Standing in front of a room full of educators and community advocates at the Indiana Black Expo’s Education Conference this morning, Robert Jackson, an author and consultant who once taught in Indianapolis Public Schools turned to his audience and took a poll.
“Stand up if you’re ever experienced violence at the hand of another,” he instructed.
Dozens of educators — more than half of the teachers, superintendents and youth workers in the room — rose to their feet.
Then he asked another question: “Stand up if you’ve ever experienced any type of abuse — mental, physical, sexual.”
Again, dozens stood. They stood for histories of family turmoil, personal pain and lasting trauma — backgrounds that Jackson says informs the way they teach and interact with children.
“Everyone in this room has dealt with something,” Jackson said. “We did that exercise because I want you to understand that we’re no different than our students.”
The focus on educators’ perceptions and mindsets was part of a larger conversation schools across Indiana and the country are having about how to address issues of race and violence in the classroom, especially after the shooting deaths last week of five Dallas police officers and of two black men whose killings at the hands of police officers were captured on video.
But Jackson says that the experiences educators bring to the classroom is often overlooked.
“We have to listen to our kids and sometimes as adults we have our own issues and you have to separate yourself from them so you can be there for your students,” Jackson said.
His message resonated with Keisha Nickolson, a fifth-grade teacher at Guion Creek Elementary School in Indianapolis.
“Being an educator is a title, but that doesn’t always speak to the person behind the badge,” Nickolson said. “When you come into the classroom, you bring your authentic self.”
Nickolson, who has been teaching for five years, is familiar with Jackson’s workshop, and thinks it is important to address what educators are facing because it prepares them to address their students’ needs.
“When you open up, it humanizes you,” Nickolson said.
Nickolson has seen how confronting a personal trauma can help a teacher relate to her students. Last year, she said, she was able to draw on her own experience as someone who does not have a relationship with her father to help a girl in her class .
“She was talking about being angry,” Nickolson said. “And I said…’I have been angry. You have to forgive.’ In that moment as an educator, no textbook tells you what to do.”
Though much of Jackson’s speech was geared to educators who have personally experienced trauma, he also talked about teachers who don’t share similar background with their students. For them, the focus should be on working to overcome that difference.
“I don’t think that all teachers are equipped to deal with these students,” Jackson said. “They don’t all understand what these kids are dealing with.”