The events at the U.S. Capitol last Wednesday have been weighing heavily on my mind. We acted quickly to provide our school staff guidance on how to immediately address this event with our students: to listen to students’ questions carefully, be honest and reassuring.
Personally, my processing usually begins with questions of what happened and why, followed by the immediate concern for how to support our entire school community through these times, all the while struggling with how to meet our responsibility to better prepare the next generation of American citizens. It is this struggle that drives me in these moments.
As parents, I’m sure you, too, are struggling with what the way forward might be. I want to share with you here my point of view, which I have also shared with our school staff, about how these events might influence our work in 2021 and beyond.
Where Do We Go Now; What Do We Do Next
While it seems redundant to say that these are challenging times, I just don’t know another way to characterize these past twelve months. It is not enough that we are living through a pandemic, a time of racial reckoning, and an historic national election but add to that the events of this past week and the assault on our democracy; the very fabric of our being. It is almost too much to process. As adult members of a civil society we are expected to be able to attend to it all; yet as educators we have an obligation and responsibility to our students and our community to address these events in our classrooms.
I believe deeply that democracies can only exist if every citizen truly feels empowered to participate in the democratic process. While some might describe Wednesday’s mob as “empowered” and exercising their democratic rights, I don’t see it that way. With our rights comes the responsibility to understand and adhere to the fundamental tenets upon which our democratic system is built and to me that begins with respect—respect for all people, respect for our institutions, and respect for sacred buildings.
As I watched what happened on Wednesday, I was deeply pained by the lack of respect shown. This lack of respect extended to the elected officials carrying out their constitutional responsibilities, the citizens of our country who in good faith cast their votes in the presidential election, the institutions and facilities where the work of our government is carried out, and the protesters last summer who had denounced racism and were treated so differently.
We have a long history in the United States of professing a belief that all people be treated equally while often acting in ways that are counter to those beliefs. We have a history of accepting progress toward our goals rather than the courage to reach our goals. We allow practices to continue because we are not ready to accept the pain that comes with changing them. And let’s be honest, American classrooms have perpetuated much of this, maybe because we didn’t know how to do it differently, but also because we tend to teach what we ourselves learned.
Now it is time to make sure our students experience something different in their classrooms.
As educators, our responsibility is to teach students what it means to be a respectful citizen in a democracy. This is far more complex than teaching about the constitution or the three branches of government, although these are critical concepts to grasp. It is about more than imparting the sense of privilege and obligation to vote in every local, state, and national election. And it is even about more than ensuring our future citizens can critically assess the accuracy of information with which they are bombarded. No, none of this is enough unless we also develop within our students the beliefs and dispositions that are at the core of democracy--belief in the inherent goodness and worth of all people and respect for the institutions that hold us together. Teaching respect--this, first and foremost, is our responsibility as educators.
Certainly our work in the Mansfield Public Schools is a work in progress, but we are committed to teach the value, contributions, and sacrifices of all people, making sure the stories we feature reflect the diversity of our world. We work to truly know each of our students, including how their life circumstances affect their learning, and we strive to provide opportunities for every student to exercise their voice in our classrooms. In so doing, we build an understanding of, and respect for, all people.
We also accept the obligation to teach our children about the foundations upon which our democratic institutions are based, including the processes established and tested for more than 200 years that allow us to improve and refine these institutions until everyone truly is treated equally. Our students need to understand the structure, processes, and norms of our government as well as the role they each play in ensuring our democracy continues for the next 200 years.
And finally, we must teach our children how to both agree and disagree. Being a citizen in a democracy requires us to communicate with others, accept our differences, and work together towards a “more perfect union.” As educators, as leaders, and as parents we have to become comfortable having difficult conversations about conflict and opinions, and develop the courage to lead others in such discourse. Democracy depends on us all working together.
Superintendent, Mansfield Public Schools