How 8th Graders taught me: Not to just be politically correct, but inclusive

The word that can change the class dynamic

Mark Rius
4 min readAug 30, 2019
Photo by Filip Mroz on Unsplash

March 12, 2017

Substitute teaching is like being stranded on a desert island. Just like Robinson Crusoe, Friday is your best friend. But it’s not Friday, it’s Monday. And you have 15 minutes to prepare a lesson for a heavy topic. My blood pressure elevates to a boil. Then a presence walks in. I relax when I see Ms. Landry, my partner teacher for the afternoon. Or I should say, security.

Simply put, Ms. Landry is a badass. I look up to this woman. She became my mentor. I leaned on her heavily for the next few months. Of course, I never told her that. I just asked her a bunch of questions. She is a strong black woman from the south. Louisiana to be exact. I only bring up her race because we’re teaching a lesson on race and gender in five minutes.

Today we are reading the words of Sojourner Truth “ain’t I a woman?” This speech was bestowed on us in 1851 at the Women’s Convention in Akron, Ohio. Sojourner Truth couldn’t read or write, but she could use her voice. The reason why I included the date at the top of the chapter, was to help you understand this lesson is taking place right after the largest gathering in United States History, The Women’s March.

This speech was gifted in 1851, and we are still fighting this same shit today. It’s crazy. Sojourner Truth was trying to illustrate two points. First, she wasn’t being treated like a white woman, despite being a woman. And second, She’s being treated as less competent than men, despite having done the same work as a man, while being a woman.

Then, it hit me faster than a cheetah on coffee. I’m reading this speech and “mansplaining” women’s rights. I can see from the corner of my eye Ms. Landry wanting to chime in, but respecting my position as the instructor. Then, I realize it. Why am I explaining women’s rights and race relations as if I am an expert when someone who is living this experience is inside the classroom?

Reaching out for help is scary. But it can create a bridge that lasts a lifetime. So, I respectfully asked Ms. Landry what she believes Sojourner Truths words displayed.

This was the best decision I have ever made. Ms. Landry brought a perspective that I could never convey. Originally she’s from Louisiana. In Louisiana, she was the Principal at a Middle School. She explained to us why the school hired her. To save money. She did the same job as her predecessor and was paid 20,000 less. All because she was a woman. She understood exactly how Sojourner Truth felt.

How do we get these students to grasp this heavy topic?

The Answer. Tie this to something they can understand i.e. a current event. We then have a discussion about “The Women’s March” and how we are fighting the same fight today.

We’re having the conversation. It’s very inclusive as everyone is chiming in. Students were writing and speaking about their personal experiences.

Oops, I look at the clock and we have two minutes left. I address the class to start packing up.

“Hey Guys, Let's start Packing…..”

I’m interrupted for the moment we all crave as educators. From the back of the room, Vanessa shouts.

“We’re not all guys. We kinda just talked about this.”

This ignites a smile on my face. Through sarcasm, we can see the lesson resonated. Yes, you are not all guys! That's exactly what we have been discussing. Standing up, with your voice and demanding equality.

“Your right” I respond. “Exactly! Good Job you’re not all guys.” Then I proceed to address the class.

“Hey Everyone, please pack up,” I say as the bell rings. It’s one word, but it creates a different environmental feeling inside the class. At this moment it hits me. Wow, you know we just had the conversation. As an educator, it's important not to brush by the lessons. Really, take them in.

Every day now, I cautiously address the class as “Hey, Everyone.” As a substitute, I have a new class every 40 minutes at a new school each day. So, in my estimation, if I switch to “hey everyone,” maybe we might start breaking through to make that the normal. I believe in equality, and that’s how an 8th-grade class taught me: Not to just be to be politically correct. But how to be inclusive.