Content note: This post is mostly intended for k-12 classroom teachers, but probably applies to other groups as well.
When you teach, it’s really important to be mindful of the fact that people from all walks of life have children.
When you say something about a particular group of people, you may be saying it about a student’s mother, father, or parent. It’s important to keep that in mind when making decisions about how to discuss things. (Including things that it’s 100% your job to teach your class about).
When you express an opinion about a group of people, your student may hear it as “I think this about your mother”, “I think this about your father”, or “I think this about you and your family.” Don’t forget that, and don’t assume that you will always know who is in the room.
It’s worth speaking with the assumption that there are people in the room who know a member of the group you’re talking about personally. When you’re working with kids, it’s worth speaking with the assumption that this person might be their parent or someone in a parental role.
This is important whether what you’re saying is positive, negative, or neutral. If you speak in a way that assumes that what you’re saying is theoretical for everyone, it can make it very hard for a child to whom it is personal to trust you. And you can’t assume that you will always know a child’s family situation, or that you will always know how a child feels about it.
- Many parents are in prison, have been imprisoned in the past, are facing trial, are on probation, have been arrested, have been accused of crimes, have been convicted, are on house arrest, are facing some other kind of court-ordered punishment or similar.
- Many parents are police officers, prison guards, judges, prosecutors, probation officers, or in a related role.
- Many parents (and children) have been the victims of violent crimes. (Including crimes committed by police officers.) Some children may have lost parents this way.
- All of these people are parents, and most of their children go to school.
- Some of their kids may be in your class, and you may not know this.
- Even if you do know about the situation, you probably don’t know how they feel about it.
- Kids have all kinds of feelings about all of these things (including, often, complicated mixed feelings).
- If you want to talk about prison issues, crime, justice, legal reform, or any of that, it’s important to keep in mind that whatever you say about one of these groups of people, you may be saying it about a student’s parent.
- And that you don’t know how they feel.
- Speak in a way that gives them space to have opinions, and to be both personally affected and part of the class.
- If you say “we” and mean “people who aren’t personally connected to this issue”, kids are likely to feel that you are distancing yourself from them and their parents.
- It’s better to speak with the assumption that what you’re saying applies to the parents of one of your students, and that they may have complicated thoughts and feelings about this.
- People of all races have children of all races. When you say something about a racial group, you may be saying it about a student’s parent.
- People with all kinds of disabilities have children. When you say things about disabled people or disabilities, you may be saying it about a student’s parent.
- (Including blind people, deaf people, autistic people, people with intellectual disabilities, wheelchair users, people with conditions that usually shorten lifespan, and every other kind of disability).
- When you talk about teenage pregnancy, keep in mind that some students may have parents who were teenagers when they were born.
- People of all political opinions, including abhorrent opinions, have children. When you say something about members of a political group, you may be saying it about a student’s parent.
- People who work at McDonalds have children. When you talk about McDonalds workers and people in similar roles, it’s extremely likely that you’re talking about a student’s parent. (Especially if you teach in a public school).
- Many people who do sex work have children. If you say something about strippers, porn stars, escorts, phone sex operators, dominatrixes, or whoever else, you may be saying it about someone’s mother, father, or parent.
- People of all faiths and ethnicities have children (who may or may not be raised in their faith). If you say something about a religion or its followers, you may be saying it about the parent of one of your students.
- And so on.
Being more abstract again:
- People from all walks of life have kids, and you may be teaching some of their kids.
- Keep that in mind.
- Whatever you say about a group of people, you may be saying it about your student’s mother, father, or parent.
- If you speak about it like it’s an abstract issue that couldn’t apply to anyone in the room, it’s likely to be really alienating.
- This is true even if what you say is positive or sympathetic.
- Kids need to be seen and acknowledged. If you speak as though they’re not there, it gets harder for them to trust you.
- When you speak about a group of people, speak with the assumption that at least one student in the room has a parent who is a member of that group.
(To be clear: I’m not saying don’t talk about these issues. Sometimes it’s 100% your job to talk about these issues. What I am saying is, keep in mind that it may be personal, that you may be talking about a student’s parent, and that you won’t always know that this is the case. Taking this into account makes it possible to teach everyone in the room.)
Short version: When you’re teaching, keep in mind that the kids in your class probably have parents, and that you don’t know everything about their parents. Their parents may come from any and every walk of life. Keep this in mind when you talk about issues and groups. You may well be talking about a student’s mother, father, family, or parent.