By Karla Hilliard

It is so tempting to center ourselves in our work as teachers. 

It makes sense why this might happen. As an old friend of mine says, “We make the work, we do the work, we grade the work.” We stay in our own classrooms, or now, as COVID may have it, behind our own screens, as our students rotate in and out, traversing a broader educational landscape and navigating the complexities of their lives beyond school. 

I’m sometimes guilty of thinking…

Well, kids are kids. 

I’ve done this job long enough to know how this will go. 

This worked great last year. I don’t know what’s wrong with them. 

As long as you stay out of my hair today, we’re good. 

And even on occasion, 

I’ve taught students like you before. I know your type. 

‘I’ve taught students like you before. I know your type.’ A dangerous thought. A thought that strips students of their identities and their lived experiences. 

I’ll share with you a conversation I had recently with my mom about my late brother, a descriptor that still makes me sick and dizzy. 

Let me backwards map for a minute. My brother and only sibling, Bradley, died at 25 from a heroin overdose. He was smart and fun and hilarious and a true thrill seeker. He was also difficult and challenging. As a teenager, he got hooked on the prescription pills that flooded our communities and sparked the opioid crisis. He was an adolescent who made one wrong move, and then another, until it changed the trajectory of his life. 

Before that, Bradley was just a boy in school. A sweet, wild little boy, who loved camp and football and big trucks and video games. He called me Sissy. But school was not easy for him, and it was not a place he ever felt he belonged. He was incredibly bright and social, but also impulsive and defensive. His armor went on fast with his friends, his teachers, and his family. He could be maddeningly stubborn, and he struggled to harness his excessive energy in healthy ways. The people in his life who thought they knew better would often remark on this part of his personality. Their “be better and follow the rules” bootstrapping mentality simply did not and does not work. 

When Bradley was growing up in the late 90s and early 2000s, school was not always a friendly environment for a child or a parent of a child like Bradley. The typical response to his struggles from administrators and teachers, particularly towards his behavior: medication, discipline, exclusion. From early on, Bradley was labeled a defiant troublemaker, who talked too much and couldn’t control himself. 

What I’m saying is: the labels assigned to my brother and the ways in which he was characterized by his teachers as a 5, 6, and 7 year old child followed him the rest of his days as a student. It took away his power, and it altered the way he saw himself, whether his teachers knew it or not. 

My mom and I have visited this conversation many times over the years—oftentimes to make sense of the emptiness and burden we now carry, but since his death in late 2018, it has taken on a new meaning for me as a teacher. 

This story I tell about my brother is not for sympathy; rather, a jarring reminder that our students deserve our grace and humanity. 

Teaching in the time of COVID-19 presents a million obstacles and challenges to teachers. I am there with you, in the trenches of hybrid teaching, masked and managing new and difficult tasks I’ve never before faced, and exhausted by outrage. This summer, in what would have ordinarily been precious headspace for personal reading, professional development, and the exciting turn of a fresh page for a new year, I watched as our communities turned on us, accusing teachers of being lazy whiners who should quiet down and do their jobs, while our government used teachers, students, and their families as political pawns, eroding the trust and invaluable partnerships between us. COVID teaching is unlike teaching in any other school year. 

But what remains unchanged is what our students need and require from us, no matter our circumstances or our county’s COVID color. 

Our students deserve a clean slate. They deserve a fresh start, loved and unlabeled. They deserve a safe space to be seen, heard, and valued. They deserve kindness and respect. They deserve instruction that meets them where they are and is relevant to their lives. Our students deserve a school and system that embraces their needs and challenges, helps them cope with complex emotions, and commits to mentoring them, even the difficult ones, so they grow, find success, and know hope. I wish this is the experience Bradley had. 

As I meet my new students this year, their faces half concealed with questions in their eyes, I remember my brother. I commit to learning, knowing, and understanding the individuals behind the masks—the joy and pain they carry, and I strive to make a space where they can lay down their armor. I want to quiet the voice that says, ‘I know the type.’ 

This year, I’m giving my students a clean slate. I hope to empower them to reclaim their power, rewrite the stories others have told about them, and to tell their own stories. 

Karla Hilliard is the Co-Director of WVCTE, an English teacher at Spring Mills High School, and a co-founder of More Than Addiction, a storytelling project that seeks to humanize addiction.

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