’Back To School’ Amid a Pandemic and Uprisings Gives Teachers a Unique OpportunityRoundup
tags: teachers, education, public health, COVID-19
Kabria Baumgartner is an associate professor of American studies at the University of New Hampshire. She is the author of In Pursuit of Knowledge: Black Women and Educational Activism in Antebellum America (New York University Press, 2019) and is writing a biography of the African American lawyer Robert Morris.
In this unprecedented year of economic uncertainty, mass protests and a global pandemic, back to school evokes worry rather than excitement for many parents and teachers. As covid-19 infection rates surge in parts of the United States, school committees and superintendents have been assessing various school reopening plans, from a hybrid teaching model or remote-only to the riskier option of face-to-face. Teachers are in an unenviable position. They must prepare for all possibilities.
Regardless of the format, students are also returning to school this fall with lingering questions about what they witnessed in the aftermath of the police killings of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Tony McDade, Elijah McClain and other African Americans in recent months. Violent policing — seen most recently in the detainment of a Black family in Aurora, Colo. — and rampant anti-Black racism remain urgent and unsettling problems.
In such chaotic times, teachers can help their students by confronting — rather than avoiding — the challenges and complexities of this moment. Human rights issues such as racial justice and inequality require honest and mindful classroom conversations about race and power. But here is the good news: During some of the most contentious historical periods in our nation, teachers have led the way, often serving as anchors for young children trying to make sense of the world in which they lived. Teachers have encouraged students to think critically, consider their own actions and define their role in shaping their communities — all essential lessons for the classroom today.
One such teacher was Susan Paul, an African American woman from Boston. The daughter of a minister, Paul came of age in the early 19th-century just as the abolition movement entered a second wave. Paul joined thousands of Black and White Americans in organizing and agitating for the immediate emancipation of millions of enslaved African Americans, racial equality and Black citizenship. Opponents vilified this interracial social movement, calling abolitionists fanatics, zealots and traitors. Paul, however, was unfazed.
Following in her mother Catherine’s footsteps, Paul combined her activist work and education when she became a teacher at an all-Black primary school in Boston in the 1830s. For Paul, shielding young children from the subject of slavery bordered on malpractice. In her classroom, slavery and abolition framed curricular lessons on reading, writing and music.
The thumbnail image for this article is a watercolor by Black abolitionist and educator Sarah Mapps Douglass (1806-1882)--ed.