sign language

Sign of the times: Teacher whose classroom-door sign went viral explains his message

PHOTO: Eric Eisenstadt
The sign posted on science teacher Eric Eisenstadt's door.

Eric Eisenstadt doesn’t consider himself a flame-thrower. A physics and biology teacher at Manhattan Hunter Science High School, he says teachers shouldn’t “proselytize their own views” in the classroom. But he doesn’t think bias belongs in the classroom either — and after the presidential election, he wanted to make sure his students knew that.

So, on Monday, Nov. 14, nearly a week after Donald Trump’s upset victory, he posted a sign to his door proclaiming his affection for his students. All of his students.

“I love my Muslim students. I love my black students. I love my Hispanic students. I love my gay students. I love my disabled students. I love my poor students. I love all of my students and I will fight for you, not matter what,” he wrote in multi-colored marker. “And if he, or anyone else builds that wall, or any wall between us, I will teach my students how to tear it down.”

The sign didn’t get noticed much at first, he said, but then a friend posted a photo of it on Twitter and it attracted more attention, both inside and outside the school. Other teachers across the country have posted similar messages of love and encouragement, but Eisenstadt’s had a particularly wide reach. The photo has now been liked or retweeted nearly 7,000 times and a related Facebook post has garnered dozens of approving comments.

Chalkbeat contacted Eisenstadt to learn more about his message.

“I don’t think you can learn if you’re concerned about greater issues happening outside, if your whole safety and security are in jeopardy,” Eisenstadt explained. “I just wanted my students to feel that at least the school is a place where, regardless of what’s going on outside, racism will not be tolerated.”

While Eisenstadt was careful to write that he loved all of his students, he worried that some — his white or Chinese students, for example — might feel left out. He explained that he named certain groups on the sign because they’d been singled out during the campaign. “I wanted to make it clear,” he said. “I think they got it.”

So did his fellow teachers and principal, he said. “Once this became a viral thing, the principal came by and he said he thought that was a great message,” he said. “It was all positive. Very positive.”

Obviously, not everyone agrees. “Time for him to be expelled,” wrote one online commenter after a story on Eisenstadt ran in the Daily Mail. “If he loves his students, he should stick to teaching them,” wrote another.

Eisenstadt seems to understand their concerns. “This is not something I would normally do,” he said. “I scrupulously avoid telling students who I am voting for.”

This year, he said, he made it clear to them that he harbored no ill will toward those with different views. “I explicitly told my students, ‘I have no problem if you like Donald Trump or if your parents like Donald Trump,” he said. “I have no problem with you.”

Eisenstadt knows his sign is controversial, but says it’s also an important statement in a school with a large number of Muslim, Hispanic and black students.

“I can easily picture if I had done this in another school, I could have been told to take it down,” he said. “I’m grateful, frankly, that people understand what I’m trying to do.”

First Person

‘I didn’t feel like I had anyone to ask for support’: Why it matters to have teachers who look like me

PHOTO: Alan Petersime

For 10 years — the first decade I was in school — all my teachers were white women.

As a Mexican-American kid, I didn’t get the chance to have a man of color as a teacher until high school. Going into my senior year, I like how diverse my teachers are now, but I wish I’d had the same experience when I was younger.

When I think about why it matters to have a teacher I can relate to, I think back to fifth grade. A classmate said to me, “Mexicans are illegal—they cross the border every day! How about you, did you cross the border?” This bothered me. So, after class, I asked the teacher for help. But all she said was, “That’s OK, he was just playing.” From there, I had nowhere to go. She was at the top of the food chain.

In 1990, before they met, my mother and father came over the border from Mexico. My mom’s parents weren’t making enough profit from their cattle ranch, so they had little choice but to immigrate. My mom came with them to the United States and worked at a restaurant so she could send money back home. My father followed his older brother here because he wanted to start a new life. Little did he know he would one day cross paths with my mother and eventually start a family.

But my classmate was “just playing” when he insulted all of this. I wish my teacher had done something else.

If I’d been the teacher, I would’ve taken a different approach and worked to understand why we were acting and responding the way we were. Maybe the other student and I could’ve found common ground. But, unfortunately, we never had a chance to try.

Up until ninth grade, I had zero male teachers of color. I didn’t feel like I had anyone to ask for support when things like the fifth-grade incident happened. Many of us students felt that way — and that’s why I want to be a teacher, a fifth-grade teacher in particular. I want to make my culture an asset in the classroom and be a teacher students feel comfortable confiding in, no matter their background.

