Fighting for the Dreamers in and Out of the Classroom
By James E. Ford
There are some moments as a teacher that just never leave you. They remain burned into memory like still photos. These images have stories that all elicit their own emotions, varying widely from invigorating and awe-inspiring to sad and demoralizing. Amid news that a DACA protected student was just deported, I am reminded of one of the single bravest acts performed by one of my students: disclosing his undocumented status to the entire class.
The lesson was part of my unit on Ancient Rome, with a specific focus on the evolution of the republic. We paused to consider a society where wealthy, landowning aristocrats (patricians) possessed nearly all the power, while the poor, oppressed commoners (plebeians) remained powerless. In the early republic the plebeians produced the food and did all of the hard labor on which the economy depended. Even though institutional power remained firmly in the hands the patricians, the society could not function without the plebeians. This contradiction was not lost on students.
I asked, "Can you see any similarities in modern society? Are they any groups in America like the plebeians?" Without skipping a beat, students nearly unanimously identified "immigrants." For a school with a large immigrant population and over 40 different countries represented in the student body, their response was a no-brainer.
At that moment a particularly studious and mild-mannered young man raised his hand and said, "Uh, Mr. Ford, I have something to say that I haven't told anyone." He paused for a moment, then continued, "I am undocumented." My student explained that he arrived with his parents from Mexico when he was too young to remember. He shared how he lived daily with the fear of being deported, despite internally feeling as "American" as anyone else.
We suspended the lesson at that moment. Sometimes students are more important than content. His fellow classmates said they admired him for his courage, offering words
of support and sharing similar stories. I was proud of him, but also of my students, who demonstrated a level of empathy that we as educators actively seek in education. He has since taken advantage of the DACA program and graduated high school.
That was nearly four years ago.
Today there is a new administration and a new reality at hand. Young people all over the country—much like my former student—are living with an increased level of fear of deportation and family disintegration. Schools are no longer bastions of safety and security. Many undocumented students have chosen not to attend school to avoid risk of being detained by an emboldened Immigration and Customs Enforcement.
Teachers are often our students' fiercest advocates; we go to great lengths to secure their path to prosperity and self-sufficiency. As I work for my kids in the classroom, I remember something I learned at an Institute for Educational Leadership conference some years back: "You cannot fight for the rights of the children while inside of the classroom and be silent about their rights once they leave." Those words ring louder now than before.
Equity is more than a nine-to-five experience where you punch the clock at day's end. It's bigger than that. It is natural for teachers to desire to remain neutral in times of political discord, but we must make a clarion call for everyone to do right by our students and give voice to their needs, hopes, fears and desires. Let our voices be counted among the number of those advocating for humane and fair treatment of the many Dreamers and families whose road to success goes through our classroom. Fighting for students is more than just a job, it's a way of life.
James E. Ford is the 2015 North Carolina State Teacher of the Year and a member of the National Network of State Teachers of the Year (NNSTOY).
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