7 Investigates: A Need to be Heard Pt. 2

How one teacher handles students’ on-the-spot, controversial questions about the world
Published: Sep. 16, 2021 at 4:47 PM CDT
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AMHERST, Wis. (WSAW) - Children ask a lot of questions; it is how they learn about themselves and the world around them. With everything that has gone on in the world over the last two years, students have plenty of things to ask about. The people they know who have at least some answers to their questions are teachers.

Students’ questions can be blunt and challenging to answer. Teachers often have to answer those tough questions in front of 20 other kids. Stanley Walker, a fifth-grade teacher at Amherst Middle School who is also on the school district’s new staff diversity committee, has had a lot of practice taking on those on-the-spot questions.

Walker has been a teacher for about 20 years and has taught in classrooms around the country. He said how kids interact with him in the classroom is changing.

7 Investigates observed one of his last classes of the 2020-2021 school year in May. Students were respectful, but they were not shy about their feelings, with several students saying “I doubt that,” after a statement he made.

Stanley Walker, a fifth-grade teacher at Amherst Middle School gives a lesson in May, 2021 to...
Stanley Walker, a fifth-grade teacher at Amherst Middle School gives a lesson in May, 2021 to his class.(WSAW Tom Zurawski)

“Before kids would just take what you said as fact. But now, since the age of (the) internet and instant fact-checking, they will fact check you on what you say, even what the book says,” Walker said. “My students, they really stand strong behind their thoughts, their feelings, and their beliefs.”

He said they want to share their beliefs and opinions and also ask him questions about his own beliefs as a way to understand the things they see and hear at home and in the world around them.

“One student came to me and in open class forums, she asks, ‘Do you support the LGBT community?’... And I knew when she asked that it was a loaded question...because one of my students in my class was, you know he was between the lines -- that’s what I call it -- he was you know he was trying to find his identity... I said I support everything that is under our Constitution, that everyone has that right to be who they...identify as.”

He said he told them that he would die for them to have that right “because freedom and equality (are), you know, what our nation is built on.” Walker grew up in the post-Civil Rights era in the south. He said that has had an influence on how he answers those questions.

“I had to live that all men are created equal and endowed by their creator to enable rights, and that’s what I taught or told my students that they have the right to do or believe what they want to do... Do I have to believe it? No, I have to respect it. I have to treat them like a human being.”

He said his son’s service in the Marine Corps has also given him a good foundation, reaffirming his values from his upbringing. After telling his son about classroom scenarios over the years, he said his son tells him, “Dad, I don’t worry about how anyone feels about it. My job is to fight that they have the right to say and be.”

He tries to teach his students that too, to love and respect one another despite differences, like opinion, lifestyle, or background. Disagreements still come up, but he said they do it civilly.

“The biggest, I would say feuds, that I had in my classroom was during the, the election. You know, we had people for Trump people for Biden and, and you know, I’m in the middle of it,” he laughed. “You know, I’m in the middle of it and I’m thinking to myself... how should I set this up? So I gave my students an assignment, I (asked) how can we debate this in open forum? And one of my students came up and she wrote out the-- she called it the author of the debate and she gave each side five minutes to discuss their points, and then she gave each side a rebuttal.”

He wondered if he should allow it. He ultimately did, as long as students respected and honored each other. They did and he said that opportunity for students to share their thoughts cleared the air.

“They want to be heard, and they want me to know that I heard them. And once I get out of the way that I hear you, I see you, I feel you and I understand, like, your point of view, you know, that, that to me is able to balance some of it out.”

Love and respect he said have been the foundations of all of their discussions.

“You can have feelings about, you know where you stand on this issue, but have the feeling-- have one principle: acceptance, and love, and respect. And if we can get that even in our nation. You know, I believe that everyone will, will feel like they have a place in our nation.”

To learn more about the incidents at the school district last school year and details about the changes the district is making, like adding a diversity committee, click here. Tune in Thursday on NewsChannel 7 at 9 and 10 for the final piece in the 7 Investigates: A Need to be Heard series as students share about how they collaborated despite differing views and what they hope their collaboration inspires.

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