Public Schools Should Not Be Burnt Bridges

Most people who know me well know that I can be a bit of a hothead. If you see my hands start to fly and my accent get just a little thicker, you can pretty much bet I’m on a straight path to “telling it like it is.” As I’ve gotten older, though, I’ve learned to channel that — ahem — passion, for the greater good.

Yet my tendency to “tell it like it is” has burnt some bridges along the way that still haunt me. A decade ago, I invited a prominent Kentucky writer to speak to my class. As do most, this writer requested an honorarium. Being a first year teacher, I had no experience with using school funds, so after asking our school bookkeeper what to do, I filled out a form with the writer’s address and the amount to be paid, and fixed my attention toward preparing my students for the writer’s visit.

But apparently there was a miscommunication. The writer expected the check upon arrival, and I had made arrangements to mail it. I won’t go into details, but let’s just say “unpleasant” words were exchanged that day and over email in the days that followed. We were both angry, and neither of us held back. I promptly placed this writer on my burn list, deciding that it didn’t really matter. This writer would never be worth my time again.

Unfortunately, this writer is highly involved in education, and I am highly involved in the writing world. Each time our paths have crossed, I have felt my skin crawl. I just wanted to avoid it, but I couldn’t shake this problem.

One day, a student who wanted to pursue a writing career and had the talent to do it, asked me to send an email for a great opportunity in the state. I gladly agreed until I recognized the name on the bottom of the program flyer. It was the writer I had spent so many years loathing, who surely felt the same way about me. If the writer received an email from me, the message would have been worthless.

Because cultivating future writers and helping them find opportunities for growth is what I do — and love to do — for a living, this realization helped me recognize that my bad behavior meant lost opportunities for my students.

It was easy to burn a bridge when I thought it would never impact me, but shameful to recognize how doing so impacted those around my students

The truth, for me, was unavoidable. My shame led to understanding the truth that because we live in communities, our actions impact others in ways we may not imagine. So it is time that our communities recognize a truth that they might not want to hear: If you are not actively working to support our public schools, whether your children attend them or not, then you also may be negatively impacting schools and students.

Public education belongs to everyone and everyone is responsible for it. This means that some will manipulate it for their own agendas. It means it will always be under the microscope. It means that people will try to systematize it, no matter how clear it is that there is no one size fits all solution for developing the minds and hearts of our future citizens.

It also means that although members of our community may think they are walking away from it, they can’t. Even if they home school their children or send them to private schools, one day their children will interact and work with other people who have been educated in public schools. And so much of our daily life is directly impacted by societal issues — the traffic jam due to ineffective infrastructure, the insurance claim that can’t be processed due to inefficiency, the colleague whose work ethic is questionable but gets a raise anyway, or the fear felt when walking to a car alone in the dark.

The bottom line is even if you think it’s not your problem, the majority of people in our culture are educated in public schools, so the public school system essentially determines the quality of life for us all. You can either choose to lay claim to the responsibility we have for our schools, or you can pretend to wash your hands of it. Just as I thought the writer was a passing thought in my life and my student had to pay for it, so too will our future generations have to pay for the washing of hands that happens when our community thinks the challenges in our schools are not theirs.

So then what can you do?

The next time you drive past the school closest to your house, whether your children attend it or not, look at the marquee out front and pay attention to what’s going on there. Show up to the game on Friday. Send a good luck note to the academic team heading to regionals. Call the sponsor of the running club and thank her for giving her time to improve the lives of kids.

Click on any education article when you browse the news online. Read it from beginning to end. If it a positive article celebrating something happening in a school near you, share it. If it is a negative article decrying the laziness of the teachers or administrators, think before you send it. Send an email to the writer or the school and ask for details first. Be conscious and inquisitive when it comes to the news surrounding our public schools. You may have the best of intentions when sharing any story — both positive and negative — but recognize that often the negative stories are the ones that stick, even if they’re false. We should be careful of relying on a few sound bites from the media or the naysayer at the cocktail party to tell the entire story of our schools and the children within it.

Don’t be that naysayer at the cocktail party. If you don’t understand something about education — the budgets, tenure for teachers, cyber bullying policies, curriculum or standards, ask first before participating in conversations about them. Ask a teacher, a principal, another parent who is well informed.

Again, you may have the best of intentions. You probably are genuinely concerned, but know that your words are powerful. Anyone who has ever played the game of Telephone knows what happens to words eventually. They will mutate and take on a life of their own. Sharing sound bites may seem harmless, but the person on the end of that phone may hold power or have influence and may make decisions based solely on that one piece of misguided information.

And if you do have kids in public schools, recognize that being a parent of a public school child means being a partner in education, not a customer.

You live in your community. The kids in every part of it — every single school — are your kids. You can’t just shake your head in disapproval of the schools around you when you see numbers or rankings. We can’t continue to write off the problems in our schools as someone else’s concern, and we certainly can’t wait around for someone else to fix them.

Because burnt bridges may come back to haunt us.

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