Kristin Hayes-Leite reports back from the Teach-In for Freedom in El Paso,Texas

The Teach In For Freedom: A shared sense of purpose and passion

By Kristin Hayes-Leite, 2018 RI Teacher of the Year

Any time teachers gather to share their passion and ideas, they create a palpable buzz of energy and excitement. That feeling was especially true on the morning of February 17th, the day of the Teach In for Freedom in El Paso, Texas. Teachers from across the nation had gathered to speak out against the detention of children and the criminalization of immigrant families who are seeking asylum. The teach in was held in a beautiful plaza in the heart of a city that borders Mexico. And while the temperature was unseasonably chilly that day, the sun kept us all feeling warm and positive.

When we first arrived in the plaza, I huddled up with fellow NEARI members Kathy Couchon, Amy Mullen, and Mick Lefort to review the logistics of our planned lesson on the history of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and its application to asylum seekers on the U.S. border. When we were able to quickly recruit teachers from Virginia, Missouri, and Texas to hold signs for us, the first lesson of the day became clear to me. There was unity among the teachers present. From Alaska to Rhode Island, we shared a sense of purpose and a passion for righting the injustices that are being done to children by our own government. Whether educators were watching from home or were with us in that beautiful plaza, there was definitely a shared responsibility for protecting and educating children. The unity that day felt very connected to the current wave of #RedForEd movements across the country. Educators all over are speaking out loud and clear for better education policies and funding and not just in their own communities. Teachers are getting better at educating the public about the issues and are feeling more empowered. As we gathered in the plaza that Sunday morning, that power was present and our message was urgent - ALL children are OUR children and we have to speak up to protect them.

The second lesson of the day came from simply watching master teachers teach. Throughout the day, state teachers of the year took the lead in teaching lessons that ranged from the history of slavery in colonial Virginia to the impact of trauma on a child's ability to learn. We heard poems written by students who had experienced separation from family members and learned about push factors in countries like El Salvador where families are fleeing violence and persecution. The creativity and passion of those teachers blew me away.

The lesson though is this, those teachers are wonderful, yes, but they are not the exception. The teachers on that stage are representative of the talent and hard work that is happening every day in classrooms all across the nation. What was especially emotional that day was that teachers were teaching with all their hearts, but the children we should have been teaching were missing. For the over 10,000 immigrant children currently being held in detention, appropriate education is not being provided. That painful fact was present in every presentation during the teach-in.

Another lesson of the day and a clear theme throughout the event was understanding how trauma - like the forced separation from family members - can impact the brain and a child's ability to learn. The trauma that is being caused by our own government by unnecessarily detaining children and separating them from family members can cause permanent damage. After a brief lesson on epigenetics, we learned that this damage can affect future generations as well. As educators we see the effects of trauma in our own students and classrooms and know how devastating it can be. We need to learn how to better support children who have experienced trauma - whether it be from violence in the home or from the terror of family separation - so that all students can successfully learn and grow in our classrooms.

The teach in was one great day of awareness and education, but there is much hard work to be done. A large detention center for teenagers in Homestead, Florida is rapidly expanding and now houses over 1600 children. It is being run by a for-profit corporation that does not have to adhere to state regulations for education and child welfare. Over 10,000 children are still being held in detention centers nationally even though a court ruling clearly states that such children must be held in the “least restrictive setting” and for no longer than twenty days. If you are interested in learning more and working to stop this travesty, please go to the Teachers Against Child Detention website or follow them on facebook, twitter, or YouTube .

You can also come and see us at NEARI's Read Across America event Sunday, March 31st at the Warwick Mall from 12-5pm. Stop by to participate in a Spanish language book and letter drive for migrant children. These books and letters will be delivered to children as they leave detention and are reunited with family members and sponsors. And finally, we are encouraging people to contact their representatives in Congress to ask for an end to policies that criminalize migrant families and cause harm to children.

Together we can speak up to protect all of our children.

Read more from Kristin: Answering the Call