First Person

What my students wrote on the day after Trump won, the most intense day of my teaching career

Donald J. Trump at a Republican primary debate in Boulder (RJ Sangosti, The Denver Post).

Nathan Pai Schmitt is an English teacher at STRIVE Prep Excel high school in Denver. He is also co-founder and student mentor at HackSchool, a socially conscious makerspace that serves students from three Denver high schools.

cofp

Wednesday was the most intense day in my teaching career. For many of our students, it was one of the worst days of their life. What did it feel like to walk into school the morning after Donald Trump was elected president? Fear.

It doesn’t matter whether you agree or disagree with our students politically. It’s easy to criticize people’s opinions. It’s harder to look a crying teenager in the eyes and say something meaningful.

By their words, I heard the American dream die twelve times before lunch. Our job is to help them put it back together.

Our students wanted to process the election results. So we did. Some of their words were optimistic, and some of their words were not. They wanted to give advice to younger students (and, I suspect, to themselves). And let me tell you: these words were hard-earned.

Enough from me. Here’s what they had to say. The quotes are from letters the students wrote. Many students wanted to write to younger students, and many just wanted to free-write their thoughts.

“I’m scared that if my dad gets deported, they’re going to kill him when he tries to come back to me.”

“Nobody deserves to fear the president. You should change this fear into action, eventually. Don’t rush your feelings! Feel the way you want and don’t let anybody tell you that you’re feeling wrong.”

“Many of you might feel that there is nothing in your will to change the outcome, but you can change yourself. Education really is the key to salvation. Being an understanding, humble person can take you so far in life. Do not let fear and hatred overcome you.”

“Do not be afraid of standing up for what you believe in. Do not let this election discourage you as a person or where you came from, but let it be a lesson to you. Educate yourself and understand the sexism and racism in this world. Today is a day to grieve, but from then on it’s a fight. It’s a fight every day so that one day there will be a pure world with no hate. We may never be alive to see that day come, but know in our hearts that we fought for it to be possible.”

“He has only proved that we were wrong when we tried to believe that as Americans, we are smart, talented, and progressive. We aren’t. We have shown the face of hate across our country. Americans can be selfish, but all of this is okay. We cannot change it. We can only continue and be proud to be so diverse.”

“Why should I keep working hard? America has turned it’s back on immigrants.”

“I know most of you guys and girls are afraid, sad, and broken, and you really don’t know what to do. I know everyone is afraid to lose your loved ones, especially if you’re a minority. I can’t lie. I’m broken too. Shit, I’m even sad, but I’ve learned that the only way things will get better is if we all stick to our dreams and what things are important to us. What happened yesterday with the presidential election is gone. Trump is the face of the country, but that shouldn’t matter. Your family, your friends, everyone you love, your dreams, and hope, even yourself is what matters.”

“I, along with the 10-11 million undocumented immigrants living in this country, now have to live in even more fear. We didn’t have a voice in the election and for the next four consecutive years, our voice will continue to remain unheard. We live in a country where injustices happen all around us. We as people have to stand up against these — and most importantly, if you have the right, vote!”

“Stay positive and don’t let this election bring you down. This election was to bring each other together and it should motivate us to want to change the world and to educate ourselves. What’s crazy is that when we think of Trump, we think of hate, but that doesn’t mean we should hate. We should keep showing love and staying positive. If we all come together, we could make a change.”

Our First Person feature spotlights the voices of people on the front lines of the critical education issues facing Colorado. If you’d like to contribute, here are the details.

First Person

I mentor students demoralized about not having a vote. Here’s their plan for getting civically involved before turning 18

Students in the Minds Matter program.

Every Monday night during the school year, I spend time with two wonderful young women. They’re high-achieving high school sophomores from low-income families whose success would be certain if they grew up in a more affluent ZIP code.

Along with a team of other mentors, I help the students improve their writing and communication skills to help them prepare for a successful college career. That’s what I’m prepared to do.

I was less prepared for what they brought to our meeting last week, the first time we met under the tenure of a new president. They talked about feeling the consequences of the national political shift, though at 15, they knew it would be years before they could cast a ballot of their own. “We feel left out of a system that affects us too,” they said.

So our task that night became to expand our ideas about what participation in the American political system really means.

Here are five ideas we came up with, designed to help high schoolers do just that.

1. Meet elected officials. Meeting state senators and representatives during their campaigns is often the easiest way to make contact. Attend a coffee event, a party meeting, or a fundraiser where students can introduce themselves and talk about their concerns. Encourage them to be more than just another face in the crowd.

There are plenty of young, local elected officials to learn from. Dominick Moreno, a prominent Senate Democrat on the state of Colorado’s powerful Joint Budget Committee, got his start running for class president as a high school sophomore. Still only 32, he has already served in the House of Representatives and as mayor pro tem of a Denver suburb.

