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English Teacher Allies

Another group of students where teachers can model ally behavior is those living in poverty. These students face all sorts of challenges including housing, insufficient nutrition, bullying because of things they have no control over, dirty clothes, and instability in their families, among other things. Needless to say, students who live below the poverty line face many challenges in and out of the classroom, but here are a few ways for teachers, English teachers in particular, can act as allies on their behalf:

  1. Establish a relational interaction. In order to enact change, you must first find your voice, your platform. But, in order to make your platform effective it is critical to develop a relationship with your students. As a teacher this looks like developing a self-image that students respect, and respecting their human experiences as well.
  2. Give students the language to advocate for themselves. Oftentimes the language that students use at home is not empowering in the classroom and community at large. By teaching students how to “code-switch” to the formal and accepted standard of English, you give them a microphone to be able to advocate on behalf of themselves and those in similar situations. I am reminded of Frederick Douglass’s Narrative wherein he uses a language, a code, that would be more familiar, and thought more highly of by his English and Union audience than the language used informally among the African-slave community.
  3. Teach students the rules of navigating in the school community. Students coming from more unstable backgrounds may have learned ways of protecting themselves that aren’t permissible in a school context. Fighting is one example, but teach them alternative ways of approaching conflict that lead to greater understanding rather than busted lips and black eyes.

Resources for further reading:


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Takeaways for Dealing with Bully Behavior

In order to become a better ally to all students in my classroom, I went to the NCTE website to search for ways to support bullies. As expected, the search didn’t yield many results that were explicitly directed at that issue, but I think that the techniques we use to be an ally to all of our students can challenge bullying behavior and create a safer classroom. Here are some takeaways from the resources I found:

  1. Curate an inclusive classroom atmosphere. By acting as a role-model of ally behavior, you set an example for students to follow. Use pronouns that students are comfortable with. As an English teacher, try to include texts that portray a diverse set of backgrounds, and examine the way that language either affirms or challenges cultural norms of race, gender, sexuality, religion, etc.
  2. Address bullying behavior when you see it, especially in the form of “micro-aggressions” — behaviors, intentional or otherwise that reinforce cultural norms that discriminate. We experience behaviors on a daily basis, and see them in our classrooms, that promulgate bullying behavior. Take advantage of your content, English in my case, and the opportunities it has to engage in the conversation about creating safe spaces. Almost all texts will provide this opportunity if you challenge the assumptions that the text makes about cultural norms. Note: you can do this without sacrificing your integrity or your student’s trust by playing the “Devil’s advocate.” Avoid consistently choosing one side of an argument, but present the pros and cons of both sides. Even if you disagree with a side, you create safer spaces by acknowledging their strengths and your own bias.
  3. Use the many resources available online and through various student-advocacy and  teacher organizations to learn about marginalized groups that face bullying. The internet has provided instant access to innumerable chances to become more educated on the challenges that students face. By becoming more aware teachers are better able to empathize with their students and to act as a firewall to bullying behavior. And, this philosophy is not limited to the internet–use your student’s stories, the experience of colleagues, and your interactions outside of the classroom to develop empathy and techniques to combat bullying.

My learning on this continues, and as it does, I find more and more resources that reinforce the idea that students should not be identified by the name “Bully.” Instead, like any other student group, they are people first. By treating them as people, and by modeling that behavior towards those in your classroom, school, and community, you plant the seeds of what it looks like to be an ally instead of a bully

All resources used for these take-aways can be found by joining NCTE and searching “supporting bullies.”

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Allies Outside the Classroom

Let’s imagine for a second that there’s this perfect student: they spend eight hours a day in class under the tutelage of a teacher in a perfect environment, they sleep for another eight hours a day, but there are still those remaining eight hours. You, the teacher have no control over this critical time, right?

Okay, assuming that this hypothetical situation is true, then even the best of teachers could not constrain being an ally to the classroom. We know that this situation is at the very least, highly unlikely. Which gives all the more credence to the argument that a good teacher should act as an ally win the classroom and out.

