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Dedicated to Teachers

Water for Teachers: Empathy with guest Rusty Walker

Water For Teachers_EP5_Rusty-WalkerWelcome to Water for Teachers, A Heinemann podcast focused on engaging with the hearts and humanity of those who teach. One thing we know for sure is that teachers are human. They have fears. They've experienced tragedy. They struggle. They are affected by crises and pandemics. And like everyone else, they deserve to lead lives full of peace, joy, and love. Join host Shamari Reid and other educators as they move from logic to emotion, from the head to the heart, from thinking to feeling, and from the ego to love.

This week, Shamari is joined by Rusty Walker, a veteran teacher in San Diego, as they talk about holding empathy for our students and ourselves, and the negative consequences of internalizing the "teacher as hero" narrative. 

Listen to last week's episode!


Below is a transcript of this episode. 

Shamari Reid: Hi everybody. I am so excited to welcome you to episode five, and guess what? We're talking to another amazing human who teaches, Rusty. But before we talk with Rusty, I want to share a poem.

The poem come from a close friend of mine, Peter Núñez. And when I was thinking about the themes of today's episode, I immediately thought about Peter and this poem. After I read the poem, I'll invite Rusty to engage with me about any and everything the poem brings up for us both. This is Where I'm From by Peter Núñez.

Before we get started today, we wanted to give listeners a quick heads up that today's pre-interview poem contains some intense language and topics. We welcome you to skip it if you  would like to avoid engaging with potentially activating/upsetting material for any reason. You're always welcome to come back and revisit Peter's poem at another time.

Where I'm from. Where I'm from, when the power goes out at night, kids bark "se fue la lú", they're called to play hide and seek.

Where I'm from pushing a tire down the block with the stick is the coolest bike. Listen, where I'm from, we steal our mothers broomsticks to play Vitilla and be the big papis and the A-Rods.

But also where I'm from while boys play outside, girls do the dishes.

Where I'm from, to change that would take more than my wishes.

Where I'm from to get a gun is way easier than to get a book.

Where I'm from, the only thing worse than being Black is to be Haitian.

Where I'm from there's no such thing as being patient. What you want, you want it right here and right now. Hard work is something ancient.

Where I'm from my mother, my sister, my aunt, my daughter, every woman in my life matters. But where I'm from, yours don't matter as much.

Where I'm from, you don't talk about my mother, but where I'm from, I call your mother a whore.

Where I'm from, I'm protective of my sister while I abuse yours.

Where I'm from, my baby daughter will always be a baby.

But where I'm from, your baby daughter is already looking like a lady.

Where I'm from depression equals weakness, trauma equals, oh, please stop whining.

Where I'm from, if you kill yourself, that's your problem. And believe me, believe me, I know it's unfortunate, but what's really unfortunate is the fact that we know that it's unfortunate and yet, unfortunately we do nothing.

Where I'm from, men act. We are given a script with everything in it. Stage directions, lines, everything. Walk straight. Don't sit with your legs crossed. Don't cry. Don't move your hands like that when you talk. We are given a script with everything in it, everything except for love for each other.

Where I'm from, boys love their mothers and fear their fathers."Cuando papi entra por la puerta de alante, we get out por la de atrá

Where I'm from, there is a God and I met him. We got along for awhile, not anymore.

One day he asked me to hate. That shook me to my core.

Doomed, doomed the man who loves another man.

Doomed, doomed the woman who loves another woman.

Doomed, doomed the person who wants to walk in his, her or their truth.

Doomed, doomed myself for choosing love over hatred.

Doomed, doom us all and send us all to hell for our infamy.

Anyway, something tells me that in hell there's better company.

I want to publicly thank Peter for allowing me to read his work. And so in this episode, we'll be talking to Rusty. Rusty is a teacher in San Diego who has worked in public schools, charter schools, private schools, and as a tutor. And when not working in an education, Rusty likes to cook delicious food and hang out with his spouse and their four cats. And so Peter's Where I'm From poem, talk to me, Rusty. What's on your mind?

Rusty: That was powerful. It's powerful. It reminds me of maybe it's a genre of poem. The Where I'm From poem. I know there's a famous one by George Ella Lyon. I just had to Google that to remember who wrote that. But it evokes for me a project actually that I saw at High-Tech High when I was teaching there a few years ago that the humanities classes did where students were invited to compose their own Where I'm From poems. And so it's about telling your story and it's about bringing forward the truths that can be hard to articulate for ourselves. And it's reflective. I heard so much in that poem that speaks to the specific experience of that individual in his context, but there are universal truths that come out of that and it unites us around our common humanity.

