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Breaking the Silence...

Posted by on in Social Emotional Learning
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Last week, I wrote a piece about some looks that my students received on a field trip . It was an eye-opening experience for me that demanded immediate attention and reflection. I  shared the piece with my learning network and over all of my social media sites, but how could it end there? How could I create change in the lives of my students if they didn't know about this experience? This is what happened when I shared with them.

We had some time at the end of my classes on Thursday, so I decided to read the piece to my kids. While reading, I gauged the reactions and stopped where it seemed necessary. Each class wanted to talk about different things, but the overall response was the same. They were angry and upset with the reactions that they received, but they were also happy. They were appreciative that I spoke up on their behalf and that I spent the time to write about them. One class broke out into applause when I finished reading to them.

The next day it was time to talk about the piece and dig deep into some tough conversations with my students. They knew it was coming and they were ready. I did not expect my students to come as hard and as real as they did.

I started the conversation by declaring the classroom a safe place. I reminded my students that this conversation would not be easy for some to talk about. I told them that we needed to support each other, show love and appreciation, and not judge the actions or thoughts of anyone. I informed them that what we said in the room, stayed in the room. Everyone in the class agreed to these basic rules and we moved forward.

The first thing that I said to them was, "I am privileged." This caught them off-guard so I elaborated. As a white male, I am privileged. There are things that I will never experience because of the color of my skin. I will never know what it is like to go into a store and be looked at like I am going to steal something. I will never go into a restaurant or a business and be looked at like I do not belong there. I will never be immediately nervous and scared during interactions with law enforcement. I will never understand what they experience in their lives. I want to hear about their encounters with racism and will try to understand, but I can never put myself in their shoes.

I then spoke to them about how every person in the room had judged someone by the color of their skin, at some point in their lives. They looked at me very puzzled when they heard this. We are programmed to see the differences in each other. There are stereotypes about every ethnicity and we are all guilty of assigning these thoughts to others. I watched as heads nodded in agreement, so I continued. There is nothing wrong with having these thoughts, but there is something wrong with us refusing to acknowledge that we have these thoughts. This is how we grow and better ourselves. I asked if students would like to share any times in which they were judged or judged others by the color of their skin and the flood gates opened.

It would be against our class rules to share the specifics about what students talked about, but it was raw and real. They held nothing back. They told stories that made themselves and their classmates tear up. Everyone in that room could relate to something that we discussed, including myself. I saw it in the eyes of those who were talking and those who were actively listening.

There was a common theme in all the stories. When students and their families encountered prejudice and hate, they almost always responded with the same. I took this opportunity to ask them what they thought conquered hate. Surprisingly, they all knew the answer, LOVE (maybe they have listened to me this year)! And then the tough question, "How do we respond with love to someone who is being hateful and hurtful?"

"Darkness cannot drive out darkness, only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate, only love can do that." - Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

It is not easy. I explained that my response to the woman on our trip (read here) was wrong. Now they were really confused. I asked them if they thought that what I said to that woman had any impact on her or her thinking. They thought for a moment and then shook their heads. I then explained that she probably thought I was crazy for reacting in that way to her. I should have taken the opportunity to introduce myself and engage in meaningful conversation. The only way we grow is by not being afraid to have tough discussions with others.

In that situation, I was too angry to converse with that woman. As a 31-year-old educator, doing that would have been impossible for me at that time. Now, this is something that I need to work on in myself and I completely acknowledge (to myself and my students) that I must be better. I recognize that as teenagers who are experiencing these encounters firsthand, it is even more difficult to combat the hate with love. I told them that it isn't something that happens quickly, but it takes patience and work.

The conversation then shifted to whether racism and intolerance were innate or learned behaviors. Everyone agreed that we learn these feelings and beliefs. We talked about how people came to feel this way. We traced roots back to great-grandparents and what time period a lot of these people lived in. We discussed the Civil Rights Movement and how the opinions and views of people have or have not changed. I then asked them if we learn these behaviors, can they be unlearned? And then the light bulbs went off.

