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"Who knows the difference between a protest and riot? How about a coup or an insurrection?"

These were the questions posed by my niece's teacher, Ms. Willson to her second grade students the morning after the January 6, 2021 insurrection at the United States Capitol. The conversation that ensued was heartbreaking, inspiring, and eye-opening. It left me thinking about how much is on the minds of some of our youngest learners and the incredible responsibility teachers have to talk to their students about the devastating but important events that have taken place across our country. What lessons we want our students to learn and how to approach those lessons is critical to fulfilling the mission of creating global citizens. As I discussed each of these factors with Ms. Willson, she shared her approach and her hopes for what her students will take away from each lesson this school year. It was at this moment that it became clear to me the immense amount of responsibility Ms. Willson carries as one of few Black educators at her school, in a state where just 4% of the teaching workforce identify as teachers of color.

Teaching is already a stressful job and for Black teachers, that stress has been compounded in a year and a half like no other. From the disproportionate impact that COVID-19 has had on the Black community to the continued violence against Black and Brown bodies perpetuated by law enforcement including the murders of Breonna Taylor in Kentucky and George Floyd in Minneapolis, the civil unrest that followed coupled with a national reckoning on race and racism and the January 6th insurrection have resulted in a disproportionate burden on teachers of color to facilitate meaningful dialogue not only amongst their students but also their colleagues in school buildings. This past year in particular, teachers like Ms. Willson have balanced the immense desire and duty to be a protector of all of the Black and Brown students, often wondering if and how these issues are being discussed in classrooms led by her colleagues. At the same time, Ms. Willson is often the person her White colleagues come to in the moments following a painful event, despite the fact that alongside the Black community, she too is experiencing a perfect storm of social and emotional stress. "It is like taking from the well when there is not anything in it," she described.

That said, Sheila Willson feels strongly that these conversations should not be an option but a core part of the curriculum. "I wouldn't be able to sleep at night knowing that I kept quiet about these important events," she shared. She also stated that her students are not future change makers, they are change makers "right now." They need the tools and support to have tough conversations that allow them not only to become great listeners but also use their critical thinking skills so that they don't become adults with narrow views and the inability to learn from each other's perspectives.

Ms. Willson's approach to facilitating conversations about these tough issues with her second grade class is thoughtful, measured, and rooted in trust. Her students know that she is there to listen to them without judgement. She always begins by working with her students to define common words or phrases, for example the Black Lives Matter movement, protest, or riot. She creates vocabulary cards, teaches the definitions and discusses the meaning, using real-life examples to draw similarities and comparisons to illustrate the complex terms. Next, she asks her students if any one of them has something they'd like to share. Ms. Willson believes that it is important to give each student the opportunity to share what he or she knows about a particular issue or event and or a connection to their personal lives. She finds that giving students the opportunity to say "this is what I know" creates thoughtful conversation and builds trust and respect amongst their peers. Finally, she asks how each of her students are feeling, often concluding these conversations with a single message, "I am always here to listen, whenever you want to talk."

At the end of the school year, Ms. Willson's class of second graders presented her with a handmade quilt. Each student drew a picture of what they learned from her this year. Every single picture in some way reflected the important lessons learned from Ms. Willson about social justice and being a changemaker. She was speechless upon receiving the gift, but perhaps the most powerful and poignant moment for Ms. Willson came one day last Spring as she was wrapping up a conversation with her students. She ended the conversation in her traditional way - "I am here to listen whenever you'd like to talk" but this time, one of her students raised their hand and said "You know Ms. Willson, you always tell us you are here to listen to us, but I want you to know, we are here to listen to you too. You can talk to us about what you are feeling." She looked across the classroom as each of her students nodded along with their classmate and tears welled up in her eyes. In this very moment she knew that her hard work and commitment was well worth it.

Simone Hardeman-Jones is the founding Executive Director of GreenLight Twin Cities. She previously worked as the National Director of Policy and Partnerships at Educators for Excellence (E4E). Simone also served in the Obama Administration for nearly four years in a variety of roles, including Deputy Assistant Secretary in the Office of Legislation and Congressional Affairs at the U.S. Department of Education. Simone also spent six years working on Capitol Hill as a policy advisor to two United States Senators, Senator Amy Klobuchar (D-MN) and the late Senator Kay R. Hagan (D-NC). Simone holds both a bachelor's and a master's degree from The American University in Washington, D.C.