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‘We Need Help’: Teaching Amid Turbulence (Opinion)

Editor’s Note: Late last year, Education Week Opinion began speaking with Michigan teacher Mercedes Harvey-Flowers about her desire to offer a safe space to her students, the majority of whom are from the Middle East. Harvey-Flowers expressed concern about how best to do this during the Israel-Hamas war, the way so many teachers across the United States have. But something different about Harvey-Flowers’ experience stood out to us: She grew up less than 10 miles from the high school in Dearborn Heights where she now teaches. From her hometown of Inkster to Dearborn Heights is a straight shot down Michigan Avenue, right through the campus of the Ford Motor Co.—something that Harvey-Flowers pointed out to us that comes into play in her essay.

From these discussions, Harvey-Flowers penned an Opinion essay about her classroom experiences over the last several months, which led us to consider how we might get an up-close view of her world as a teacher. Her words—a call for help for educators—and the visual connections to her environment led to our decision to invite her to participate in this video, which now accompanies her written piece.

The essay, which is a transcript of the video, was edited for clarity and brevity.

My name is Mercedes Harvey-Flowers, and I teach Advanced Placement Research, AP U.S. History, and African American History at Crestwood High School in Dearborn Heights. But really, I’m a Black girl from Inkster, Mich., a city with a rich and beautiful history that’s also entrenched in the complex and painful history of the Ford Motor Co. and Henry Ford’s pervasive racism.

I graduated from a highly selective university where very few of my peers look like me. I’ve taught through the soul-shattering senseless murders of countless unarmed Black bodies and the subsequent vilification of protestors who dared to speak out. I’ve learned how to push through when my own soul is hurting.

When I was training to be an educator, I envisioned myself as this sort of beacon of knowledge for my students. I imagined that I would help them find their passions and cultivate their lifelong dreams. But none of my experiences as a Black woman in America or my training as an educator has truly prepared me to support my students who have roots in the Middle East right now. Over 90 percent of my students identify as Middle Eastern, and most of them have immediate ties to the area.

Our classroom banter was lighthearted and maybe even silly prior to Oct. 7, but now, the vibe has changed. Our classroom banter is filled with stress and anxiety and sometimes even fear. My students are afraid for their family abroad, for themselves, and for anti-Middle Eastern sentiments. I can’t expect them to check these emotions at the door. We don’t shed emotions like a coat. They’re a part of us. It’d be unrealistic to expect them to do that. But fear and anger and uncertainty are barriers to learning.

I can’t fix this for them. I can’t offer a solution, so I feel like I’m failing them. But I’m here to create and be representative of safe spaces for my students. But my students need more than a video clip, an article, or a nuanced retelling of a deep-seated conflict that spans lifetimes.

They need more than what my current skill set can offer. And I need quality tools and resources to continue to cultivate these safe spaces and ensure that they’re rooted in mutual respect and knowledge in order to combat the disinformation that my students are experiencing and to have age-appropriate conversations about culturally sensitive topics and real-world conflicts like what’s happening with the Israeli-Hamas conflict right now.

We must work to make our students be smart consumers of media, able to discern bias and inflammatory media. Our students deserve the best, but we can’t be the best in isolation. We need help.

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