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Teaching and Learning Through Dangerous Times

Advice for educators on how to extend grace and teach effectively in times of turmoil

January 13, 2021
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Amid recent moments of crisis and upheaval, Harvard faculty member Timothy Patrick McCarthy reflects on how he and his co-teacher, Ph.D. student Ashley Ison, found the classroom to be a powerful space for hope.

We are living in the midst of so many dangerous disruptions — here in the United States and throughout the world. As much as we may have hoped for a change after an extraordinarily difficult year, the opening weeks of 2021 have proven to be no exception.

For those of us in education, people who care deeply about teaching and learning, this poses enormous challenges. It’s hard to know what to do in these moments of crisis, erupting more and more frequently these days, precisely because they are sometimes so unexpected, even unprecedented. There is no syllabus or lesson plan for any of this. So here’s my best piece of advice for teachers and students right now: Extend grace to yourselves — and everyone else in your reach. There’s not a person you know who doesn’t need it.

Last spring, when COVID hit and we all had to move online, I was on leave for the first time in 15 years. So far away from my students, at a real loss for what to do, I wrote them this love letter. I was struck by their response: countless emails and texts, love letters of their own, and many requests for meetings over Zoom (then new to me). They seemed to need me as much as I needed them. After a very difficult semester, my students honored me with a surprising request to deliver this graduation speech. Truth be told, I intended to use my leave to pivot away from teaching at Harvard. I was burned out, feeling stuck and frustrated, itching to do something else, somewhere else. But my students, in the midst of a global pandemic, called me back into the work I have long loved.

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"With this clarity in mind, we decided to shift our script. And the results were profound: frustrating and terrifying, to be sure, but also healing and fortifying. It turns out that our nascent community helped us to navigate the events that were still unfolding in real time while we were in class."

One of the rare silver linings in the last year was the chance to collaborate on the design and implementation of a new set of pilot courses, Equity and Opportunity. My colleague, Ashley Ison, and I are now co-teaching one of these courses, focusing on race and ethnicity, during January term. When the violent, seditious insurrection descended on the U.S. Capitol on January 6, we were preparing for our second class meeting with our students. Many of them are part-time students who are also teaching, mentoring, parenting, and doing other work as educators in the world. Their time is precious, as is ours, and we wanted to respect that. Like us, they came to class with many raw and competing emotions, so we decided to press pause on our syllabus, move everything back a day, schedule an extra class, and hold space for their reactions and reflections in this terrifying moment.

This was not an easy decision. After all, the course is only seven days, and frankly we resented having to disrupt our collective work because white supremacists were once again trying to destroy the country, this time with explicit incitement of the impeached President and other government officials. With this clarity in mind, we decided to shift our script. And the results were profound: frustrating and terrifying, to be sure, but also healing and fortifying. It turns out that our nascent community helped us to navigate the events that were still unfolding in real time while we were in class. I'd like to think that our time together — then and since — also provides a model of collective resistance to the ancient and ongoing abuses of power and systems of oppression that our course seeks to expose and abolish.     

In the final part of our class that day, we asked everyone to offer one piece of advice for what educators — broadly defined — could or should be doing in moments like these. Here are their collective suggestions (slightly edited and anonymized):

  • Give space for group reflection and emotional processing
  • Process creatively for those who struggle to find words in the moment
  • Reach out and give love and support to other educators
  • Hold space to interrogate learned or received "truths," the myths of America
  • Find ways to encourage creative expression, especially with younger kids
  • Create space for constant questioning and space to ask “why?”
  • Give permission to not know or have all the answers
  • Host yoga and/or whole body wellness for other educators
  • De-center whiteness and other dominant groups in discussions
  • Sing, find music, gather a choir, create a playlist
  • Recognize the danger of silence and find ways to step up and speak out
  • Write poems, share poems, and read poems
  • Reach out to your advisees and students to make sure they have support
  • Wipe your eyes and clean your ears so you can see and hear more clearly
  • Offer meditation and centering practices in staff meetings
  • Connect the dots between what’s happening in the world and our classrooms
  • Invite people to make connections between history, the present, and the future
  • Find ways to build trust and express love for each other
  • Take time — there’s no need to rush or “figure it all out” in the moment
  • Work to empower all members of our communities and elevate their voices
  • Push yourself to be more outspoken so you can be a voice for truth
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"After decades of teaching, studying, and being part of movements for social change, I know in my bones that justice, equality, and liberation are impossible if those of us who are counted on to dream of freedom descend into despair, or worse."

As you can tell, we didn’t (and don’t) have all the answers, but this is a pretty good start. Personally, I entered our Zoom room on January 6 with a debilitating mix of despair and doubt. I was questioning both my country and my citizenship, my career and my calling. Our students challenged us — and one another — to zoom in and zoom out. And that is precisely what the very best communities do when the urgency of the moment seems so fierce. 

Like so many of us, I have had a terrible time finding hope over the last year. But every time I’m in classroom community with other people — and our J-term students are a seriously special bunch — that search gets a little easier. After decades of teaching, studying, and being part of movements for social change, I know in my bones that justice, equality, and liberation are impossible if those of us who are counted on to dream of freedom descend into despair, or worse. These dangerous times are doing everything to defeat us — and last Wednesday was a nuclear option. But we carried on. Because that’s what educators must do: We are the hope-finders and freedom-dreamers of the world. And this work — our collective work — has never been more urgent.

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About the Author

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Timothy Patrick McCarthy
Timothy McCarthy is an award-winning historian, educator, and human rights activist who has taught on Harvard’s faculty since 2005. He currently holds a joint appointment in the undergraduate honors program in history and literature, Harvard Graduate School of Education, and Harvard Kennedy School of Government, where he is core faculty at the Carr Center for Human Rights Policy.
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