Educators try to navigate choppy political waters in 'Time of Trump'
Educators were the ones taking notes Saturday morning. The subject? "Teaching in a Time of Trump."
More than 400 educators, activists and others from Portland and as far as Salem and Astoria, teachers of Pre-K through collegiate, gathered Feb. 11 at Lincoln High School for a "teach-in" and panel discussion hosted by the Critical Educators Collective, a group that advocates for social justice in the classroom.
Nine panelists with varying educational backgrounds and organization affiliations offered perspectives in the hope that teachers might be better able help students during what they view as long road of hardship under President Donald Trump's administration.
Portland Association of Teachers Vice President Elizabeth Thiel cheerfully welcomed educators, but quickly turned serious: "(Students are) reading about an immigration ban and building a wall, and they're wondering if they're safe and welcome in their own country … as teachers we have no choice but to respond."
"As educators, I don't think we understand the depth of the Trump effect," said Alejandra Barragan, a second grade Spanish immersion teacher at Alder Elementary in East Portland. "How do I help my students process it?"
Don Berg, an education psychologist and creator of the organization Schools of Conscience, thinks the collective anxiety spawned by Trump throws a wrench in the educational process.
"Raising the anxiety level is going to diminish the learning in the classroom. (Anxiety) stops the learning — regardless of the political stance of educators," Berg said.
Panelist Llyndon Elliott, a 2015 Grant High School graduate who identifies as a transgender black man, gave a tearful recount of the fear they experienced after the election. "The next day walking away from the election, me as a black trans man and my girlfriend were afraid to walk down the street to get tacos."
Elliott told educators that the "most powerful thing that you can give me … is critical thinking."
"I'm on Facebook constantly, I'm seeing articles, I'm seeing comments, I'm seeing people who are degrading me, my black body, my family. I need to know how to dissect that and say that these people aren't right."
Panelist Moe Yonamine, a Roosavelt High School teacher and Portland Public Schools climate justice committee member, told educators that "This is not a time to be neutral."
Yonamine recalled a run-in with a colleague who questioned her discussions of immigrant rights in the classroom. The colleague told Yonamine that they didn't think she should do that because it was taking sides.
"My immediate reaction was defensive. … I'm an immigrant teacher, my students are mostly immigrant, what are you talking about?" Yonamine said.
The colleague pressed her, and asked if a school would allow an anti-abortion teacher spout political views to students. "I was really taken back by her statements but when I took a step back, I realized she needed to be exposed to the teaching around anti-discrimination work and social justice work and she needed to know her role in disrupting discrimination," Yonamine said.
People caught in 'morass'
Portland City Commissioner Chloe Eudaly served as a panelist for the event. U.S. Rep. Earl Blumenauer, a Portland Democrat, popped in briefly before rushing to a meeting with Democratic National Committee members, he said, to introduce them to U.S. Rep. Keith Ellison (D-Minnesota), a progressive candidate to lead the DNC.
Blumenauer sneered at Trump's recent appointment of Betsy DeVos as secretary of education. "Supremely unqualified," Blumenauer told the crowd. "And that stands out, even in this administration."
On immigration, Blumenauer said he recently met with a group of attorneys who volunteered to "deal with people caught in this immigration morass" the day after President Trump signed an executive order banning travel from severn mostly Muslim nations. The ban caught thousands of people who were stranded at airports cross the country. It also spawned protests at airports, including two days of rallies at Portland International Airport.
"They were telling me that there were 500 attorneys on a conference call on a Saturday volunteering across the country to help unwind this tragedy," he said.
Eudaly focused her talk around concerns with the special education system. Her son Henry, 15, has cerebral palsy. She's concerned about DeVos' interest in expanding private school voucher programs. Voucher programs use state money to pay for private school tuition.
"We have a secretary (of education)…who wants to dismantle our public school system through a voucher program," Eudaly told the crowd, "which might be great for middle-class families … but kids like mine will be left behind because private schools don't have to take our kids."
On tools to help, Eudaly floated the idea of creating a city-wide "skill share" database so that educators could more easily access local expertise.
"So when a teacher needs someone who's an expert in a certain area and you know specifically around social and economic justice and civil rights … they can just search that database and find people who are active in the community," Eudaly said.
Following the panel discussion, Barragan said she felt empowered and validated, and ready to work more with the teachers' union to make the classroom a safe place for students. She said listening to Elliott's discussion reminded her "we don't know our student's truth. We have to listen and empower them."
Barragan said she's had students, even those of color, making "racial comments" to one another. When she returns on Tuesday, she plans to have them write "love notes" to one another to make amends. She also doesn't want to "forget to celebrate Black History Month."
Barragan added: "And, acknowledge that yes, we're supposed to be working on fables and storytelling, but it's important to grab real stories and real problems and find solutions in our schools right now."