“I swore never to be silent whenever and wherever human beings endure suffering and humiliation. We must always take sides. Neutrality helps the oppressor, never the victim. Silence encourages the tormentor, never the tormented.” —Elie Wiesel
This is a busy time in public education as schools are opening their doors to once again be filled with energy and life after the annual summer hiatus. Across the state, and in fact the country, superintendents are welcoming staff back to school with opening day comments designed, hopefully, to inspire and excite. There is a certain energy to the beginning of the school year which administrators seek to tap into in order to build excitement and buy-in to support new initiatives and propel staff forward in a positive start to the year. This is the time to leverage that energy while staff is still fresh and invigorated. As a result, administrators are sometimes reluctant to address big, difficult or potentially challenging issues on these first days as we don’t want to take the chance of dampening enthusiasm or losing that momentum.
However, the current strife and division in our country demands that just such a challenging topic be met head on from day one if we are to uphold our responsibilities as educators. Our country today is facing a cultural challenge as we struggle once again to define our identity and our place on the world stage. To some extent, national identity, cultural values, and norms are always in a state of flux for each generation, as they come of age, shapes the country in which we live. However, it seems that almost daily we are confronted with new examples of the divisions plaguing our nation which have led to a disturbing decline in civil discourse and a rise in fringe elements dominating the national debate.
A democracy is driven by the exchange of ideas and free speech is the bedrock upon which our society is based. However, it is the duty and responsibility of every educator to loudly and with one unified voice state unequivocally that racism, hatred, and bigotry cannot be tolerated and have no place in our national dialogue. Failure to denounce such speech and actions every time we are confronted amounts to tacit approval and that is unacceptable.
As educators we are responsible not only for academics, but also for assisting parents in the growth and social development of their children so that they become responsible caring adults and productive members of our society. Schools have always served this function and never has that function been more important than it is today.
We must ensure that students realize that our words matter and just because an individual disagrees with our point of view does not make them an inherently bad person. Civil discourse has faltered in this country as many adults fail to model this appropriate behavior. Today, more than ever before, it is necessary to teach our children the skills necessary to debate and even disagree with someone in a respectful and productive manner.
What once seemed to be a gradual erosion of civility, in recent times has become a landslide of boorish, vulgar and offensive behavior. What were once social norms for acceptable behavior have paled or in some instances completely disappeared. Hate groups that had been relegated the fringes of society have been emboldened by divisive rhetoric and fear mongering.
There is a very real underlying well of anger in our country as many in the middle class feel disenfranchised with the current political machinery of our government particularly at the federal level. Political elite on both sides of the aisle seem to be fumbling with how to respond and address what for many are very real concerns. The causes for this divide are numerous and the problems not easily resolved. However, a Congress gridlocked by partisan bickering seems incapable of even discussing the issues, let alone resolving the problems.
This is not the first time in our country’s history that we have been torn apart by cultural friction. However, today’s atmosphere, driven by social media and round the clock news coverage, serves to exacerbate and inflame these tensions. It is incumbent upon educators to help students understand and navigate these troubled times. It is time for us to remember that our job is not to teach students what to think, but rather we must teach them how to think so that they can arrive at their own informed decisions. This is a teachable moment for our kids. What they learn from it will depend on us.
We have very little control over the battles being played out on the national stage. However, we can control what happens in our communities, our schools and our classrooms. As adults we can model the behaviors we want our children to exhibit. If we start small it will spread. There will always be a diversity of opinions in our communities and that is the beauty of our system. However, we must never give in to the fear that opens the door for hate, racism and bigotry to intrude. We are not perfect, but we are Americans with all that that stands for and we can be better than we have been in recent times. Remember, our children are watching.