Black Lives Matter and to get politics out of the classroom. I heard this, but I had trouble hearing these things. Their concerns were hard for me.

As we talked – me with my camera on, the student with their camera off; me in my house, the student in theirs; each of us deeply and personally involved – other students came back into the main room and started listening. People stayed long after class had officially ended. This conversation mattered.

What does a teacher do when a student is questioning her? More importantly for this blog, what do I do? I was trying to listen, but I was aware that I was feeling defensive. Online teaching is exhausting. Online teaching when I had planned to be face-to-face is worse. Online teaching that I wasn’t expecting that is offered a different number of hours and days than I had planned for is nearly killing me. I am doing the best that I can, and it’s pretty good, but even pretty good is taking every bit of me. I believe that my students should ask me hard questions about what and how I teach, but I realized that it’s hard for me to listen well when I am tamping down emotions.

My students this term are largely 17 or 18 years old. They are thoughtful and well-spoken. They are reflective and desire to do good things in the world. Most of them are reasonably well-versed in current events. Ten days ago, we spent the full class period discussing the attack on the US Capitol. It was easy for my students to condemn the attack, but I was left wondering how many truly understood that the problem wasn’t solely with the individual people who attacked but also with the rhetoric that brought them to that point. If we believe that rhetoric and systems were the problem in addition to individuals, then we have to acknowledge that we, too, might fall prey to ill-considered ideas.

At any rate, as our class was ending today, the student who was questioning our studies was struggling for words. I know them to be an excellent student, an deep reader, an eloquent writer. I know they hold strong religious beliefs and they feel somewhat isolated from peers for that reason. I tried to keep all of this in my heart as I listened, but I struggled. How do I listen deeply to this student and honour others who are listening, some of whom have experienced racism first-hand?

I thought about Matthew Kay’s book Not Light, But Fire and its lessons for leading meaningful race conversations in the classroom. I thought about holding space and about helping white people recognize their own racialized existence. I knew I needed to be clear about what is fact and what is my opinion; I knew I needed to be humble; I knew I needed to be involved.

But y’all, I was tired. 20 minutes after class had officially ended, after what had stretched into two hours and fifteen minutes (yikes), I called it – I ended the discussion and closed the room. Had I been even-handed? Had I prevented others from casting one student as the villain? Had I heard the student’s beliefs? Had I been forthright in my own beliefs? I wasn’t sure.

And then the student’s parent called.

Before I called back, I ate some lunch and talked to a wonderful colleague who helped me find some words and work through some reactions. When I called I was able to speak honestly. The parent was curious, I was clear; I am not sure that we came to agreement, but we certainly were not at odds. I suggested that I could speak to the child at the end of the school day.

The student and I spoke for a long time. I walked. And I listened. I listened to understand, not respond. I sat in my discomfort. I asked, curious, “Can you explain what you mean?” and “Can you tell me more?” My student, ever interested in learning, asked me similar questions, trying to understand what I meant. I am not sure yet that I know the students’ deeper concerns, but I am closer, just as they are closer to articulating their thinking. I suspect there may be more uncomfortable conversations. And that’s ok. Because learning is about asking and thinking, asking and thinking. As long as the dialogue continues, we are learning.

Later, another colleague checked in. She offered some sage advice: it’s ok to tell your class that you need time to think about how to respond to this. It’s ok to go back and tell them your “why” again. I suspect I will do both of these things tomorrow. I will remind them that reading text – any text – critically may leave us with unanswered questions, and that’s ok, too.


I can’t say I walked a mile in anyone else’s shoes today, but I can say I walked a mile in mine. I walked and I walked around the kitchen island, listening, speaking and reflecting. This, I think, is the work of anti-racism. This, I think, is the work of learning. This, I think, is the work.


It’s January, so lots of people – or at least lots of teachers – or at least lots of teachers I know – are considering their One Little Word for the year. The idea here is that we choose one word as a focus for the year – kind of like a New Year’s Resolution.

For the past two years, my word has been listen. I’ve been having a hard time letting it go because I’m not convinced I’m very good at it yet. Every time I think I’ve got listening down, I realize that my brain is talking over other people again and I have to try again. Also, listening seems wildly important to teaching (and, of course, to life). Pretty much every step I’ve taken in teaching has come from listening. I like listen. It’s a good little word. I considered making the whole thing moot by “not choosing” a word and secretly holding on to listen. We won’t discuss the fact that pretty much no one besides me knows or cares about my word and I can’t exactly hide my perfidy from myself. Sigh.

Then, over at The Librarian’s Journey, Beth Lyons suggested we could try one word x 12 – a word a month for a year. Clearly I was addled by the thought of converting my entire class plans to online teaching because I thought this was the perfect solution. Had I paused (hmmm… there’s a word) I would have realized that this means having to choose a focus word TWELVE times. I did not pause. I told Beth & a few others I was in. Impulsive. There’s another word. Still, I like the idea of setting an intention each month. Over the course of a year, I sometimes get distracted – which may be why I still need to work on listening.

Beth took things down a notch by admitting that last year she often found herself choosing her little word somewhere in the middle of the month. This practice is both calming and intriguing: it allows me to choose a word that is aspirational – I’d like to focus on this for a while – and definitional – this is what this month is shaping up to be. It also recognizes that I am both a procrastinator (I’m writing this waaaay too late at night) and an observer. I decided to give myself a few days to consider what word might fit for January.

Last night I was up late trying to prepare myself for a week of teaching from home while both of my children have online classes and my partner works from home. I was feeling frantic and a little hopeless. I know that one way to quell this emotion is gratitude so, on the spur of the moment, I decided to write to several of the authors of the books my students are reading. Many of them might be surprised to find out that their novel is being studied in a high school book club and, for the most part, my students are loving their choices. I wanted to tell the authors that their work was making this moment a little more bearable. I wanted them to know that their work matters.

So I wrote. I put in a little effort, aiming for a tone that was light but sincere and adding some specific details for each author. I wrote about moving to online instruction – how hard it is, how my students are a little down and, almost as an afterthought, really as part of my attempt to find some upsides to where we are, I invited each author to come to our class for a few minutes if they wanted. I may have said “pop in.” I even decided to throw caution to the wind and write to some of the bigger names – doesn’t everyone benefit from a compliment? My students really do like their books. And then, one by one, I hit send. I felt a little silly afterwards, but whatever; it was done.

Y’all – one of the most well-known award-winning authors wrote back 20 minutes later and said, basically, “Thanks for the great email. I don’t usually do this, but I’d be happy to stop in.” There are some caveats – this is just for my class & will be entirely student-led – and I’m not going to share who it is because I think this kind of a private little thing, but the author is going to join our Google Meet next week – for an hour! I’m nearly giddy with excitement, as are the students who have read the novel. The rest of them are preparing by reading articles and essays. I honestly think we’re going to have a great time.

This morning, I realized that I’d found January’s word: ask. I like it. When I was growing up, my mother often said “it can’t hurt to ask” and “if you don’t ask, you don’t get” but I can’t say that I always followed her advice. So this will remind me to ask for what I want rather than assuming that I already know the answer. In the virtual classroom, I know that intentionally asking the students how things are going, what they need, what they are learning is part of what makes online learning work, so ask is a good word there. And, I have to admit, ask is pretty closely related to listen – after all, asking ideally implies that you will listen to the response – so I get to ease myself into my new little word.

I can’t wait to see how ask will show up this month.

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Thanks to Two Writing Teachers for hosting the Slice of Life blog challenge every Tuesday.