A teacher’s perspective: Cut from the same cloth: Why it matters that black male teachers like me aren’t alone in our schools

In middle school, I started seeing more male educators, but they were all white. Then, when it came time for me to start high school, I ended up going to school in a different neighborhood — an hour commute away—and things finally changed for me. Since starting high school, I’ve had six male teachers of color, and it’s made a huge difference.

My high school makes a big deal out of the whole “building relationships” thing. To my teachers and everyone else at the school, relationships are just as important as academics. At first, it was hard to get used to, but eventually it started making sense to me. I’m in an all-male mentorship group led by two African-American men who openly share about their struggles growing up in New York, and give us advice in any area of life — including what it means to appreciate our cultures. This is one of the things I like most about my school.

It’s hard to explain the way it feels to have a teacher who looks like you; they’re like older brothers who become a huge part of our lives, even if it’s just for four years. They make it easier to connect and socialize and help me feel more like I belong. To me, learning from someone who reflects who you are is one of the best things a student can experience.

Near the end of the school year, my mentorship group did an activity where we took turns getting asked questions by other students and staff. One of the mentors asked me, “What’s it like being Mexican American and how has your background influenced your goals?” No one had ever asked me that before, and it took a long time for me to process the question.

After a few moments, I spoke a bit about my family’s story and shared some of the stereotypes I had encountered and how they affect me today. Everyone was so supportive, and the mentors encouraged me to continue breaking stereotypes and defining myself rather than letting others define me.

It was nerve-wracking at first, telling my story in that group, but after three years of high school, we’d developed that level of trust. It was the first time I’d shared my story with that many people at once, but it felt intimate and very different from the time in fifth grade when that kid tried to tell my story for me.

Finally having teachers that look like me has made a huge difference. They don’t just mentor me and help me with my academics, they also make my goal of becoming a teacher seem more realistic.

Having men of color I can look up to and model myself after is a big part of why I have no doubt I’ll make it to college — and eventually be able to give other kids the type of help my mentors have given me. I know where I’m needed, and that’s where I’m headed.

Jose Romero is a senior at EPIC High School North in Queens, New York. This piece originally appeared on the blog of TNTP, a national nonprofit and advocacy group that trains new teachers.

readers helping readers

‘There will be questions you can’t answer’: Readers’ advice about tackling Charlottesville in the classroom

PHOTO: Monica Disare

After racist violence left one person dead in Charlottesville, Virginia last weekend, we asked educators for their best advice about handling students’ questions — and starting conversations of their own.

We know some teachers are veterans when it comes to tricky conversations. Others have found resources through #CharlottesvilleCurriculum, a Twitter hashtag that culminated in a crowdsourced list of anti-racism resources for educators.

Here’s what several of you told us about your plans. Readers, you can still add your tips or experiences here; we’ll continue to update this so others can learn from your work.

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“I’ve learned that not all students are ready to talk about highly emotional topics and that it’s best to wait until they are ready to talk about it to [go] into an in-depth conversation. I’ve also learned that it helps to have students write about it first so that they can gather their thoughts.”
– J.S., ninth-grade special education teacher in Aurora, Colorado

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“We began today’s lesson by analyzing photos from the weekend. Specifically, my freshmen practiced a) citing evidence in order make claims about each image and b) writing an extended caption that effectively summarized one of the images.

I’ve learned that I don’t need to have all the answers (and I let my students know that, too). I’ve also learned that reading and discussing high-interest, culturally relevant texts like “All American Boys” and “The Hate U Give” with my students makes it easier for us to have the hard but necessary conversations.

[The conversation was] difficult at times, but so worth it. Our students are extremely kind and empathetic, and because of them, I left school this afternoon feeling more hopeful than I did driving in this morning.”
Jarred Amato, high school English teacher in Nashville

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“There is no one way to facilitate and it’s better to start then to be silent. I think it’s critical to actively listen and to ensure no one voice or position monopolizes. I also think it’s important to allow silence at times.”
– Jen, teacher-educator in New York

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“It went well. I was able to connect the event to the Confederate era statues here in Memphis to get the students thinking about the local connections.”
– Kyle, 12th-grade social studies teacher in Memphis

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“My students have worked on social justice theatre pieces for the past three years and this is, unfortunately, not the first time we have had to have such difficult conversations. I’m reminded of the fears discussed following the Michael Brown case and again after the presidential election. Somehow these brave kids have found a way to vent their frustrations in a positive way.”
– Jen Wood-Bowien, high school teacher in Memphis

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“There will be questions you can’t answer. There will be kids you don’t reach.”
– Teacher, Southeast Colorado

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“I’m surprised at how open the students can be and how we lose this humanity as we grow up.”
– Social studies teacher, Denver