Teaching and Learning Without Killing

Dr. Walker wears a mask.

Maybe it was watching my mom head out to evening classes at Montclair State. Maybe it was handing out papers and pencils in my aunt’s classrooms when I still had dimples where my knuckles would later emerge. Maybe it was the time Ms. Ogunyemi taught me to edit again and again. Maybe it was the patience of Frederique Jean Pierre who taught me to drive stick on the dusty roads of Haiti’s Artibonite Valley. Somewhere in my life I came to understand teaching and learning as acts of love. This love is built on dedication, humility, curiosity, faith, trust and the groundbreaking notion that our lives are enriched by our willingness to share what we have found with one another. Teaching and learning in community has the power to grow resources and create collective sustenance in many different interpretations of the terms. Teaching and learning are justice bearers. Maybe.

Teaching and learning can be bent to schooling and training or prepping and practicing. These may be just word play but what I’m trying to say is that teaching and learning can become routinized and weaponized. We have to be careful. I am ecstatic when I watch a great alignment of course objectives with activities and assessments come together. I’m thrilled when I read that students have completed a course being able to perform tasks they could not do before they met a teacher. And I am moved by the many kind words I have seen students offer instructors when a course has wrapped. I know so many of us are eager to fire up a course shell, distribute a syllabus, and prepare for the light show that happens when we teach and learn. My teaching colleagues want to teach and are being asked to bend so they can do it this fall. I am helping folks prepare right now and some of what I see is not bending, it’s breaking.

I am talking to some professors who have given decades of their lives to teaching and are now trying to figure out exactly how they will keep mental track of six foot distances. They are afraid they will be seen as acceptable collateral damage because their age group is undervalued. I am listening to some students who want to know what to say to a classmate who lets a mask dip under a nose or refuses to wear one. They don’t want to politicize their health and safety. I am hearing Black and brown students who don’t want to walk around campus risking their lives under the weight of inequities amplified by a pandemic. I am hoping with some teaching assistants who don’t want to have to come up with an answer when they are asked to proxy in a face-to-face setting. We are watching a hierarchy older than the laws it seeks to uphold right now shake off its dusted facade and show its truest, ivory-est colors.

So many of us see it. So many of us are wondering how we will teach and learn through a pandemic that has sharpened the edges of capital, consumption, power, and privilege. I have gathered my thoughts into one simple mantra for these next weeks as we enter the fall season of education: teaching and learning without killing. Before I create an activity or commit to a plan, I will ask myself is this potentially going to kill someone? Is it potentially going to kill their chance at a meaningful education? Is it going to kill the responsibility of communal self-care? Is it going to kill me? I remember that this is a question I have dealt with a lot in life; a question so many teachers helped me recognize. When my mother handed me Nikki Giovanni poems for the first time, she was telling me to live. When Mrs. Attanasio forced me to redo a conclusion, she was telling me to arrive not an ending but an awakening. When Mrs. Boxley insisted we sing together the notes she played on her piano while waving her delicate arm high above her head, we knew she was telling us that working as a community meant something. Surely Mrs. Boxley knew that Faith, a classmate who went on to become a multi-platinum recording artist, could stand alone at our concerts. Mrs. Boxley also knew that teaching and learning was about all of us.

We have faced challenges before and dealt with horrific social ills and injustices that held our acts of love out as bait to slaughter people. The outcomes are not always within our control. But where we do have some control, we must fight with everything we have to teach and learn so that we may live, be awakened, and remember that the choices we make are about all of us not just some or one. Teach like Septima Clark, who was known to stay away from things she felt would do her or her learners no good. After all, the phrase “first, do no harm” is Hippocrates’ advice from his work “Of the Epidemics.”