Public Allies is a resource for those of us, teachers or no, who wish to be allies outside of a school setting. Their mission is “to create a just and equitable society and the diverse leadership to sustain it.” They work towards this goal by employing what they call “integrated strategies” for those who enter the program to develop the leadership skills necessary to create inclusive, diverse, and honest allies in society. A key dilemma to their approach is that it is only effective for those who participate in the program. Their scope is limited, just like a teacher’s. But then again, are holistic approaches achievable? And if they aren’t, are they worth pursuing anyway?

I would say yes, but that’s another bag of marbles altogether. We can get a coffee if you want to talk about it…

Another resource for students to get involved in safe places, and where adults can act as allies, is After School Alliance. Their mission is “To engage public will to increase public and private investment in quality afterschool program initiatives at the national, state and local levels.” They work for this by advocating on behalf of the benefits of after-school activities to provide safe places for students of all backgrounds, beliefs, races, or whatever other categories you could squeeze a person into. They engage on all levels, from the government bureaucracy to families and community members to stress the value of these after school programs. While their platform is well grounded, with voices advocating in policy making to community awareness, their platform is again limited to participants. I wasn’t a huge fan of after-school programs, partly because it was hard for me to feel included in them–so I just did my own thing. Some parents would prefer to be the loudest voice in their children’s lives, and have the resources to provide a space to exercise that voice in their homes. To add to this dilemma, current policy is shifting towards defunding public education, and publicly funded after school programs. This throws a wrench in their proverbial cogs.

Once again, I will return to the military metaphor. Like I said earlier, it is hard for me to believe that we will ever fully achieve a just and equitable society, but I do believe that it is worth fighting for anyway.

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Supporting LGBT Students

“Remember, it’s not about politics—it’s about supporting students. Any educator, regardless of his personal beliefs, can be a resource for LGBT students,” says the page on If you are a teacher, if you are in a classroom, your students are a priority.

This issue has been very present on my mind lately. As someone who has so many friends who are part of, and who have faced the consequences in school and out, of being part of the LGBT community, I have personally been challenged to learn what this means to me.

I remember a day in High-School band–I was asking one of the other students about their experience as someone who is gay. I told them, “I’m just interested because I haven’t known that many gay people.”

The joke was on me, as people all around chorused, “I’m gay!” “I’m bi!” “I’m bi-curious.” I was shocked. Not that I was surround by so many people who were “different” than me, but that they were just people. I learned that day that they were people first, and that I couldn’t see what was below the surface, whether that was sexual orientation, emotional distress, or whatever-what-have-you. They were people first, and that was good enough reason for me to treat them like people, and not like problems.

That was how I thought I would treat people if they were gay on entering High-School. As problems to be solved. Thank you everyone who spoke up that day, who weren’t afraid of what I might have thought.

So, with that in mind, here are the “top five takeaways” that I have learned about being an Ally to those in the LGBT community, student or otherwise:

  1. They are people first. That, and not their sexuality or gender identity, defines how we ought to treat people, regardless of who they are. Not only is this a moral thing, but as Americans it is a constitutional right protected under the first amendment. People are protected to act based on what they believe, provided that we as educators don’t discriminate. Sure, if girls can wear dresses, then gay men or trans women, you go for it too.
  2. Respect their privacy. If someone confides in you about their gender or sexuality, do not assume that they want the whole world to know. Being able to keep the information they have entrusted you with is a good first step towards being a “safe space.” This goes for anything (within lawful application of course, teachers are still required by law to report suicidal thinking, abuse, etc. to parents and administrators).
  3. Do not tolerate bullying. Yes, I did write an earlier post asking about how we can support bullies, but that does not mean we must tolerate bullying behavior in our classes and schools. Schools should have resources in place, and training for staff and administration in order to protect students from bullying of all stripes. And make sure that you, as the person you can control, is not a bully, and is a resource that is safe for students to turn to if they are being bullied. Train students to be aware of bullying, and to act on behalf of others if they see bullying behavior.
  4. Address the religious question. Yes, religion and the LGBT community are often at odds with one another, but disagreement doesn’t have to end in a fight, argument, or belittling. Use opportunities in your classroom to allow students to practice confrontation and disagreement in constructive ways. Consider fostering an environment where disagreement leads to greater understanding on behalf of both parties, rather than leading to conflict. This goes back to seeing people as people first.
  5. Remember that safety and change both start with you. You cannot control or fix all of the environmental aspects of your student’s lives. This goes for both LGTB students, and any other students in your classroom. You may not be able to control the beliefs of their parents, peers, or even your co-workers. But, you can craft in your own classroom a place where discrimination isn’t tolerated, were students of all stripes feel safe to voice their beliefs and ideas, and perhaps most importantly, do disagree with one another on important issues while knowing that their words, ideas, and identities will be respected.

