Teaching in the Age of Cancel Culture

by - July 09, 2019

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Every once in awhile I like to post about things that I have been contemplating as it relates to teaching, like my White Privilege post. These posts are never as popular as ones with teaching strategies and ideas, but I like to contemplate relevant issues.

Recently, I became engrossed in the YouTube feud between beauty bloggers James Charles, Tati, and Jeffree Star. Now, this is absolutely not my world, and prior to the feud, I had never heard of these people. Because the story was trending in the news, I read out of curiosity. The interesting thing is that I ended up watching hours of YouTube videos over the span of a few weeks, and learned about something even more important than whatever their feud really was about - Cancel Culture.

Cancel Culture is a term that refers to the cultural phenomenon of "canceling" someone after they publicly disgrace themselves in some way. It can be something really insignificant, or a major indiscretion. After this person makes this error in judgment, everyone effectively "cancels" them by unfollowing, shaming them publicly, destroying their products, and effectively ruining their career. Though this phenomenon occurs largely in the world of online communication - social media, YouTube. TikTok, etc., we have to keep in mind that our students live largely in this online world.

So consider how Cancel Culture can affect our students in our classrooms. Fear of public embarrassment has always been present in classrooms, causing anxiety for students since classrooms were invented. Remember how terrifying it was to be asked to go to the blackboard to solve a math problem, or to read a paragraph aloud in class while everyone followed along, waiting for you to make a mistake or mispronounce a word. Cancel Culture runs deeper than that. A student might not be "canceled" for struggling to read a paragraph in a textbook - but their performance in class can be affected by their peers "canceling" them for a perceived social indiscretion. Canceling a student is a form of social bullying. While the student who is being canceled might not be physically harmed, their reputation and self-esteem can be significantly damaged if other students are using social media to encourage others to socially excommunicate them. Our students, right now, are living in a society where canceling someone is actually cool, encouraged, and kids can even reward each other for "spilling the tea" on someone else (spilling the tea is basically outing someone for what they have said or done, the ultimate high form of gossip). 

When we think of bullies, we think of the big angry kid on the playground pushing kids down, or the mean girl club making life hell for other girls who aren't part of their circle, but bullying has evolved  and is more dangerous than ever before. Teen depression and suicide rates are very high, and so often people are shocked when they find out that a student committed suicide because of online bullying that they didn't even know was happening. A student being "canceled" can mean that they become a social leper, an outcast, unwelcome in any social circles. This can greatly impact their academic performance.

So what do we do about it as teachers? There's the obvious answer - create strong relationships with students, pay attention to changes in their mood and behavior in class, reach out to parents and counselors if you notice any changes... but there's something else that we can do that might be more effective. Creating a culture in your classroom that is air-tight, inclusive, accepting, transparent, and that does not tolerate bullying behavior of any kind can create a safe haven for everyone in the classroom. If a student feels ostracized outside of your room, but feels included and respected within you walls, imagine the feeling of solace they might have during those 45 minutes. 

There are so many ways to create positive culture within your classroom, and I am a fan of so many, but by far the most effective one that I have used comes from the tenants of Restorative Justice, and that is using Proactive Circles. You can read about that in a post that I wrote last year, and I highly recommend using this as a way to solve problems before they begin and give students the opportunity to feel safe and respected in your classroom. 

The most important thing is, no matter what technique you use, to create positive culture in your room. You cannot control what happens in the lunch room, or in PE, or on SnapChat, but you can control what happens within your walls, and that is way more important than anything academic. First focus on culture - when students feel safe, they will be able to better focus on learning. 

What do you think? Is Cancel Culture a new term to you? Let me know in the comments!

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