And so I think that's the beauty of any project that can elicit from students, any creative work that a person brings, whether in school, in whatever field in their life, bringing forward that that ability to reflect on our lives and to articulate our truths is so powerful. And that's what undergirds all the connection that we develop as human beings with each other. And so, as I was listening to that, I was struck by a couple of lines that really kind of stood out to me.

And this concept of dichotomies that he brings up in many different ways, like what boys do and what girls do, or my mother and your mother. What's unfortunate is that you know it's unfortunate and do nothing about it. So those were the things that kind of really resonated for me that I was picking up as you were reading that. And it really kind of made me reflect on the power that telling our story has both within an educational context and just in general in life as part of living our truth and bringing our stories to the forefront.

Shamari: Yeah, yeah. And I also share that Peter grew up in the Dominican Republic and I met him at work. He was a work colleague. We worked in an office together, teacher education, and he wrote that Where I'm From poem for a class and he shared it with me one day. And it just sort of sat with me. And so when I was thinking about today, it just made sense. And I wanted to start with Peter's poem because I think there's something not only beautiful and engaging with the stories of others, but there is a profound power in being able to bear witness to someone else's reality, which is what that poem does for me.

It invites me into Peter's story. And I believe that one of the ways that we can arrive, as you were saying Rusty, to a more, I don't know, complete or nuanced understanding of what it means to be human is to engage with as many stories and as many lives as possible. Because all of our experiences and perspectives matter. So I invited Rusty, for you listening, I invited Rusty to talk to me today about empathy and about allowing ourselves to being open, to bearing witness to someone else's story and the feelings that go along with those stories. And so Rusty, you shared in the interest form to be on the podcast, that you're really good at empathy. And that sort of struck me. I was like, okay, that's interesting to say. And so first, let me ask you, what is empathy to you?

Rusty: Empathy is love, when you get right down to it. Empathy is love. It's the ability to see things from someone else's perspective, to imagine what it's like to be them. And that requires love to be able to see and value and love a person and then to be able to put yourself in their shoes, to walk in their story. Maybe to never know exactly what it's like to be them, but to be able to extend yourself outwards and to grow yourself beyond who you've been and your particular situation and your story and to really connect with someone in a way that requires love as the first step towards that person. I mean, when I think about empathy and when I think about this idea of it's being perceptive to who that person is, it's being honest with yourself about who you are and listening to this other person, and to be able to see and value and connect with that person.

And that's ultimately for me what teaching comes down to. It's not about content, it's not about 21st century skills or whatever we want to throw in there. It's about the human beings that are in our classrooms. It's about investing in a person. Not in an economic sense, but in doing good and bringing love to that person, just because they are a worthy human being. Regardless of how they're behaving in that moment in your classroom or what their background or their story is. I think that's the most powerful component of any teaching relationship is if students feel like the teacher is invested in them and they know that my love for them is not founded on whether or not they're proficient in a skill or whether or not they're completing their work, but just showing up and being present with me and having a conversation and laughing together is enough.

Shamari: Yeah. Yeah. Can you say more about being good at empathy? Like what that looks like for you? What does that mean? I'm good at empathy. You know what I mean? Because we ask folks, what are you good at? Oh, I can cook or, I'm good at empathy.

Rusty: I don't know. I hate to make it sound like a brag or something. I don't know, maybe I want to rephrase my interview form, I guess. But I guess to be good at empathy, it means to make a conscious effort to be better than you kind of are by default. To make strong efforts to always see the best in people and to go out of your way to listen to people who do not come from your context and who have not lived lives like you have. That's something, you brought that up a little earlier, engaging with as many stories as possible. And I think that's really where human beings grow is we all know our own story. We all know what it's like to be us, like inside the black box that is each of our own minds.

We know what it's like to be us, but we don't know what it's like to be someone else. And the only way to learn is to listen. And the only way to develop that ability to listen and connect with people is to make a conscious effort to do that. It doesn't happen by mistake, and it's not a talent that you're necessarily born with. It's a choice that you have to make. And I think that's the power of empathy is that it is a choice. It's not some kind of inborn skill that some people are good at empathy and some people are not. Anyone can be good at empathy and anyone can be a loving person, but it does require that to be a priority. It does require that to be chosen. And there's lots of factors that go into that.