Resources to check out if you are interested in learning more: — a good resource on an overview of what being an LGBT ally in the classroom looks like — a resource with links to helpful pages on how to be an ally to subsets of LGBT students like, “LGBT students of color” and resources for creating inclusive curricula. — this site has helpful tips on how to create an inclusive environment in your school, not just for LGBT students, but for everyone.

Do you disagree with me on any of the above? Let me know in the comments! I’d love to hear what you have to think.


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To A Teacher

Dear Mr. Hise,

After talking to Trevin again the other day, I was reminded of the kind of teacher you were. I remember everyone loving your class, but that work got done in your class too. It was eighth grade and man, we were the absolute worst. But you just dealt it right back to us in a way that didn’t alienate us, but made us feel like you respected us.

You gave Trevin some comic books and helped him to love alternative media as an art, and he is pursuing those things to this day.

I remember your assignment to draw a political cartoon, and to this day I am ashamed of what I drew, but with your instruction it was certainly effective.

Because of you, and your colleague Mr. Cash, I fell like I have a good idea of the story of American History since the nation’s inception, and know why the word “Mercantilism” is important in that story.

In a hard year, the year where students face their insecurities that reared their head in 7th grade head-on, you showed us what it looked like to be an adult. You didn’t operate under the premise of professional first, though you were professional, but rather as honest. And, in the words of José Vilson, honesty in your case wasn’t about how much you shared, but how much you shared of what you shared.

Thank you.


A grateful student.

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Teachers that made an impact

As I continue the “Teacher as Ally” badge, one of the requirements was to ask three people, it didn’t matter who they were, about a teacher that made a difference in their life. I ended up asking a few of the teachers I’ve had in my life, as well as I student I shared classes with in elementary and middle school. We’ll start with Mrs. O.

Mrs. O is actually one of my current teachers, but she primarily instructs in a middle school. I have had the privilege of observing her classroom this semester, and have quickly grown to love the way she interacts with students, so I had to know about the teachers that she had looked up to back when she was behind a desk, and not in the front. While Mrs. O had several examples of teachers who were influential in her life, what stood out to her was teachers who were kind, loving, caring, compassionate… but knew how to “play hardball” when they needed to.

Mrs. B was my High School geography, economics, and history teacher. She had this way of connecting to her students through humor so that it seemed like everyone in our (very small) class loved her. Unfortunately, we didn’t get the chance to speak in person. But here are a few things she told me: The teacher that came to mind was one of her high school teachers, one Mr. Bell. Her experience, like many of my fellow English major’s experiences, was that of someone who went into the class with low expectations. She didn’t like history. What seemed to make the difference in her case, was both the encouragement, “I am actually really good at this history thing,” as well as the teaching style. Her prior social studies teachers were the kind that we all have nightmares about now, but used to be commonplace. Answer these questions from the book. When did this happen? Dates. Names. Scan-tron tests. But Mr. Bell taught, “like a college professor.” Lecture, discussion, essays for tests. She says that this was super challenging, but that this “inquiry” style of teaching helped to draw out what he called “a natural understanding of history,” for Mrs. B. He pushed her in ways she hadn’t been pushed, and took (history) classes she wouldn’t have taken.

