Atlanta protests: ‘Teachers have tools, abilities to talk these young people off the ledge’

Former Georgia Teacher of the Year urges colleagues to reach out to students in wake of protests

Casey Bethel was Georgia's 2017 Teacher of the Year. In this essay in response to the Atlanta protests, Bethel draws on what he has learned as a teacher, as the sponsor of an all-boys mentoring club during the time of Mike Brown's death and the subsequent protests in 2014, and as a black man in America.

After 14 years of teaching high school science, Bethel is now the 6-12 science coordinator for Douglas County Schools, coordinating resources, curriculum and teacher professional development for 14 middle and high schools.

By Casey Bethel

It is safe to assume that everyone everywhere watched the past few nights as protests erupted in cities across this country ignited by yet another round of video-recorded but unexplained deaths of Black Americans.

News reports show countless young people in the streets, some of them smashing windows and setting buildings afire. The riots took a much different level of importance when I saw my own state included. I watched the destruction in Atlanta on Friday night and worried about what would come on Saturday.

However, amidst it all, for the teacher in me, three important memories came to mind. Thankfully, these thoughts have crafted what I firmly believe is the best strategy for me, for educators and all of us to get out of this.

Just this Thursday, I gave a workshop to a few dozen teachers about Diversity and Equity in schools and I began by asking “What is the purpose of education?” The workshop was planned weeks ago but when the time came it was two days after George Floyd’s death and the day after the first Minneapolis riot.

Decidedly, that question became the emphasis of the entire talk. The purpose of education is to equip young people to understand the world around them. No doubt, lessons from physics helped them appreciate the space shuttle launch today, and math concepts assist them in comprehending daily COVID-19 statistics.

We must also remember the ability to think critically, to communicate and to practice empathy are needed for them to come to grips with the difficult news of these recent events. I am not a psychologist, but I shared online this week that “seeing people who look like you killed un-necessarily on TV each week is a type of trauma that is extremely difficult to process.” My sureness in that statement is rooted in my second memory.

Imagine me, teaching seniors and running an all-boys mentoring club at my high school during the time of Mike Brown’s death and the subsequent protests in 2014. Like a good teacher and mentor, I tried my absolute best to help the young people entrusted to me to make sense of it all. In reality, I could offer no real concrete answers but I listened to their questions and validated their fear, confusion and pain. I vividly recall the things they said and the tears we all shed.

Thankfully, I have been in contact with many of those same young people online this week, now grown, and many of them confirming how helpful those sessions were.

I tell you this – the young faces I see on the news at night remind me of my students – I recognize those same questions and those same frustrations. But what is missing is a sense of refuge, of understanding and validation. I agree with media reports that there are probably some criminal elements involved in the riots, but I firmly believe that the vast majority of young people out there are legitimately in pain.

Where is their safe space? Where is their productive outlet? My heart breaks for them. I don’t know if the vacuum exists because the pandemic has stripped down student-teacher relationships or because school is closed for the summer, but I maintain the belief in my heart that teachers have the tools and abilities to talk these young people off the ledge.

When I watch them running through the streets, I hear the words from Les Miserables: "Do you hear the people sing? Singing the songs of angry men."

The young people in Atlanta and cities all across America are angry, and rightfully so. But who is listening?

Sadly, we know that just like the musical, violent revolt will not produce the desired result. But how can they know that if we don’t teach them – and this is a perfect teachable moment.

I call on all teachers, administrators, coaches, club sponsors, mentors, youth pastors and everyone who can combine a loving heart and deep rooted hope for a better future to REACH OUT. Now is not the time to fold our arms. Instead, it is instead the time to extend them. Call, text and check up on all of the young people in your circle, rioter or not.

Resist the urge to lecture them. Listen. Hear them out. Cry with them. Reassure them. Then share your wisdom.

I end with this revelation. I, Casey Bethel, am wise at 41. But at 20 years old, I might have been out there tearing stuff up too – not because it is right, but because I needed guidance. So, if you love me today, perhaps you can love them as well. Nothing I said is meant to excuse their poor decisions or law-breaking actions. I only hope to remind us to exercise the same empathy and growth mindset in this situation that we bring to our classrooms every day.

We, TEACHERS, can lead our city and country forward during this time by providing the education that is helpful during this time.