You have to be in an environment that allows that and that promotes that, and that rewards that. You have to have the security to be able to focus on more than just daily survival. It's a luxury in some ways, a privilege to be able to be secure enough that you can extend that emotional energy to engage and empathize with others. But I do think that it is a skill that can be built over time and that's something that we have to work with students on. It's something that we have to work with educators on. It's something we have to work with ourselves on. Even if you think that you're this wonderful, loving, accepting person, for sure there are biases that you have.

And for sure there are unexamined darker corners that you need to do some shadow work and kind of suss that out and figure out why am I reacting this way? Why am I responding that way? What's preventing me from seeing the light in this person and engaging with love in the foreground? What is it that's triggering me to respond with fear or exclusion in some way? And that doesn't mean that you're a horrible person that you have responded that way. It means that you need to work on that. It means that you need to engage with yourself and to be courageous enough to say, "Okay, I need to re-examine what's driving me to this. And if my goal is to be accepting, loving, positive with everyone, that's not something that happens by accident." It's something that you must cultivate.

Shamari: Yeah. So this is so interesting, and I say this on every episode, but I don't know you all. I don't know you other than the form and a couple of email exchanges. You don't know the other guests who are on the show, but when you all are speaking and it just sort of connects so interestly, and so well, as you talk about fear and you talk about love. There are other episodes that I've recorded with Gabby on love and Linda on fear, in which we talked about the very things you bring up, just recognizing that as humans, we do have fears and they are real and they can hang us up.

And those fears could be fueled by bias and prejudice. But I hear you saying go back to love, you center the love, think about love as your goal. And if that's the case, then how do you move beyond the fear? How do you identify the bias? How do you identify the prejudice so that you can be empathetic, so that you can love your students? And so hearing you is just like, wow, there's a connection with the guests and you don't even know each other, but all of you, there's something out there that brought you all to me and to the podcast. And so, again, I'm thankful for that. But let me ask you this right now.

When did you realize, or was there a moment in which you realized, that you were, let me not say good at empathy, committed to developing your ability to empathize? Did something happen? Did someone tell you, "Yeah, Rusty, you're a great listener. You're really good at this." When did you realize, "I have this commitment?"

Rusty: That's a tough question. I appreciate your rephrasing it as committed to developing empathy or growing. I really love that as a way of thinking of it. I wouldn't say that there was like a single moment, but it's something that throughout my childhood, I've always been, a little of the sensitive type. I cry in every movie. Even the worst movie will make me tear up. I connect and I feel strongly.

And so I think being committed to developing empathy is about having opportunities to expand your circle of who you interact with and the stories that you hear. And so I think growing up in a fairly diverse region with lots of friends and people that my parents knew and being able to hear all of these stories. And our family hosted international exchange students, so it was cool to see like, oh wow, they have a totally different perspective about this in Ghana or in Venezuela or in Russia. And so that's been so cool and such a blessing to be able to engage with people from all over the world and to go to a school that was extremely diverse in terms of who my classmates were and who my friend groups were.

So that from a young age kind of set this foundation for myself. And my parents are both very loving, focused people. They're incredibly wonderful, loving, tolerant people. And so that really helped me kind of see that as a model or a foundation for what I wanted my life to be like. And then as I continued to grow and move into what am I going to do with my life? How am I going to make money? How am I going to make the world a better place? All of these more abstract questions, I really came down to where is there an opportunity for me to engage with people on a very human level and not to work behind the scenes on documents that might one day make an impact? How can I be somewhere where every day I can feel like I'm making an impact on individual people's lives.

And that for me, was through teaching, and it's very daunting. There's a lot of things about teaching I don't like, that I'm not particularly good at, but I've always had this ability to connect with students. And that's my favorite part is just to be able to develop those relationships and to see and understand their stories and to work with them. And I've been in contexts where there's schools that maybe have not emphasized or rewarded that, where it was very much about following procedures, teaching certain content, testing them eight ways till Sunday. And I ultimately had to leave those environments in search of something that was more authentic, that put the humanity back at the center of education, that allowed love as a legitimate and valid pursuit in education.

I found that when I moved to San Diego to teach at High Tech High. There was a school that for the first time kind of brought this idea to the forefront that love was something worth centering in education. It's not just about the mind, it's about the heart, the hands, and the mind working in coordination together. And in the schools that I've worked at since leaving High Tech High, it's been the same situation. I've looked for places that have allowed and promoted and rewarded that type of pursuit within education.

So I'd say that's kind of my journey, I guess, towards the approach to empathy that I like to bring and to seeing love as this centered piece within education.