Finally, my friend T and I both shared an incredible teacher ally in a history class in middle school. Like Mrs. B, he excelled at bringing humor into the classroom. I don’t know of any student in our wretched class (it was rumored that teachers told horror stories about us to subsequent years — “Don’t be like them!”) who didn’t love Mr. H. But T’s experience took it a bit farther. T fell on the autism spectrum, and in his case this manifested as what one might call social awkwardness. He really had a hard time fitting in, and middle school is brutal to those of us who don’t fit the mold. But T also had a hard time finding teachers who could connect with him. T loved comics. And Mr. H went out of his way to find connection with T. Once he found what made him excited, he shared some of his own comics with him. Many of these comics, Neil Gaiman’s Sandman, for example, were very “mature” in terms of middle school. But not only did Mr. H trust him with this material, but he also trusted T with some of his valued possessions. As T teared up while telling me this, he said that Mr. H showed him how non-conventional media could be art. Comics, films, video-games all had deeper stories to tell. And Mr. H helped T to connect to things that he understood and loved. He identified him as an individual, not just a student. He “took a kid who was very difficult, and just kind of let him do his thing.”

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Meet the expert:

Last week, one of the professors at CSU joined those of us working on our Teacher as Ally badges so that we might ask her some questions about her experiences as a teacher, how she acted as an ally, and to get her perspective on this issue. Through the stories she told of students like Jarvis, Gretchen, and Matt, she described how to make a classroom safe. Sometimes she would place a student in the seat closest to her desk so that she could ask him everyday, “How are you? Can I help you with anything?” Another student she was able to bond with and relate to over Pink Floyd. And yet another student she was able to protect from the boys bullying her for her weight, by bringing out the “teacher voice,” and challenging the boys to rise to the occasion. “How dare you?” she asked the students. How dare you make my classroom unsafe for another student?

Throughout this badge I’m coming to define ally in ways I hadn’t before. Previously, I always thought of it as some sort of support group, almost like a for of Alcoholic’s Anonymous. But more and more I’m coming to realize that in order for a teacher to be an ally to their students, some key things to have in mind are to be relatable, to create safe places, to be supportive, to trust students with a lot (they can handle it!), but to be sure to remember, you are their teacher and not their friend or therapist. In the words of one of my teachers, “most students don’t need another friend, they need and adult that acts like an adult.”

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Hello. My name is Charlie and I am the definition of privilege. I come from a pretty well-to-do family, I’m white, I’m straight, I’m male. Check all the boxes.

I have little, if any experience belonging to a “marginalized” group, at least in the U.S. But, I understand this. I get that there are many who didn’t have the opportunities that I have, and still don’t, and I refuse to let that slide, though none of us have much choice over what station we are born into. What we do have choice over is how we use what has a been given to us.

I want to use the gifts that I’ve been given, to help make this world a better place.

What a vague and cliché goal, right?

But that was a huge motivator for my choosing to pursue teaching. It was avery practical way of applying my love for literature and writing to accomplish that goal. Part of what I love about literature, whether I am writing it or reading it, is its ability to shed new light onto perspectives that I am unfamiliar with. I would not be the person I am today had it not been for the books I read, and I would like to think that that is a good thing.

As I move through the Teacher as Ally badge, I am confronted by the harsh reality that I just plain don’t have the experiences that would help me to relate to many of the students I feel most obliged to reach. My heart goes out to the students that didn’t have the opportunities that I have had, and to me that doesn’t matter much unless it leads me to act. So often though, I’m caught not knowing what that means. In order to help someone, I first need to know what that would look like to them. I refuse to do something just to make me feel good about myself. No. I have to teach to my students, their needs, and their futures.

So often, those with the best of intentions end up doing things that decimate the people around them, simply because of a misunderstanding, or a disconnect, between the needs of the one and the other. My concern then, is this: that I will step into the classroom and turn on the mic, step onto the soapbox, and preach to my students without ever understanding them. I do know that it won’t look like that. I imagine that my teaching is going to raise more questions than give answers. In fact, I hope to teach mostly through questions that beg my students to find their own answers.