2. Volunteer on a campaign. This is the best opportunity for students to get an inside look at the political process and can help them establish lasting relationships with real people working in politics.

Some legislators face tough races and are out knocking on doors for months. Others spend their time differently, and in either case, candidates need help reaching out to voters, managing social media accounts, answering emails or organizing events. Plus, this work looks great on student résumés.

I tell students about my own experience. It started small: When I was 10, I passed out stickers for local elected officials at holiday parades. When I was 16, I got the chance to intern at the South Dakota state capitol. At 21, I got my first job in Washington, and at 23 I started lobbying in Colorado, affecting policy that now touches all citizens of the state.

3. Think locally. There are so many small things that students can do that will help their community become a better place on their own timeline. Help students organize a neighborhood clean-up day or tutor at an elementary school. These might feel inadequate to students when they look at the big picture, but it’s important to remind them that these actions help weave a fabric of compassion — and helps them become local leaders in the community.

4. Pre-register to vote. Voting matters, too. It sounds simple, but pre-registering addresses a root cause of low voter turnout — missing deadlines. In Colorado, one must be a U.S. citizen, be at least 16 years old, and reside in the state 22 days prior to the date of the election.

5. Affiliate with a party.
This assures full involvement in the process. Before turning 18, students can still attend party meetings or even start a “Young Democrats/Republicans” group at school. If they don’t feel like they fit with either the Republican or the Democratic parties, that’s OK — unaffiliated voters can now take part in the primary elections and help name either Republican or Democratic leaders.

Talking through these ideas helped the students I work with realize voting isn’t the only way to make a difference. One of my students has started a group that helps other young women know about birth control options, after seeing girls in her high school struggle and drop out after getting pregnant. Other students in the group have asked to learn more about the legislative process and want to testify on legislation.

They’re proving that democracy doesn’t begin and end with casting a ballot — but it does depend on taking interest and taking action.

Zoey DeWolf is a lobbyist with Colorado Legislative Services, based in Denver. She also works with Minds Matter of Denver, a not-for-profit organization whose mission is to help prepare accomplished high school students from low-income families for successful college careers.

First Person

It’s time to retire the myth that any counselor can do the job alone — even at a tiny school

A few of the author's students who graduated last year.

I waited five years to get my dream job as a counselor in a New York City public school. After all of that waiting, I was full of ideas about how I would be able to use my experience to help students navigate what can be an overwhelming few years.

I wanted to make our school counseling more individualized and full of innovative support mechanisms. I wanted our guidance department to be a place that anyone could leave with a grand plan.

A few months into that first year, in fall 2015, it was clear that my vision would be, to put it bluntly, impossible to achieve.

When I received my position at a Harlem high school in District 5, I was assigned to not only take on the responsibilities of a school counselor, but also to act as the college advisor, assign (and then frequently re-shuffle) class schedules for every student, and several other tasks. My school had just under 200 students — enrollment low enough that it was assumed this could all be managed.

This proved to be a very inaccurate assumption. I was working with a group of students with low attendance rates, and many were English language learners or students with disabilities. Many students were overage and under-credited, others were in foster care or homeless, some had returned from incarceration, and a couple were teen parents or pregnant.

The American School Counselor Association recommends a maximum school counselor-to-student ratio of one to 250. I know from experience that extremely high student need makes that ratio meaningless. Almost all of these students needed help in order to be ready to learn. Their needs tripled the feel of our enrollment.

This frequent mismatch between need and numbers puts school counselors like me in the position to do a great disservice to so many students. As the only counselor available, a seemingly small mishap with a task as crucial as graduation certification or credit monitoring could have spelled disaster for a student. I know some seniors missed certain financial aid opportunities and application deadlines, and some ninth, 10th, and 11th graders could have used more academic intervention to help them transition to the next grade level successfully.

My success at keeping our promotion and college admissions rates on the upswing was largely due to my outreach and partnership with community-based organizations that helped support several of our students. Had it not been for their assistance, I wouldn’t have achieved anything near what I did.

I’m still a counselor at my small school, and some aspects of the job have gotten easier with time. I love my job, which I think of as the most rewarding yet intense position in the building. But I still believe that there is almost no case in which only one counselor should be available for students.

Principals and school leaders directly involved with the budget must make sure to effectively analyze the needs of their student population, and advocate for an appropriately sized counseling staff. Small schools face real funding constraints. But ones serving students like mine need more than they’ve gotten.

Students’ social and emotional development and their academic success go hand in hand. Let’s not make the mistake of conflating enrollment numbers with need.

Danisha Baughan is a high school counselor and college advisor. She received her masters in school counseling in May 2010 and has held elementary, middle, and high school counseling positions since then.