On Campus Teaching in the Trump Era: How Do We Provide Support and Sanctuary to Our Students?
As an educator, I’m still discerning what it means to try and protect my students while empowering them.
“It doesn’t feel safe here.” S had tears in his eyes as he spoke to me. Unlike many of the teenagers I work with, he isn’t self-conscious about showing his emotions. “What am I supposed to do?”
Trump’s election had come as a surprise. The morning after the news had been announced, I saw that surprise supplanted by anger and uncertainty in the faces of my students.
S and his family moved from Iran to the United States five years ago. His first experience in an American middle school was one of faith-based discrimination. Upon learning that he was Muslim, his classmates nicknamed him “the terrorist.” A fear took hold of S in that moment, and Trump’s election and subsequent executive orders have only heightened that fear.
“I’m scared of getting harassed by someone because of how I look and because of my religious belief,” he told me. “People hassle me on the street when I’m walking home and tell me to go back where I came from. And Trump sends the message that all that is okay.” He showed me a recent thread from his Facebook page, where he’d made a thoughtful post in an attempt to understand the antagonism directed toward him. He’d been met with threats and racial slurs from his peers.
When S came to me in tears the day after the election, full of questions and fears, I didn’t have any answers for him, and no amount of Socratic acrobatics was going to help. Now in my second year of teaching English language arts and special education, I still leverage research against my own inexperience. In grad school, they tell you to never answer a direct question from a student. You’re supposed to turn the question back to them, rephrase it, break it down into parts, or walk around and approach it from another angle. Your job is not about proving what you know as a teacher; it’s about getting your students to grapple with the questions.
In the beginning, I agreed with this philosophy, though I sympathized with the frustration in the eyes of the young person who just wanted a straight answer from someone. Eventually I came to dislike how it could turn teachers into sphinxes, the knowing and withholding arbiters of knowledge. This withholding of answers occurs at the line level in the language of the regulations that govern the conduct of educators. Chancellor’s Regulation D130 states that on the subject of political candidates, teachers must conduct themselves with “complete neutrality.” It goes on to say that “school buildings are not public forums for purposes of community or political expression.” If teachers are not preparing students to engage in community or political expression, then precisely what the hell are we doing?
S and I had managed to find a corner of a quiet classroom to talk the day after the election. The other students were filling the hallways heading down to the cafeteria for lunch, producing the kind of clamor that only a group of adolescents in a narrow space can produce. Most days I loved their noise and their energy, but the day following the election we had more fights, outbursts, and meltdowns than any I’d experienced in my two years of teaching. I work almost exclusively with young men of color, and in the hallways I could hear many of the boys doing what they usually did when feeling distress they didn’t know how to reconcile with the racism that had just been condoned by the American public: making “jokes” that revealed their own anxiety. “It’s not safe for you here. You better run, Gustavo,” I heard one of them say, the speaker himself a young Dominican man.
S was holding the essay on Antigone he and I had planned to go over together. In the wake of the election, the essay in his hands seemed somehow anachronistic, belonging to a time before this new political reality, which for weeks would carry with it the quality of a bad dream. “What do you think is going to happen to my family?” he asked me.
“Honestly, I don’t know,” I said. “You have a constitutional right to an education, no matter where you’re from.”
“And what’s the point of an education now?”
“What do you mean?”
“A racist guy who doesn’t use evidence and facts just won, and you’re telling me I should study more evidence and facts?”
I said something about how I thought language could still be powerful. But S could tell that I didn’t have a real response for him. He leaned back in his chair, folded his arms across his chest, looked out the window, and picked some distant detail of the South Bronx to focus on. I recognized this disappointed pose. I’d fallen silent, and I knew that my silence came from a place of privilege.
As a white guy with a salaried job and no immediate threats to myself or my loved ones, I could fall silent and I would be fine. But I was also silent because I’d had the same question on my mind since the final votes were tallied. Why teach logic to young people when fear so visibly counted for more? A fallacy was supposed to be rendered powerless once you had called it out for what it was. Yet the election seemed to invalidate those systems of thought. I felt like S could sense that, and I worried that he saw me as complicit. After all, I had been the one peddling the importance of reasoned arguments, all the while ensuring S that reason and learning would give him a kind of agency; that it would better prepare him to understand and navigate the world.
The next few weeks were grueling. A colleague sent around an article entitled “What Do We Tell The Children?” It was well-intentioned, but the last thing my students needed was another aphoristic promise about how we’ve got their backs and that we “will stand united as a school community.” Of course I wanted to protect them, but what did that mean exactly? What protections could I offer?
I reached out to immigration lawyers to get a better sense of my rights, but the response was anything but encouraging: “Beware of the consequences of good intentions.” This sounded like bullshit to me. Not only did my good intentions amount to a pile of platitudes, they also apparently posed a threat to a status quo that prioritized tenure, pensions, and silence. I was losing track of the myriad ways a teacher could be useless.
