Mennonite Educators Conference reminds teachers they are not alone

Choral leaders sing together at the Mennonite Educators Conference. — Jenn Esbenshade Choral leaders sing together at the Mennonite Educators Conference. — Jenn Esbenshade

After a three-year hiatus, about 360 Mennonite educators from 14 schools in the United States and ­Albania gathered Feb. 2-4 in Leesburg, Va., to hear each other’s wisdom, support one another and collaborate.

The Mennonite Educators Conference was an opportunity for the schools to build partnerships with other Mennonite organizations. The theme was “Better Together.”

Mennonite Central Committee provided a copy of its “Peaceful Practices” and “Embracing Beloved Community” curricula to each school. MCC personnel led teachers in two interactive sessions, “You Got Booked” and “People on the Move.”

“You Got Booked” offers insights into the ways the U.S. criminal legal system has led to a crisis of mass incarceration.

“People on the Move” uses real- world examples to develop practical understandings of immigration issues, including root causes of ­mi­gration, decisions migrants face and U.S. policies that affect migrants.

Both experiences provided ways for teachers to approach these subjects with students.

Mennonite Disaster Service presented its House Building Activity, which includes resources to engage students on topics such as weather, effects of climate change, social justice, trauma response and maintaining community in the face of challenges.

MDS also had conversations with schools to collaborate on community service. Eastern Mennonite School and Lancaster Mennonite School have partnered with MDS to have students build a house at each of their campuses. These houses will be transported to an MDS project site.

Mennonite Mission Network made connections with its “Just Peace Pilgrimages,” which allow participants to experience justice issues. The trips include civil rights learning tours in the Southeast, a “Stories at the Border” immigration tour in Arizona and Texas and “Connecting with Native Cultures” in various places.

Eastern Mennonite School students participated in the civil rights tour in spring 2022 and shared about their experiences. MMN encouraged other schools to partner with them for these trips.

Professors from Eastern Mennonite University and Goshen College led sessions on Restorative Justice in Education. RJE promotes inclusive and collaborative approaches for supporting students and educators. It strives to create a relationship-centered space for justice and equity, repair of harm and making things as right as possible. Educators were invited to consider how this framework can impact their community and curricular decisions.

Teachers were eager to share their stories and listen to their colleagues. “I am not alone” was a common thread as teachers reflected on what it means to be “Better Together.”

Often in small schools, where an ­educator might be the only one teaching a certain grade or subject level, the experience can feel isolating. Joining with a large group of educators and connecting with other Mennonite agencies gave participants a sense of place and purpose.

The conference invigorated and renewed spirits. It connected Mennonite education to the wider world.

One teacher stated, “One cannot manage it all without community and support. We are not meant to do life alone.”

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