On Wednesday October 27, our team hosted a webinar called How to Have Difficult Conversations with your Students for YPI teachers, both new and returning. Notably, this has been the most requested support resource from YPI teachers, who are supporting – and responding to – students thinking critically about social issues from a systemic, anti-oppression lens.
Our approach to this webinar was to:
- meet teachers where they were,
- share strategies for working through challenging conversations with students, and
- create a brave space for teachers to unpack their challenges together with each other and our team.
1) Meeting teachers where they are
When sharing resources, there can be a tendency to “get to the point” and share the “5 easy steps to becoming anti-racist.” It can be very outcome-focused, without due consideration for the process that is required to guide a group of humans, with distinct thoughts, feelings and lived experiences, together toward a shared outcome within a container of care.
For us, meeting our participants where they were included:
- acknowledging the difficulties of being an educator within the current context, which includes all-things-pandemic, escalating racial tensions, and widening socio-economic disparities, among others.
- building a shared reference point by grounding the group in a real-life situation that they might encounter in a classroom setting with their students.
- asking them to imagine themselves in the example and connect to how they would feel within it
- asking them to acknowledge any discrepancies between how comfortable they would feel intervening (if at all) and how they feel they should be able to respond as a teacher.
- stepping out of the example situation and connecting back to the broader role that teachers can play in the lives of students:
“As professionals and institutions, our goals are typically bound by semester, and success is viewed through narrow criteria. We are looking at high school graduation -and maybe post-secondary, but do we really consider how the four years that they spend with us will affect their worldview, and consequently how they choose to interact with their communities? Will they believe that “you can’t trust anyone”, you have to “look out for yourself”, or “what’s the point”? Instead of “How can I help?”, “This shouldn’t happen”, “This is wrong.” As a teacher, my goal is long term…I’m building up my community, I’m ensuring that the [students] that pass through my class will want to rectify some of the wrongs in society, or at least not further entrench the systems of marginalization.” – YPI LEAD TEACHER
- naming, upfront, the barriers – internal and external – that teachers might be facing in responding to challenging situations with their students.
In spending this time upfront acknowledging the status quo, our goals are to connect participants to themselves and each other, build the kind of trust that comes with feeling that our experiences are understood, and dismantle any expectation of there being a magic bullet solution to challenges that are profoundly human, layered and complex.
2) Sharing strategies
From this place, we shared with participants a set of strategies that can help teachers navigate difficult conversations with their students. We made sure to link each strategy directly to a barrier that it can help dismantle. For example, “Teaching with Humility” is a strategy that directly counteracts the barriers posed by taking a stance of authority and/or certainty.
Of course, there are nuances embedded even within these strategies. For example, in one of the breakout discussions, a participant highlighted the importance of “distinguishing between what counts as “student voice” and what is actually just harmful/detrimental/bullying/inappropriate and needs to be shut down.” While we want to de-center the adult voice, centering the student voice should not become an all-access pass for students to justify causing harm. In shifting power to students, we must work toward shifting some of the responsibility that comes with that power to them, too.
In their reflections on the webinar, a participant shared about a moment of “reassuring racialized women [teachers] that sometimes it’s okay not to have the capacity to address things that implicate you personally.” While we want to problematize needing to know the answer to everything before taking action, taking an intersectional lens means acknowledging that “teacher” is one of many identities that educators hold, all of which can and do impact their capacity to facilitate these conversations.
3) Unpacking Difficulties Together
Lastly, we created a brave space for teachers to work through challenging situations that they’ve encountered in their experience, together. These discussions took place in breakout rooms, were not recorded, and shared the ethos of “Stories Stay, Learnings Leave” with respect to confidentiality. This space gave teachers permission to air the moments of opportunity and regret about situations where they had wanted to intervene but did not have the tools, feel the courage, or have the capacity to follow through on that intention. This included an expression of regret from one teacher on a situation from ten years ago that still lives with them today, on how they wished they had disrupted anti-Black racism.
This discussion allowed teachers to see that they weren’t alone in these moments, and that they had the agency and the resources to respond differently now and in the future. In being able to experience compassion for their fellow teachers who were navigating difficult situations, teachers acknowledged where they were denying themselves the same compassion that is necessary to learn and grow from these challenging experiences. shed the title of “experts” and center instead the expertise and lived experiences within the group.
Hosting this vulnerable space:
- helped us feel more connected to YPI teachers and the realities they work within in their classrooms every day.
- prompted us to consider how we might balance 1) capturing the knowledge that is shared in sessions like this one, with 2) continuing to create brave spaces where people feel comfortable sharing more openly and vulnerably, as a result of the privacy that is protected in unrecorded spaces.
- revealed a desire among teachers for more time and opportunities to connect with each other and continue unpacking these challenges
- demonstrated how we might continue to do the work of moving people, particularly teachers, out of a stance of certainty, by creating spaces that encourage slowing down, reflection, and contending with the experience of not knowing.
- Design and deliver resources with an understanding of participants’ current contexts and holistic states (i.e. physical, mental, emotional, spiritual) SO THAT we can build relationships rooted in an ethic of care rather than extraction.
- Decenter the idea of facilitators as “experts” SO THAT we can invite and create space for the expertise and lived experiences within the group.
When shifting power toward youth, work toward shifting some of the responsibility that comes with that power to them, too SO THAT we can cultivate a culture of accountability among youth.