Shamari: Yeah. And so I don't think it's any secret to you or anyone listening that right now, I'm thinking of the last even few years, we're living in a really interesting situation in society, in which many things are coming up. As I say in the opening every week, there are crises, plural, and there are pandemics, but there's a racial crisis. There's also a lot of things happening around gender identity. I'm thinking about the Me Too movement, Black Lives Matter movement.

There are multiple movements that are happening. There are some people, Rusty, who might believe it's harder for you as a white, cisgender, heterosexual man, that it's harder for someone like you to empathize with others because of your identities and in your places of privilege. What do you say to that? As we think about this moment right now, in which we're divided, but there are people who move through like you who going to have a really hard time empathizing because of your privileges?

Rusty: Of course, of course . I would say it's absolutely correct that it is going to be harder for people in my shoes to be able to empathize with people who are living marginalized identities. And that's also why it's especially important for people in my position to make the effort to reach out, to listen to stories, to engage with others. It's not something that I had to do growing up. For all the interacting with foreign exchange students and living with diverse community of friends, my experience was still privileged, was still centered in many ways. I didn't have to do a lot of internal thought about what does it mean to be Cisgender? I didn't really have to do any of that work. But I've been in love with, and now married for 11 years to someone who's Black, Trans, Queer, Agender, and to have to engage with them and understand what those identities mean, and what that means for our relationship, and how that affects how they see the world and how they move through the world, has been this amazing flowering of being able to think about and to gain new perspectives on all of these things.

And so there's listening through the media, engaging with friends, with students, that's one thing, but the most important and deepest relationship in my life is with someone who comes from, like every category that I am a part of, they are not a part of. And so to be able to bridge that gap and to still have this awesome, wonderful, loving relationship where we make each other laugh every day and we go together so well, they're my best friend. And so to have that relationship be able to provide a light into some of these topics that I would have a hard time engaging with has been enlightening and really wonderful, to have the blessing of being able to have almost a personal guide, I hate to say it that way, but to have almost this personal guide that can help me understand and can help me empathize. And to really have someone who is doing so much work on themselves, to be able to model that, and to show me what does that mean, what does that look like, to have to think about some of these things that I didn't have to think about ever growing up. That I had never considered my gender identity. I'm just male, whatever.

And so now to really break that down and to say, "What does that mean? What have I internalized about what it means to be a man?" And to have these conversations, like we'll be eating Chinese food and talking about toxic masculinity, and then we're going to watch Mulan and we're going to unpack that, and all the ways that it's problematic, what's happening? All of these things are part of my life now. And so I guess when I say, "I'm good at empathy" or "I'm committed to cultivating empathy", part of that comes from that relationship that's at the very base of my life, and part of it comes from all of the work that I do as an educator, working with students to see who are the students whose stories I'm not familiar with, who are the students who are living through something very different than what I'm living through right now. And making a commitment to see and value and to take an effort to be someone who listens and sees those things and not to simply write a student off and say, "That's a difficult student."

That doesn't exist. Difficult students don't exist. Difficult relationships exist, but there's two parts to that. There's the student and the teacher. And we can never control what's on the other side, we can only control what we do and how we approach things. And so I try to see it that way as how can I see the humanity and love and value this person, no matter who they are, no matter how much or how little I understand, no matter how many categories that are similar to the ones that I inhabit that they're in, or how few categories that I inhabit that they're in. None of that ultimately matters to my job of being able to say, "Hey, I'm here. I see you. I support you. I want to learn from you. I want to know about you. I want to help you. And if you want to take me up on any of those invitations, we can go very far together."

Shamari: Yeah. Yeah. And so what are your thoughts around empathy, versus white saviorism, versus pity, and navigating those differences? Because I do think these conversations are being had in education spaces, and we're talking about empathy and love, but I also want to sort of put those in conversation with these concepts around being a white savior, and around pity, and how for many people they might seem similar, but for me, they're very different and lead to very different consequences. But I wanted to know your thoughts, only one because we've been emailing, you and I, and these are words that you've used, when we think about being a white savior. And so I was like, "Okay, he's thinking about these things." So I'm just really curious around how you distinguish and how you navigate those differences?

