I have spent my career building peace, especially in schools and communities throughout Bucks County, parts of New Jersey, Montgomery County and Philadelphia. I was most often brought in to teach restorative justice, peer mediation, to address bullying and conflict that grows from racism, homophobia and transphobia, Islamophobia, anti-Semitism, etc. Teacher training was always recommended, since they are the front lines and bear witness to the issues faced daily by students.
Teachers wanted the skills to be a good Ally for their students. They wanted to understand how to respond effectively to conflict and bullying, and many of the teachers I worked with were especially concerned for students that did not have a voice and tended to be targets.
I saw a significant rise in bullying through cyber-bullying when social media became popular. Six years ago, I saw yet another seismic shift during the 2016 election. Meanness, bullying, cyberbullying, violent rhetoric, and ugly behavior modeled by adults increased the bullying in our youth. Not a surprise, but the worst part of this ugly behavior was white nationalism, misogyny and racism, targeting anyone of color or anyone who disagreed with those beliefs.
We are now a nation divided.
This is a reality for our kids that older Americans did not experience while they were learning social skills, while their brains were developing. As a result, our children, especially minority children, need Allies more than ever. They are asked to navigate in a world most adults are having a hard time navigating; and they are doing it without the coping skills and experience we have developed over decades.
In order to grow into healthy, creative, kind, responsible adults, kids need to feel safe physically, emotionally, socially, morally, (which means as adults we must ‘walk the talk’) both at home and at school. This has been proven by a plethora of research by people that include Dr. Sandra Bloom, who was on the forefront of identifying PTSD in soldiers who served in the Vietnam War. Many students are suffering silently, and it is because our schools tend to put greater value on the physical safety of their students and staff. This is always important, however, we can’t ignore the significance of emotional safety and security.
So how do we become Allies to kids during this very difficult time in our history, a time in which our children have witnessed:
*A Black man, George Floyd, slowly die as a white police officer kept his knee on his neck for eight minutes and 46 seconds until he was lifeless.
*Members of the United States Congress repeat lies about our last presidential election.
*White nationalists assault our nation’s capital, only to have many of the same leaders re-label a violent insurrection as a ‘tourist’ event.
* Mass shootings in schools, subways, concerts and other public venues, and see elected officials ignoring the violence in our communities.
*The Russian invasion of Ukraine, watching state terrorism, a dictator trying to bomb a country and it’s people into submission.
It is more critical than ever to provide safe classrooms in which our kids can process the many emotions that accompany these events, where they can try to make sense of the world, where they try to make sense of their own identity in a nation that insists on identifying them, rather than listen to how they self-identify. It is more critical than ever to listen to our youth, to acknowledge their feelings, to ask how we can support them, to find resources for them, to follow-up with them, to hold their pain, to sit in silence with them, to hold emotional “check-in’s” regularly so kids learn to identify what they are feeling, and recognize the emotions of others. We should teach them to interrupt ugly behavior when they witness it and to stand up for others when they are being put down – to stop bullying when they see it and to make sure adults around them are not part of the bullying.
Is it possible for a teacher to be able to do all this, while also teaching?
Schools often don’t have the appropriate number of counselors to adequately serve the number of students who need it. The American School Counselor Association recommends a 250-to-1 ratio of students to school counselors, while the national average is actually 415-to-1 for the 2020–2021 school year. We are now experiencing conservative-majority School Boards creating hostile school environments by going after books (most often the books targeted are LGBTQ and issues of racism), and eliminating programs, committees or directors focused on Diversity, Equity and Inclusion.
That means any student who is LGBTQ+ and students of color, or who practice a different religion from Christianity, or perhaps is an immigrant, are getting a message that their inclusion isn’t a priority. Or, when a child is discouraged from using their pronoun, or is forced to use their “deadname,” it is a form of adult bullying. A mostly white staff can easily miss the signs of racism or anti-Semitism in the classroom.
When I worked at a school in Philadelphia, we implemented Project PEACE in grades K-3, with only one counselor available part-time to a group of very needy students in a pretty violent community. Teachers conducted daily circles so kids could participate in emotional check-in’s. We saw increases in improved mental health, less emotional eating, better grades, an increase in empathy and compassion and over all happier kids. The teachers were able to quickly intervene if needed because the students felt safe to open up. They created a classroom that acted as a sanctuary for students and as a result, they were better learners.
If we want teachers to be Allies, they need to count on us to be an Ally to them. We, the taxpayers, can’t be part of creating a hostile environment for teachers and then expect them to create a safe environment for our kids. We need to have their backs as much as possible.
We can do this and we must do this. Children’s lives depend on it. The future of our country depends on it.