But will I ask the right questions? Will I call on the students who need to answer, or just the students who raise their hands first, always ready with the “right” answer.

In my school experiences, students rarely (if ever) look like this:


which is the kind of image you’ll most often find if you google image search the word “student.” They’re smiling, deep in their work, engaged in thinking with their classmates, collaborating on work, and they’re all focused. What the heck? In the classrooms I’ve been in, this is much more common:


Bored expression. Not paying attention to the teacher. Heck, I doubt I knew even five students who made it that far in any notebook without half of it being filled with doodles (nothing against doodles, they actually help many people think. But they aren’t notes… so don’t be deceived by how many pages are in her binder).

I also find it interesting, looking at both of these images, the lack of diversity. Almost all the students are at least “passing” white. I doubt any would have been classified as ESL learners, or qualified for free lunch, and none of these students look like the kids I sat next to in the back of class.

C’mon google. I thought you were supposed to unify human experience…

José Vilson, in his book This is Not a Test, has this theory that “[f]or every thirty students, I knew that ten of them would succeed no matter who stood in front of them because of their effort, their intelligence, or both. A critical seventeen of the students could turn the whole class, either doing well if the teacher kept up with them or poorly if the teacher wasn’t prepared. This left three or four students who simply didn’t break through.”

So, that’s only ten percent of the class right? That means he has a good chance of getting a 90%! For those of us who have been students, that is an “A.” An “A-” sure, but still an “A.” But I certainly am no José Vilson (at least not yet). And even if I was, I would be fighting tooth and nail to reach at least one or two of those last three or four students. They’re the ones I’m in that class for! I’ve always had a soft spot for “those kids.”

“But Charlie, the teacher mantra is that ‘if at least one of your students has the opportunities you dreamed of for them, then how could you count ninety percent as a failure?'”

Because allies don’t just fight for their comrades on either side, but for those in the trenches all the way down the line, and those behind them, and the folks back home.

I don’t have any answers. If you do, please share. But even if you don’t, I am going to keep fighting. I don’t have any other option than to admit defeat and wave the white flag. But I will not do that. My allies, the kids in the trenches, the teachers that helped me to get to where I am, and all the other people involved in each of our lives are counting on me to keep fighting. I will not give up. Not even on ten percent. And while I know that there isn’t any real way to keep all of my students where I want them, I won’t let that keep me from trying.

I want my students to do the same for me, and their classmates, and their folks back home.

Edit: José also says in his book, “Teachers try their hardest, but can’t always “save” children from their desperate situations… Teachers are supposed to focus mainly on students’ academic situations. Veteran teachers always advise us to focus on our classrooms; we can’t fight every battle. We have other students who need us at 100 percent as well. Trying to do too much for one student could take away from working for the eighty-nine other students who need our attentions.”

But he goes on to say that that is no excuse not to help the most vulnerable.

Image Credits:



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3/50 Great Teacher Allies

“He called me. He had murdered someone. He had all this pent up fury and rage in him. I never heard from him again after that,” says Kozol.

You’ve got your one phone call. Who do you call? You call the teacher that showed you your humanity all those years ago when you were in the fourth grade and he read you Langston Hughes instead of a children’s book about a dog named Spot or a girl named Jane. It’s the first time an adult in this school has treated you like a person and not an animal.

Landlord landlord my roof has sprung a leak.
Don’t you ‘member I told you about it
Way last week?

Landlord, landlord,
These steps is broken down.
When you come up yourself
It’s a wonder you don’t fall down. –Langston Hughes, “The Ballad of the Landlord”

Did Langston Hughes wish for his landlord to fall down the stairs? you might wonder as the teacher reads the poem aloud to you, I know I do sometimes. 

Jonathon Kozol used literature to acknowledge his student’s humanity and get them engaged in the classroom while working at a school where colored students were still whipped. He was fired when he read Langston Hughes for “deviating from the curriculum.” But when a student found himself in trouble years later, who did he call? He called the one person he knew would listen, and maybe understand.