Students need to know that the future is in their hands. They need to have these tough conversations about racism and intolerance with others. It is the only way that we can work through problems. This was the first step for them. We talked (and will continue to talk) about these issues as we experience them. These conversations bring awareness to the problems that we are facing as a society. This awareness creates empowerment to do something about these problems. I promised that I will be there for them every step of the way, when they need it.

To my students and anyone else that dares to break the silence, please remember that this is not easy. This will require not only you to step out of your comfort zone, but others as well. I admire the bravery and courage that you will display to have these conversations. A lot of people are too concerned with being labeled as racist to actually talk about racism. We have the power to change the world, but we must stand up and create the change we want to see. I will be standing alongside you, combatting ignorance and engaging in dialogue with every opportunity I have.



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Born and raised in Cumberland County, New Jersey, Sean has grown his career and family from his native district. Sean again resides in the same county with his wife and their two young sons. He recently concluded his candidacy for the Democratic nomination for United States House of Representatives in New Jersey's 2nd Congressional District. Sean currently serves as an administrator at a school in Camden, NJ, where he focuses on the growth & development of teachers and building social & emotional skills with students. A Rutgers University graduate, Sean studied Communications. He later completed a graduate degree at the University of Scranton in Educational Administration and has spent almost a decade working in education.

As a result of connecting with people of all ages, ethnicities, cultures, and beliefs, Sean has learned how to listen and represent the interests of everyone. In order to help unite parents and educators, Sean is adept at innovating to solve problems.

Sean is an unwavering advocate for positive youth development and education. Growing up, Sean faced challenges financially and emotionally. The product of an unstable household and battling a significant learning disability, Sean has overcome many obstacles. School became both a place of refuge and a source of trouble for Sean. If not for certain extraordinary teachers and school faculty encouraging him, Sean would not have pursued higher education and would not have been able to impact his students the way he does today.

Throughout his career as an educator in New Jersey, Sean has based every decision solely on what is best for his students’ future. He has worked to create new, effective programs as well as supports for students and parents addressing social issues. Sean has demonstrated his student-first approach by never being afraid to privately and publicly question decisions that impact teachers, students, and the educational process. As a result, he has been able to create strong, lasting relationships across our state with the students, families, and communities that he has served.

In May of 2018, Sean and his community suffered the tremendous loss of a former student, Maurice Lewis, to senseless gun violence. After countless conversations with his friends, family members, and members of the community, they decided that they had to do something to honor his memory and the good that he did in his life. The idea of Reese's House, a whole-child youth center focused on the academic, physical, social, emotional, and mental well-being of kids with a strong emphasis on innovation and entrepreneurship was born. To accomplish this, Sean created an educational 501(c)(3) nonprofit called Our Future First. The goal of the organization is to offer affordable professional development and growth opportunities in schools for educators and students while putting all profits to the purpose of creating Reese's House in our hometown of Millville, New Jersey.

  • Rita Wirtz |  @RitaWirtz
    Rita Wirtz | @RitaWirtz Friday, 28 October 2016

    Just grand! I've been a risk taker my whole career. No regrets. Someone had to stand up! Thanks for a superb post. Thought provoking!

  • Sean A. Thom  |  @SeanAThom
    Sean A. Thom | @SeanAThom Monday, 31 October 2016

    Thank you Rita! If we don't stand up, we are complicit in what happens. It is never easy, but it is always necessary!

  • Guest
    Todd Kominiak Friday, 04 November 2016

    Really engaging students means challenging what they think and how they feel. This isn't always easy, as you outlined. But by providing safe spaces for students to openly express themselves, we as educators ignite the potential for a larger, more important conversation.

  • Sean A. Thom  |  @SeanAThom
    Sean A. Thom | @SeanAThom Saturday, 05 November 2016

    I agree Todd! It all starts and ends with the relationships that we create with our students. If everyone feels safe, then we can have those tough, game-changing conversations.

  • Guest
    Samatha Amespackii Saturday, 19 November 2016

    Our society has been corrupted by the prejudice and ignorance of the intolerable. Your actions were not made in vain, rather to start what we, human beings, have begun.

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