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Baltimore Unrest Is a Call to Action for Teachers

The past week has been emotional and intense for my students. I teach in Baltimore, and the last week has been consumed by protests and demonstrations over the issue of police brutality. In the wake of the protests and riots, teachers have worked hard to support students. However, we need to do more to advocate for our students and their communities to address the underlying issues of economic and educational inequity that caused the recent unrest.

Our school's response to the recent violence has been to offer our students support and a place to share. Classes combined for large discussions. Students wrote, vented, and questioned each other, working together to understand the unrest and pushing one another to seek solutions. Our school social worker and psychiatrist seemed to be everywhere at once and played important roles helping students one on one. Fellow teachers from across the country shared messages of support from their students to mine. Teachers collaborated to provide an introduction to activism and community organizing in Baltimore, and my students played an active role in the peaceful marches and protests, and also in the cleanup. My students used their musical instruments to bring people together at the rallies and marches, and one student wrote and produced a song inspired by the peaceful protests.

I'm proud of my school's response—the way my school community rallied around each other in a supportive embrace. I'm even prouder of my students' commitment to action and positive solutions. I've been incredibly heartened by all the work I've seen around the city and the nation to help students process and understand the recent events.

But while I'm inspired by how teachers worked together this week, I don't think we should take too much comfort in our actions. I want to challenge my colleagues in the classroom to approach this crisis differently. In addition to supporting students within our school walls, we need to be fighting to create schools and communities where systemic injustice happens less frequently. We have a responsibility to our kids to work to fix the underlying issues that created the long-term systemic racism that manifests in segregated schools, the achievement gap, and the school-to-prison pipeline.

Teachers shouldn't just be supporting our students in the classroom; we need to raise our voices to create a better world outside the classroom. Our close relationships with students and intimate knowledge of their struggles and communities gives us a special responsibility to fight for justice for our students and alongside them.

Teachers from Baltimore are already raising their voices and making important contributions to the national conversation about the riots in Baltimore. Teachers from Frederick Douglass High School (the school across from Mondawmin Mall, where the violence started) are contradicting the national media's narrative by reporting that on Monday's dismissal, police escalated the tension, rather than quelling it by not allowing students to board busses for their home neighborhoods.

Sean Martin, who teaches English at City Neighbors High School, wrote an eloquent post this week about his school's response and his students' reactions.

Teachers are writing, sharing and connecting over the protests, and we're engaging in more activism than we have in the past, but we need to sustain this momentum. We need to find manageable ways to build activism into our lives.

Teachers can be advocates for our kids at school board meetings, in our unions, and community groups, and by empowering students to be advocates for themselves. A growing number of policy fellowships for teachers are helping prepare educators for these roles, including the expansion of Teach Plus to Maryland.

As adults it's our responsibility to support our students in the classroom, and be advocates for them outside of the classroom. Teachers know that our students need schools that are built around compassion and high standards, and we need to be the ones pushing for the existence of these schools.

In The Cage Busting Teacher, author Frederick Hess makes a case for how and why teachers should pursue leadership and advocacy in order to "equip teachers to create the schools and systems where they can do their best work." When we are empowered to do our best work for kids, we can learn and lead alongside them to create a society that's worthy of their gifts.

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