A primary object should be the education of our youth in the science of government. In a republic, what species of knowledge can be equally important? And what duty more pressing than communicating it to those who are to be the future guardians of the liberties of the country? ― George Washington
What do kids typically experience the first day of school? Nerves. Will I make friends? Will my teacher like me? Where is the bathroom? These are the typical concerns that you’d imagine.
But this year at school? Fears. Will my parents get pulled over after they drop me off? Is it really fair to ask them to risk their safety? Will my family be there when I get home? Will other students shame me for my political choices? Will I get beat up because of where my family comes from? Will I get to see my stepdad now that my parents are getting divorced, and he might have to leave the country? Will Donald Trump really kill all the women? Are we going to have a nuclear war?
The last three questions were actually posed by local fifth graders. These are the very real, all-consuming fears that are plaguing many of our students this year.
The Impact in Our Schools
As teachers, we can see it in our students, in how hallway behaviors have changed. There is a charge that wasn’t there before, an undercurrent of anxiety. Students are feeling unsafe. They are warier of each other; they are scared of what will happen to their families; they are scared of what is happening to their country.
Why aren’t we talking about this with each other and with our children? They are absorbing the fear and division we face as a nation and as adults, yet we are expecting them to compartmentalize it. Students are doing the best they can to manage their anxiety, but the energy required is preventing many of them from being able to fully focus on learning.
What We Can Do
What is a healthy and appropriate response from local schoolteachers, staffs, teacher unions, school boards and district administrators?
• School staffs need to have regular discussions about these issues and examine the best responses.
• Teachers need time to share teaching ideas and curriculum with one another.
• School districts need to organize high-quality professional development that utilizes the cultural wisdom and perspectives of impacted communities.
• Teacher unions need to step up and play a serious role in such professional development.
• Community panels and forums need to be organized by individual schools, by school districts and by teacher unions that feature the voices of those most impacted.
• District leaders need to encourage staff to take a pro-active stance in supporting families and students without fear of reprisal from administrators.
If the goal of education is to teach democracy in all of its meanings, educators must have the courage to establish and facilitate safe places for conversation. Public schools must be the place where students come to understand the many perspectives of others, as well as how to respond to each other civilly, with the understanding that everyone has something to teach us. We must learn to find the common ground upon which compromise can occur.