Mr. Miyagi. Obi-Wan Kenobi. Professor X. Splinter. Pop culture has perfected the mentor-teacher archetype who patiently guides a reluctant young protege into becoming the hero of his or her own story. In real life, though, we don’t have Dumbledore or Yoda, Gandalf or Mr. Keating, but we do have something better: a pink-haired, National Board Certified, third-grade teacher named Barbara Hall.
Hall, who is in her 19th year of teaching, has decorated her classroom at the Little Rock School District’s Pulaski Heights Elementary School with a colorful comic-book theme and calls her students “Hall’s Heroes,” helping them each discover their own unique talents and superpowers. For many of her students and their families, though, it is Hall who is the real Superwoman. Not only does she help her third graders grow academically, she works hard to create a safe, affirming, joyous classroom where all students can shine.
“Students cannot learn if they feel invisible, disrespected or unsafe,” Hall said. She considers it an integral part of her job as a teacher to maintain a classroom environment where all of her students can feel comfortable enough to explore and grow. “Every day in my classroom, we make a commitment to being safe.” She and her students regularly discuss what that means. “When we discuss any classroom issue, we pass it through the lens of safety. For example, if we have problems with unkindness or disrespect, we talk about how it contributes to people feeling unsafe, and we revisit our commitment to making school a safe place for everyone.”
Hall’s focus on making school a safe and welcoming place for all students has become especially important in recent years. The COVID-19 pandemic exposed and amplified students’ emotional, behavioral and mental health needs, and outside of school, young people today absorb pervasive messages about the political, religious and cultural rifts in America. These divides show up as efforts to ban Black history courses and censor library books, backlash against diversity and inclusion programs and an array of legislation targeting LGBTQ+ Arkansans.
Hall, who is a lesbian and has been married to her wife, Amanda Linn, since same-sex marriage became legal in Arkansas in 2014, said her third graders are thankfully shielded from the bigotry and hate on display in state and national politics. But she still worries about how these attacks on vulnerable and marginalized groups affect her students and their families. “I know when I was a teenager, I was acutely aware of the homophobic comments from family members, classmates, church leaders and media, and I remember how that message impacted me.”
Hall said she has been lucky to work in schools that have long focused on the whole child, prioritizing students’ social, emotional and physical well-being along with their academic performance. She notes that she and her peers have learned to adapt to the changing educational needs of their students by equipping them with strategies to manage their emotions and stress. She also understands that simply having a happy, successful, openly queer teacher can be incredibly affirming for students who need to see themselves represented in a positive way. “I so often think about what it would have been like as a child to have had such adults around me.” Hall explains that while she avoids bringing her personal life into the classroom, her students often ask her if she is married (a question that most elementary school teachers hear frequently), and it is important to her to be able to answer honestly and say, “Yes, my wife’s name is Amanda.”
Hall’s life experiences have led her to advocate for policies to help protect the mental health and well-being of all students. One such policy Hall strongly supports is having a full-time counselor in every school, a step that Hall praises the Little Rock School District for taking, saying, “I see the impact of that change every day.” She also hopes that schools will expand school-based health clinics to include mental health services for students and their families, and she hopes that more districts will adopt nondiscrimination policies that protect LGBTQ+ staff and students. She remembers when the school district added sexual orientation and gender identity to its nondiscrimination policy, and she notes that “even though I was lucky to work for and with people who accepted me, there was a giant sense of relief and pride in that acknowledgment.” Hall said that she also appreciates the fact that LRSD board members and the district’s new superintendent, Dr. Jermall Wright, have spoken out during board meetings and on social media in support of the district’s LGBTQIA+ students, staff and families (Full disclosure: I’m a member of the LRSD School Board).
Hall emphasizes, though, that creating a classroom environment conducive to learning isn’t just about protecting her students’ safety and mental well-being; it’s also about making sure that school is a place where kids can have fun. “Joy and fun are so important in a classroom,” Hall said. She reflects that with all the demands placed on teachers, it can be easy for adults to forget that they are working with children who still need laughter and play every day. “I use humor a lot in my classroom,” she explained, and she consciously monitors herself so that “if I ever feel like I’m being an old crank trying to rush through the learning, I try to take a breath, crack a joke and have some fun.”
Hall also admits she works hard to demonstrate vulnerability and bravery for her students because she wants them to be bold and take chances. She said she tries to help students learn to believe in themselves, which is crucial for their long-term happiness and future success. Hall said that, like all teachers, she worries about not being able to do enough for her students, especially when they are facing difficulties and challenges beyond her control. But she hopes all of her students will look back on third grade as a time they loved school, had fun and felt loved and accepted. “When I look back at my own time as a student, what I remember most are the times I felt that way.”