Meanwhile, S had started to stay after every Friday afternoon to talk. He told me he was still encountering hate speech, and when he tried to talk to his friends about it they seemed uncaring. I’d become well-acquainted with the cynicism and postured indifference he was referring to. These attitudes manifested in a hundred small ways, including one recent discussion around ethics when a student asked, “What’s the point of talking about morality when a guy can assault a woman and then become the most powerful man in the world?” For many of my students, a theory they’d long suspected to be true had been confirmed by the election: The system they lived in was rigged against them on the basis of their race, sexuality, gender, and/or faith.
I sent a desperate email that night asking if any of my colleagues would be willing to meet after hours to organize a response to the growing tension. I’d been having so many conversations with students that underscored their feelings of helplessness and fear. As an educator, I wanted to be better informed, have concrete plans in place, know available resources, and support students who wanted to organize.
My colleagues and I planned a conference for Inauguration Day that featured workshops for students like “Know Your Rights” and “Community Organizing.” We were proud of this work, and yet we complied with a request from administration that we not contact any press outlets about it for risk of “raising red flags.” We cited recent letters from the State Education Commissioner and the Attorney General urging educators to ensure that schools are safe havens in order to justify the conference. But we also knew that these letters, while laudable, do not signify a shift in policy.
The day after Trump’s Muslim ban took effect, S came to me and said he wanted to organize and he wanted my help to do it. S and his family are permanent residents, but the new restrictions meant he had no idea when he would see his extended family again. And in an era when such arbitrary lines could be drawn overnight, did his green card mean anything?
Since then, I’ve helped him reach out to like-minded students, helped him organize and plan his meetings. But I also made my support conditional in ways I did not fully recognize until after the fact. When I told S about my plans to attend a NYCoRE press conference about requesting the establishment of an Immigrant Liaison position in New York Public schools, he said, “I want to go. I want to have my voice heard.” I told him that would be against the rules; bringing him with me on a trip of that nature would be a fireable offense.
When he asked if he could come with me to the protests in Union Square about the US missile strike in Syria, I turned him down again. S said he understood, but now I wonder if I failed him in that moment. These small, seemingly innocuous concessions can accumulate and become larger compromises.
S was looking for a concrete action to abate his feeling so helpless. I could tell because I’d been searching for the same thing for weeks. He didn’t feel safe, but he sensed that speaking out and protesting might be a way to channel that fear. If I have a legal obligation to protect my students from discrimination based on race, ethnicity, religion, immigration status, disability, sexual orientation, gender identity, or any other reason, that obligation extends to state-sanctioned discrimination. S wanted to counter that discrimination by protesting it, and I was responding with half-measures.
From that point forward, I resolved I was done with half-measures. If S comes to me again to ask about a protest, we’ll evaluate it together. As long as the demonstration is peaceful and S knows how to handle himself, I’ll find a way to help him be a part of it.
I have to be resolute in my commitment to this approach, because up to this point S and I have only been talking about protests and bending certain rules. A much harder decision feels imminent. On May 14th, a federal immigration agent entered a public school in Queens in order to locate a fourth-grade student. Up until this point, ICE had not yet conducted a raid in a New York public school. It seemed that ICE was biding their time. But this visit proved that there is nothing binding about the 2011 Homeland Security memo labeling schools as “sensitive locations.” The only thing keeping ICE out of public schools is public opinion and the risk of political blowback. More ICE raids in our public schools is a real possibility.
If ICE were to arrive at my school with a judicial warrant signed by a judge, my school would have to provide access to that student or risk violating federal law. I love my work as an educator, and I appreciate the security that work affords me. But I have to question my place in a system that would comply with such a warrant, and I think any educator with a conscience should be experiencing similar doubts.
I’ve decided that even if I am presented with a warrant, I would refuse to comply. I would do anything in my ability to obstruct access to my students, whether that means actively lying to ICE agents or concealing my students in another classroom until ICE has left the building. Unfortunately, such resolve is futile; current protocols are set up to preempt teachers from taking that kind of action. If ICE were to arrive, school safety officers (a division of NYPD) would refer them to the principal, who would call the DOE lawyer for instructions on how to respond. If ICE has a signed judicial warrant, the principal would have to comply. I don’t think my principal is the type of person to risk his job or face legal consequences. This means that the focus for my work as an activist has to be finding a way to keep ICE out of New York public schools, because once they are inside, teachers have no means of resistance.
Recently, S celebrated his birthday with the other members of the student sanctuary team. I gave him a copy of The Prison Notebooks by Antonio Gramsci. In it, Gramsci tries to make sense of the systems of oppression and consent that imprisoned him in fascist Italy. Gramsci argues that popular beliefs influence our behaviors and actions, and one can either conform to that influence or resist it. Resistance can take many forms, from helping a student find his voice, to taking steps to address institutional racism in the workplace.
S shook my hand and promised to read the book. I’m still discerning what it means to try and protect and empower him. I’m still encountering moments where those endeavors contradict one another. I’m honest with him in these moments, and ultimately S makes up his own mind.