Rusty: So I think that concept of being a white savior comes from a place of superiority. If you see yourself as like, "I'm going to reach down and help these poor children." That's a toxic approach that's going to produce some terrible results, and it's a dehumanizing way to interact with other people. So you have to guard against that. You have to be like the first step to solving your problem is admitting you have a problem. And if you can acknowledge was there a component of white saviorism in why I went into teaching, or am I approaching this like only I have the skill to teach these kids to write or whatever, whatever kind of stereotypical portrayal of the white savior complex we want to use. So being able to interrogate that in yourself, I think is obviously the first step.

To interrogate that in yourself, I think is obviously the first step. I think for me, the best remedy is to really see myself as being on the same level as the students, we're learning together. We're navigating together. People that are entering into my classroom are not underneath me and I don't have a responsibility to instruct them in the proper way that I teach English. It's not my job to teach them proper grammar and to make sure that they sort of pass muster on all of these different standards. That's automatically going to lead to a very dehumanized classroom. It's not about churning out students that are products that are going into the next grade and they need to have these certain skills it's really about seeing and engaging with students as they are right now and figuring out what are their own goals for their life and how can I be supportive of that?

How can I help be an on-ramp and an accelerator to get them closer to where they want to go? How can I use my skills in service of them? It's not their job to serve me in the classroom and to do the assignments I'm assigning and to carry out as dutiful little robots crunching numbers and churning out essays. It's my job to get alongside them and to get with whatever they're doing, whatever they want to go and however, they want to live their life and to figure out what can I do to help you with that? I don't think that completely absolves the white savior complex. I don't think that there's no sharp foolproof way to avoid that. If you are a white privileged person teaching, you're going to have to confront that component of yourself and of your work. But if you're continually reflecting and interrogating that, and if you're continually prioritizing students' own words, their own stories, their own goals, their own hopes, their own dreams. I think you can mitigate that. I think you can channel your benevolent instincts into something that is going to be serving those students. Teaching is a service profession ultimately, and you have to see it that way. You have to think about my job is to be alongside and underneath supporting students. It's not my job to be above pulling students up.

Shamari: Mm-hmm (affirmative). So you spoke a lot just now, just about going back to the self and I got reflection and at the core of this podcast, that's really what my invitation is, is to reflect on our humanity as people who teach. Yes, and I said in other episodes, yes, we are teachers, but we are so much more than that. We are humans who have all kinds of things and unfortunately, or fortunately, however you want to look at it. Some of those things, we hold are biases and prejudice and it's about reflecting, it's about being honest with yourself, identifying where those things live within you so that you can move accordingly. So, as we think about the sort of self-work that you have just spoken about, I want to go back to something else you shared in an email, and I want to not shift, but just expand our conversation to include this thing.

We were emailing and you shared this. It's important to have empathy for ourselves. We internalize so many things about the heroic role teachers are supposed to play, and we put pressure on ourselves because most of us go into this profession with a heart of service, but it is important for us to keep things in perspective and to realize that nobody can do it all. Every one of us is going to fall short in some area sometimes. Rusty, what would you say is the hardest thing about self-empathy, as you think about us as humans who teach?

Rusty: I think the most difficult part about self-empathy is giving ourselves permission to do that. It feels wrong. It feels like we should be gutting it out and doing whatever we need to do to help our students. It feels like the way teaching is portrayed in America, it's teachers' jobs to overcome all of these barriers that students face and to deal to solve every systemic societal problem is thrown on teachers. That we don't want to address the fact that so many children live in poverty, that there's so many, multiple unfolding crises. We don't want to address those things. So we're just going to say, education's the solution. We'll just put them. If we have a great teacher and great schools, they're going to have great lives. That's not true. We know that teachers cannot individually overcome these deeper systemic societal problems.

So being able to give yourself permission to say, I don't have to do it all. I don't have to be the one person. It goes along with that white savior complex, I don't have to be the person. I shouldn't be the person that single-handedly changes this student's life. That's not a helpful, productive way to look at things. So giving ourselves permission to say, I can give what I can give sustainably. It's important that I be able to show up whole for my students every day, if that means that some of their work doesn't get graded, as soon as it should. That's okay. If that means that I need to do what I need to take care of in my own personal life, what we teachers, we have families, we have lives outside of teaching. So to be able to be these full three-dimensional human beings that are going to be able to bring that full self, to our classroom in order to engage fully with our students, to have the emotional reservoir, emotional energy, and intelligence, to be able to connect with those students, if we're stressed and frazzled and our houses aren't clean.