“Mr. V was a constant advocate in my corner,” says another student, this time in reference to his middle school band teacher. “I got in trouble, at Langston Hughes [Academy in New Orleans], and they put me in Mr. V’s class. I said I don’t think I’m going to like Mr. V.” But Mr. Venable fought in this student’s corner, pushing him to excel in music and school. Listening to the student talk about his teacher from four years earlier you can hear that this teacher did something right.

He treated him well, and fought in his corner.

And speaking of allies, hear what this student has to say about Mr. Ashley on what he learned from chess, “The most pertinent strategy from chess that I can immediately apply to my profession is the concept of loyalty that surrounds protecting/securing the king. … One must utilize the full army of pawns, bishops, knights, rooks and the powerful queen to destroy enemies and safeguard the mighty king.”

The whole team works together. I think that this student’s experience has parallels to teaching on so many levels. Perhaps, one could think of the teacher as the player, encouraging all of the students, the pawns, bishops, knights and rooks to work together towards a common goal. They advocate on behalf of one another. They make sacrifices for each other. They think ahead, considering the consequences that their actions will have, not only on themselves, but on the other pieces, or students as well.

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What About Empowering Bullies?

I remember it well.

I had a bottom locker in seventh grade (a grade that is notorious for its misery… José Luis Vilson calls it the bottom of the parabola, the lowest point in a student’s career in terms of security, identity, and respect. That also makes it a turning point for the rest of their student career though, doesn’t it?) and this kid, Carl had the locker above me. Every day, he being bigger, faster, and stronger than myself, would push, shove, and crowd me out of my locker. It was impossible for me to make it to classes on time. He’d linger there, mocking me with his friends. I don’t even know what I did to earn their spite. I was a know-it-all for sure, a nerd and social outcast, and it didn’t help my situation that I din’t play any sports. Instead, I was a band-kid.

One day, when I had miraculously managed to get to my locker before Carl, he came up and slammed my locker on my hand. Geez. It hurt, a lot. Luckily fingers are thick enough, and the gap between the door and wall of a locker narrow enough that it didn’t shut and lock on my fingers (have you had that happen with a car door? It’s miserable).

Looking back now, recounting this story, makes me wonder why I remember it so well. If it were to happen to me know, it would turn out much differently. Instead of leaving the scene, almost in tears, and trying to forget about it during my next class, maybe I would stand up to him, find a way to advocate for myself, or heck, just laugh it off. That pain is going away soon and he didn’t do any permanent damage.

I’ve got thicker skin now.

But back then, Carl had power over me. I didn’t stand a chance. I didn’t have any means of protecting myself, and I was scared of going to a teacher and ending up a “snitch.”

If that’s my story, then why in the world would I want to empower bullies, or rather children who bully, when I walk into a classroom? Wasn’t it Carl’s power over me that allowed him to exercise cruelty when I went to my locker every day?

It was. But what circumstances made Carl feel like he needed to bully me? Bullying is a learned behavior (Pacer, 2015). What if the bullying that Carl did came from something other than me being a dweeb (mind you, I was a dweeb, but that’s not an excuse to bully someone). I’m mostly just thinking out loud here. I’m not an expert. But, what if the problem isn’t the “bully.” In my experience, the old adage, “hurt people, hurt people,” holds true. Children who bully, bully because of something outside of themselves, not because they are inherently malicious people. Instead of treating them like they are bullies, what if we treat them like students, children, who have something that makes them need to express power over other people?

This is something that gets me pretty fired up. I was bullied, and if I had to guess, I probably bullied people sometimes. But if there was a way to support children so that they wouldn’t feel the need to bully, then you support the kids being bullied as well. You kill two birds with one stone, and open the door to having conversations that support people, that open dialogues to help people to understand one another.

Maybe I’m being crazy optimistic, which is out of character for me. I know that we aren’t able to eliminate bully behavior completely.

But what if?

Note: Carl’s name wasn’t Carl… as they say, names have been changed to protect the innocent.

Image Credit –Thank you Bill Watterson for enriching my childhood via Calvin & Hobbes. I needed them.