The voice on the other end informed me that two airplanes had crashed into the World Trade Center. Parents were storming the school building and wanted to take their children home. I was told to keep the students focused and not tell them that anything was happening. One student in my class, scared by the sirens and the confusion, asked if she could call her mother. I said no.
In the weeks that followed, words like terrorist and bomber became common language. On more than one occasion, I heard those words hurled at the three Muslim students in my classroom, but I just told the students who had wielded them to watch their language and kept on teaching.
I taught through violence against Muslim students and used the permission I tacitly received from the school to justify my inaction. I ignored the chaos of the world beyond the classroom because I believed that it was my job to just keep on teaching. Looking back now, I realize I was not actually teaching at all.
Almost 20 years after September 11, 2001, the coronavirus pandemic has emerged as another siren, tearing through our collective sense of normal. We are responding to this virus and adjusting our methods for remote learning. But institutional racism is also deadly, and it’s even more widespread. Derek Chauvin, the police officer who murdered George Floyd, had a symptomatic case of the racism virus. But teachers place metaphorical knees on the necks of young people in classrooms all the time—and their symptoms aren’t always as obvious. I know this because I had the virus, too.
The best teachers don’t just keep teaching. Instead, they use their pedagogy as protest: They disrupt teaching norms that harm vulnerable students. In my years in the classroom since 2001, I’ve learned something about how to do this. I call it reality pedagogy, because it’s about reaching students where they really are, making sure that their lives and backgrounds are reflected in the curriculum and in classroom conversations.
Reality pedagogy interrupts the notion that teaching is about managing students and their behavior. Instead, I’ve learned to see them as co-teachers, and I create space for dialogue—in small groups outside of class—about how they experience the classroom and the world beyond it. It’s a space for connection, but also for any critiques they have of my teaching. These conversations are generative for everyone involved. Teachers need feedback from their students, who can see what teachers have been trained to ignore in their blind pursuit of a calm, quiet classroom. And students need a sense of agency, which they are often denied.
Co-teaching requires that teachers be humble enough to become students of their students—especially the students who have been most harmed, and will benefit most from a teacher listening to their experiences. In my first years of teaching, I never asked to hear my students’ thoughts about having to sit and learn while the world around them was going crazy. I didn’t make space for my Muslim students to heal from being targeted. But if I had started that dialogue, I would have learned a lot from them about how I could have been a better teacher.