All of these other things are falling by the wayside. That's going to wind up impacting how we show up in our classrooms. That's going to wind up impacting how we relate and interact with our students. So it's important to model for students as well that it's okay to have empathy for yourself and to say, "You know what everyone. Things are really tough for me right now. Maybe we're not going to be able to do this thing that I thought we were going to be able to do, but that doesn't mean that I'm giving up. It doesn't mean that I'm quitting. It doesn't mean that I'm a horrible failure as a teacher because I don't have the most amazing lesson plan today." It means that all of us are going to experience things like that in our lives sometime. Every student has already experienced something or felt something like that.

So to be able to see adults model that for themselves to say, I'm sorry to say, I'm going to do better on this. To say, I don't think I can make this happen today is important for students to be able to see that. It's important for educators to be able to give themselves permission, not to be the model educator a hundred percent of the time. We want to try to be better. We don't want to say, "Oh, it's okay to be lazy. It's okay not to show up for your students." Absolutely not. That's not at all what I'm trying to get at. It's about realizing that there are limits to what we can do, and it is more important to do something sustainably than to do it really well for a really short time and burn out and leave teaching.

I think that's a problem that's an epidemic within the teaching profession is that early burnout and we lose so many good teachers. I remember I've been teaching 11 years now and there's dozens of teachers that I worked with at some point or another that are now out of the field because they felt they couldn't keep up with it. It took too many sacrifices. Ultimately it wasn't worth it. So it's not a problem that we're not recruiting and bringing in wonderful, amazing people. It's are we providing the right environment for them to grow? Are we societally investing enough in our teachers, in our educational system, in our students, in their families, to be able to create conditions that allow teachers to remain in the profession sustainably? So that's an area that I think is in need of a lot of work.

It's in need of a lot of growth. It's an area that teachers collectively are making progress on. We've seen some of these strikes and actions where teachers are standing up and resisting some of these policies and changes that are being attempted, but it's a fundamental problem with how we look at education and the role it's supposed to play in society. If we look at it as a panacea and we just see education as this blanket solution to all of these problems that have so many different vectors feeding into them, then it's going to create the situation that we have now, where teachers feel pressure from all sides, there's pressure from administration to be this amazing superstar teacher that puts in superhuman levels of effort and gets these amazing achievement results measured of course, only by standardized tests for some reason.

There's pressure from parents who their whole hope is pinned on their student going to college and you don't want to tell them I have friends that went to college and are deeply in debt and are now baristas. College is not this single solution that's going to make it happen for your child. It's pressure from students who feel like the world is bad and getting worse and I don't know what I can do about it. How do you show up and respond when young people are entering that world? So all of these pressures combined really make teaching this impossible profession and it's unfortunate, but we do see it a lot where teachers are burning out, they're getting, dispirited, discouraged. So I think that's ultimately what drew me to your invitation to this podcast in the first place. I heard about this through friend of a friend, a mutual acquaintance.

He put this out on Facebook saying, "Hey, I have a friend who's doing this podcast about humanity for teachers called Water for Teachers." That's what really drew me to this is that's a role that I love to play is working with newer educators and to be able to say, "Hey, it's okay, what you're being expected to do is impossible. It's okay that you feel stressed and that you feel like you're not doing a good enough job. Every teacher feels that way for the entirety of their life. It just comes with the job of being a teacher in America." So how do you do this sustainably and not allow the perfect to be the enemy of the good? How do you be good enough to show up for your students? How do you make that consistent effort to prioritize the things that are important to you and to give yourself permission to not be this fully dynamic, amazing robo educator 3000, that gets it all done-

Shamari: I love the robo. Yes. It sounds like what you're issuing, Rusty, is a charge to teachers to one, remember our humanity and accept and again, back to what I was saying earlier, I spoke about this in another episode, but to accept that we are imperfect, to accept that we are not going to do everything right every time, that we're not going to be robo teachers, because we aren't robots, we're humans. But there's also a charge around take care of yourself and that's where this self empathy I'm hearing you talk about. Have empathy for the self extended grace to yourself. It is okay that it didn't go as you planned today. You're a human, those things are going to happen, but don't beat yourself up, take care of yourself. So I wanted to ask Rusty, are you good at self care? Because I don't know of many teachers who are amazing at self care, but hearing you talk, I'm just like maybe he has it figured out. Obviously I don't know.

Rusty: Yeah. Let's do what you did earlier and we'll shift to, are you committed to cultivating and improving self care? It's not good at self care. It's a choice. It's something that you work on and I think that is something. That's something that my partner, my spouse models for me a lot and has helped me with is I'm not innately good at self-care. I am the type of person that wants to do it all and I'll get all the gold stars and all of that stuff.

