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MSU alumnus Patrick Harris II discusses humanity-centered teaching in NCTE speaker series

March 20, 2024
<p>Writer and MSU alumnus Patrick Harris discusses the foundations of his book, “The First Five: A Love Letter to Teachers” during a lecture at Erickson Hall on March 19, 2024.</p>

Writer and MSU alumnus Patrick Harris discusses the foundations of his book, “The First Five: A Love Letter to Teachers” during a lecture at Erickson Hall on March 19, 2024.

Photo by Matthew Williams | The State News

In the latest installment of speaker series, the Michigan State University Chapter of The National Council of Teachers of English, or NCTE, held a lecture by award-winning educator, author and MSU alumni Patrick Harris II. During the event, Harris spoke about his book, "The First Five: A Love Letter to Teachers," and shared his experiences working at various districts in the U.S., as well as overseas.

Harris, who identifies as "unapologetically" Black and queer, noted that Black men make up 1.3% of public school teachers. Despite this statistic, he said, his key to success was through honoring sacred identities and stories that make up his humanity, and bringing them to the classroom instead of leaving them at home.

Throughout the lecture, he called for students to contemplate their ideal teaching scenarios and stressed the importance of educators prioritizing individuality within their job.

“When I put my humanity first, I then acknowledge that I am someone that has a story,” Harris said. “It’s also important for you to recognize that you are someone that has a life, that has history. We often tell teachers to leave that at the door. No, bring it with you. Kids need to know that you’re real, that they can hold you and know you.”

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Writer and MSU alumnus Patrick Harris cracks a joke during his ‘Sustaining The Flame’ lecture at Erickson Hall on March 19, 2024.

Part of what helped Harris discover this truth was a situation with a student who was misbehaving. After he addressed the student, she called him a homophobic slur and Harris, in that moment, did not say or do anything. His lack of action stemmed back to an occurrence Harris had in middle school where he switched teachers because he had viewed his teacher as “too feminine," he said.

“When I was younger, men who were feminine got consequences,” Harris said. “I thought about how I’m teaching my younger self. That person, whether he’s healed or not, is going to be impacted by those decisions. It’s your younger self that will always rise to the top first because that’s your instinct.”

Additionally, Harris urged education students to carefully and intentionally choose what kind of school they settle on—whether private, public or otherwise—to ensure a proper fit. This was an especially vital takeaway for NCTE President and English secondary education and psychology senior Katy Anderson.

“I think one of the biggest things is the importance of finding a school that’s right for you,” Anderson said. “(Harris) talks about this in his book too, and how students are important, but how you need to find a school that supports you, backs you and allows you to be creative. I think that’s something that I will definitely take away. Teachers are in demand, and they have a certain sense of power, so you should find a school that fits your needs.”

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Students raise their hands as writer and MSU alumnus Patrick Harris poses a question about teaching during his ‘Sustaining The Flame’ lecture at Erickson Hall on March 19, 2024.

Elementary education sophomore Jessica Steller said integrating her personal experiences, just as Harris advised, will be something she focuses on in her career.

“I just love that because I feel like everyone has such different backgrounds and identities,” Steller said. "I’m an out-of-state student. Even just coming from Ohio to Michigan is different. That’s just a very small identity, but it’s such a huge difference. I think if we all openly share identities, we’re able to build an even better, stronger community.”

Lastly, Harris told students to remember that schools are uniquely positioned to model change. More specifically, he said, the change they wish to see in the world.

“Racism, homophobia and islamophobia may exist in the real world, but not in room 208,” Harris said. “We have the opportunity not to tell students how to prepare for oppression, but we have the opportunity to create the model for liberation. We can create this community together so we know what hope, community and love looks like. We can model what we want to be right now.”

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A slide from writer and MSU alumnus Patrick Harris’ presentation dissecting his book, “The First Five: A Love Letter to Teachers” at Erickson Hall on March 19, 2024.

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