There Is Only One Side

“We must take sides. Neutrality helps the oppressor, never the victim. Silence encourages the tormentor, never the tormented.”- Elie Wiesel

Many of us are taught that truth usually lies somewhere in the middle. That things aren’t necessarily simple. That we shouldn’t judge what we may not fully understand. These idioms must be discarded in the face of the appalling display of hatred by white supremacists, KKK members, and Neo-Nazis in Charlottesville. For applying these idioms here permits silence when action is required. Even as our president incoherently derides “many sides” there is only one.

But as a new school year is set to begin, what is the role of education leaders and teachers?

It is true that social justice isn’t on Pennsylvania’s Keystone exams or the PSSAs. Neither is collaboration and communication. In fact, neither is history. Blue ribbons aren’t awarded based on a school’s ability to teach children empathy. Proficiency measures don’t account for character, civic responsibility, or authentic problem solving ability. Many believe that these skills have no place in our schools and in our curriculums. They are wrong. Rooting out ignorance and bigotry will not occur in the courtroom or the board room. It will occur in the classroom. It always has. The world needs great educators, empowered within their systems, to bring issues of social justice to life for our children. We can’t afford to declare these issues to be “too political” or “too risky” for a classroom setting. Not anymore. That’s not leadership. And it’s not logical.

In so many ways teachers are made to feel small, inconsequential, and underappreciated. We are led to believe the test matters most. We believe that we must cover everything in the curriculum and more, and all of it must be mastered by Friday. But what if one or two brave teachers had the courage, moral clarity, training, and resources to get through to James Alex Fields Jr., who decided the right way to handle his grievances was to injure and maim innocents by plowing them with his car at a white supremacist rally in Charlottesville, Virginia. What if one or two of his teachers strategically integrated social justice issues into the curriculum, allowing him to see varying perspectives that could challenge his thinking? What if one or two of his teachers took charge of their own professional development, acknowledging blind spots, biases, and knowledge gaps on issues of race and privilege? What if one or two of his teachers chose not to cover slavery or the civil rights movement in two weeks before permanently moving on as the curriculum guide may recommend? What if one or two of his teachers worked to create a safe space for student-led dialogue? Or prioritized exposing students to a diverse set of literature? Or led a school-to-school partnership to help students forge connections with peers of different backgrounds or skin colors, but who share a common humanity?

What if administrators spent less time worrying about how parents may react to calls for social justice and more time tapping them as partners to build relationships and and solve community-based problems? What if school leaders designed student-led mentor programs that encouraged students to explore these complex issues together? What if they decided that promoting diversity within schools is not a matter of preference but of necessity and survival?

What if our communities trusted that our students can and do rise to the occasion when they are provided with authentic learning opportunities that honors their experience? What if we realized that it can’t all happen at home and it can’t all happen at school. What if we all agreed that this work should be labeled not as an initiative but as a moral imperative?

As educators, we must take a side –the side of our students. There is only one side.