But to be able to say, "Okay, I've done enough I can rest now. I need to address these needs that I have first, before I can continue working." I think that is something that I'm good at and something that I'm committed to improving and cultivating is to be able to draw that line and to say, "Hey, it's impossible what I'm being asked to do right now is impossible. That's not going to stop me, but it is going to help inform the mentality I bring to this work. It is going to inform the approach that I expect of my students." I don't assign a million hours of homework and I don't take that approach of rigor, rigor, rigor. That's a trap. It's an endless escalator of work that students are going to be doing and if the purpose of education is just to prepare students for this tough life that's ahead of them of endless work and self-sacrifice and answering emails at 2:00 AM I don't want to be a part of that.

I want my classroom to be a space that's a break from that mentality where you can engage in deep, slow self-reflection, when you can figure out what's important to me and how do I spend my time working on the things that are important to me. That's the ultimate goal for any classroom I feel. It's not about teaching the content standards, it's about helping students navigate your subject, your area, their life, and to be able to connect all of those things together and say, "Well, here's a wonderful novel." It's not about reading a certain novel by the time you graduate, it's about finding stories that resonate with you and that help you see yourself in a new light or that help you extend your empathy towards people and situations that you personally have not experienced. That's ultimately what it comes down to.

And so, being good at self-care or being committed to improving and cultivating self-care it still in a way is very much oriented around how does this help others. It's not about doing this purely for myself, it's not about making sure that my life is as comfortable as it possibly can be, but it's if I neglect my own self-care, that's going to impact how I show up for my spouse, for my students, for my friends, for my parents. And so, if I want to do good in the world I have to practice some amount of self-care. So, that's my mental approach towards it. Maybe that's not the healthiest way to think of it because it's still in some way about service or about what I'm doing for others I guess. But I guess that's the way that I've sold it to myself is how do I do what I need to do in order to be the best version of myself for the work that I want to do in the world.

Shamari: So when we think about the moment we're in right now and when we think about all the humans who teach and we're out here living and teaching during these really interesting times with all kinds of crises and pandemics that's our reality, what would you offer or what would you say to other educators right now?

Rusty: Wow, that's the big question I guess. I guess I would say thank you is the first and main thing I would say is just thank you. Teachers are always thanked. "Thank you for the administrators. Thank you for doing this. Thank you for taking on this task." Parents, "Thank you for teaching my child."

Do we thank ourselves? Do we thank our other fellow educators that are colleagues in the building? "Thank you for showing up and helping me. Thank you for modeling this practice that I would like to incorporate in my own classroom. Thank you for overcoming all of the things that you're facing in your own life to be here and to choose to do this work which is not the easiest work to do by any stretch of the imagination. Thank you for continuing to teach if you've been a veteran educator for making it past all of those nights when you thought I can't do this, this is too much."

It's thank you, "Thank you for adapting to distance learning. Thank you for adjusting to the different mandates that come down when you change schools or you get a new principal and suddenly everything that you were doing before is no longer what's in vogue and now there's a whole new thing that you've got to do. Thank you for rolling with all of the bullshit and at the end of the day showing up to do the most important work that there is with human beings and helping those people navigate their lives and to become enriched in some way whether that's thinking mathematically, understanding more about history and the place they're in in their lives, mastering a foreign language."

Whatever it is that you bring. Every one of us as educators are essential to cultivating these wonderful, amazing, three-dimensional, multifaceted people. And if we want to take this holistic approach to education it takes all of us. It doesn't take a lot of educators that come out of a factory knowing the right way to teach, it takes all kinds of different people bringing their own stories, their own perspectives, their own skills, their own talents. I don't want every educator to be the same. We don't want the model educator, the robo teacher 3000, we don't want that.

We want students to see that there are lots of different kinds of people in the world that live different ways, that think different ways, that bring different aspects of themselves into the classroom. That's the value that we bring as teachers is being able to show students, "This is who I am. This is where I'm from." To bring it back to your poem, "This is my story. This is who I am. This is why I am here. Now let me hear from you. Let's turn that around. I'm done talking. Let's put it to you. What do you want to say? I'm going to hand you the mic. I'm going to see where do you want to go in your life and how can I help you get there?"

