Difficult Conversations Start with Ourselves

Each year, the New Jersey Department of Education (NJDOE) offers the Governor’s Educator of the Year program to honor the hardworking teachers and educational services professionals for their dedication to students, and to the profession. In turn, NJACTE welcomes the distinguished teacher chosen to speak at a monthly membership meeting and invites them to share their thoughts about education. What follows is a post authored by 2024 NJ Teacher of the Year, Joe Nappi on the topic of difficult conversations.

There have been many times in my career when I have walked into my classroom knowing that I was in for a difficult conversation. Whether it was after a school shooting, a terrorist attack, or an insurrection at the Capitol, I was going to be faced with a choice: would I acknowledge what my students were seeing and help them try to make sense of it, or would I move on with our curriculum as if today was just another day? This is the new reality that all teachers face in this profession: have a difficult, potentially divisive conversation with your students, or leave your students to figure it out on Tik Tok and Instagram. While I would argue strenuously for the former, I fully understand why many teachers choose the latter: they were never trained to have these conversations. This is a major flaw in teacher preparation programs that must be addressed.    

It’s not just the news that is driving these difficult conversations in the classroom, it’s our state’s mandates, and these, unlike current events, cannot be ignored.  New Jersey teachers are mandated to address issues of race, sexuality, and gender. They are asked to teach about climate change and the Holocaust, to discuss the positive impacts of the LGBTQIA+ community, as well as the many contributions that disabled and black Americans have made to our country, and in the words of the Amistad Mandate to instill “ the personal responsibility of each citizen to fight racism and hatred whenever and wherever it happens”. They are expected not just to touch on these subjects, but to promote diversity, equity and tolerance while doing so. Difficult conversations are now part of every teacher’s job description. 

In fact, these mandates are not all new. The Amistad mandate was written in 2002, and the Holocaust Mandate turns 40 on April 15th. Yet far too many teacher preparation programs are leaving their graduates unprepared to address these mandates and have been for years. I graduated from Rowan in 2005 with a degree in history and secondary education, which had no requirement to take a single class on black history or the Holocaust, despite those mandates being in effect at the time. Today, with an even larger plate of mandated topics to cover, how confidently can we say that we are equipping new teachers with the necessary knowledge and tools required to effectively meet such mandates? In other words, are your teaching candidates ready to teach these topics, and what’s more, are they prepared to navigate the inevitable difficult conversations that will come with them? 

These mandates are a source of pride for our state. Unlike other parts of the country that are restricting and banning difficult conversations, we are requiring them. There is a tremendous optimism and possibility in these mandates. If implemented effectively, we can make meaningful change and create a more tolerant and accepting populace, but that can only happen if teachers are properly trained to do this work. No teacher should avoid a difficult conversation because they were not trained to have one. Teacher preparation programs must lead by example, having their own difficult conversations and reflecting on how well they are preparing our teacher candidates for the realities and responsibilities of the modern classroom. Sometimes the most important difficult conversations require the use of a mirror, and with an issue this important, none of us can afford to look away. 

Submitted by Joe Nappi 
2024 NJ State Teacher of the Year 
National Finalist National Teacher of the Year