Shamari: Yeah. Thank you. Thank you for that. I have two final questions Rusty. One I ask every guest and one I have just for you. The first, the one I ask every guest, is this podcast is called Water 4 Teachers and water for me is so many things, it's love, it's care. But when I think about water I think about nourishment, I think about growth, I think about healing. And so, I want to ask you this abstract question that I ask every guest, what is your water

Rusty: My water is showing up and seeing students and seeing them smile and listening to them and working with them, engaging with them. That's what keeps me coming back to teaching through all of the struggles, through all of the stuff I don't want to do, when I'm feeling that I'm not practicing self-care. When I show up in the classroom and see students, or now when I connect on Zoom and see students, that's the water. That's what makes me remember, "Oh yeah this is why this work is so interesting and so critical and so important and so fulfilling."

There's nothing else, I can't imagine what else I would do with my life. It would seem so hollow to go sell cars or something. No disrespect to the car salesman out there, we all need to buy cars, but it would seem so hollow to sell something or to work in pushing papers across a desk when I could know that I could be helping students, when I could be listening to them, when I could be helping them, when I could be serving them. And when I can help students develop their empathy for themselves and for others and to work with them on a daily basis that's really my water I guess. That's why I went into teaching in the beginning because I felt like this is a way that I can help people in a tangible way and it's not abstract, it's not this changing the world through one great idea or something, it's these micro actions on a daily basis. And cultivating those relationships with students is definitely the thing that waters my soul.

Shamari: And the final question that's just for you, what is the role of empathy in your teaching?

Rusty: Empathy is everything. Empathy is where we start and where we end. And there are many lenses, there's many aspects to empathy, there's many ways it can be used, there's so many different curriculum standards, pedagogies, all of these teaching tools that we have. But empathy for me is why we're here, it's why we show up and it's what we're working on with our students. It's empathizing with them and it's helping them to empathize with each other, with other people in the world and with themselves.

Shamari: And for those of you at home listening, as always I would love for you to join this conversation. Here's my question to you, what is the role of empathy in your teaching? And if you're feeling up to it, please share your answers and reflections with us. We'd like to engage with you and your humanity. You can share your responses on Twitter using the hashtag #Water4Teachers or tag us using our Twitter handle @Water4Teachers. That's Water, the number 4, Teachers. We'd love to know what role empathy plays in your teaching.

Thank you Rusty for all that you've shared. Thank you for your heart and your mind and being here and thank all of you at home for sharing this space with us and joining us. Until next time, peace and love. Bye.

This week's poem was written by Peter Núñez. Peter is a Dominican-American writer and poet born and raised in the Dominican Republic. He is currently working on his first novel, titled, A Man of Honor. Peter’s writing mostly explores the effect of potentially traumatic experiences, such as living in poverty and undergoing abuse. His role as a mental health adviser and his own experience with mental illness is also present in his writing. Peter is pursuing a Master’s Degree in Clinical Psychology at Teachers College, Columbia University.

You can read more of Peter’s work on Instagram @amanofhonoranovel

Shamari Reid headshotShamari K. Reid

I often refer to myself as an ordinary Black Gay cisgender man from Oklahoma with extraordinary dreams. Currently, that dream involves completing my doctoral work at Teachers College, Columbia University in the department of Curriculum & Teaching where I focus on urban education and teacher education. Before starting my doctoral program, I completed a B.A. in Spanish Education at Oklahoma City University and an M.A in Spanish and TESOL at New York University. I've taught Spanish and ESL at the elementary, secondary, and post secondary levels in Oklahoma, New York, Uruguay, and Spain. In addition to my doctoral work, I have spent the last few years as an instructor at Hunter College- CUNY offering courses on the teaching of reading, urban education, and language, literacy, and culture. I have also been engaged in work as a consultant for the New York City Department of Education’s initiative to combat the discrimination students of color face. My research interests include Black youth agency, advocacy, and activism and transformative teacher education. I am currently in the process of completing my dissertation on the agency of Black LGBTQ+ youth in NYC. Oh, and I have small addiction to chocolate chip cookies.

RustyWalkerRusty is a veteran teacher in San Diego who has worked in public schools, charter schools, private schools, and tutoring. He emphasizes project based learning and student-driven inquiry, but his purpose is found in the positive relationships with students that he places at the center of all teaching. In addition, he provides PD training and support to schools around the country to help them create awesome projects and experiences for students that are interesting, social, and useful. When not not working in education, he's hanging with his spouse and their 4 cats and cooking delicious food.  

Topics: Empathy, Podcast, Teachers, Heinemann Podcast, Shamari Reid, Water for Teachers, Rusty Walker

Date Published: 03/04/21

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