All children deserve a public school that serves them as they are.
About fifteen years ago as a professor I had a future teacher say to me, “I will never teach a black student, I can’t.” With a family deeply rooted in the KKK this student was 19 years old and conflicted. He had been taught (or rather he learned and internalized from life experiences) that his skin color awarded certain benefits (and those benefits were not to be shared).
In that moment with his honesty (and my shock) I was faced with a few challenges. The path I chose was to have a conversation about what being a public school means. I focused on the goals of providing access to free and equitable education, on unifying diverse populations and embracing different perspectives and values, and preparing every child to access a fruitful future (whatever that may be).
The reason I chose that path is not because I agreed with his stance but I had to show him that I was not there to advance an agenda but prepare him to teach. In order to do that I had to model that it is not my job as an educator to uphold my own belief systems but to teach so that all children may learn.
If that means that I (or you) as a teacher have to leave some personal values, priorities, beliefs, and limitations aside so be it.
It is after all public education.
I never did find out if that young man entered the classroom as a teacher. But I think about that event a lot. Especially today when we are reentering a time in our civil history where race, gender, equity, etc. are in the news daily.
We still have a population in our country that don’t see value in diversity. That truly do not want all students to be taught, included, and or nurtured so that all students feel safe in our public schools.
But here’s the thing about equity; as individuals we either accept that we are all different with different values, likes/dislikes, life experiences, religious beliefs, etc. or we don’t. As teachers in public schools we have to teach every child that comes to us. Regardless of race, gender (or gender identification), religion, ability, etc.
We just do not have a choice in the matter. And I for one am proud of that.
Why? Because just like that young man that shocked me to my core fifteen years ago, if you don’t want to teach public school where everyone is provided equitable education, then leave and go someplace where only your people live.
Public education is for all students. It is a hard, complex system that has to stay neutral of judgement. Public education as an institution has to inspire dialogue and inspire understanding (FYI that is completely different than acceptance) of individuality.
It was an impossible argument for that young man fifteen years ago, because as a public school teacher he was going to have to learn to teach all students (or he was going to have to find a homogeneous community with zero diversity). Today it is an impossible argument for any special interest group, politician, or teacher. Why? Because we are talking about public schools where all are welcome and all are treated with equal respect and all are provided equal opportunity and access.
Teachers throughout history have been faced with challenges of minding their own values, today’s discussions may seem more complex but really they aren’t. We as a society are continually uncovering diversity, as public schools we must embrace that diversity and move onward.
In the community I currently call home, this issue is bubbling to the surface. Our school district thankfully has a new equity officer. That individual has a formal job description but I just think of it as a position to advocate for and remediate our systems of public education.
Why remediation? Because somewhere along the way we have lost sight of the fact that since the beginning we have all been different (from the color of our eyes to the God that we pray to). We have been so focused on leaving politics and religion out of conversations at the dinner table that we have forgotten how to dialogue and understand that today there is no majority. We need remediation because it is becoming too easy to dismiss our collective diversity, to pretend that there is a status quo. That diversity is something that needs a caretaker in our public schools. We need someone trained to remind, refocus, and redefine our commitment to educating all. That is the role of an equity officer in my eyes.
It is not the role of public schools to determine the views of its students, rather to help those students learn to define their views with determination and individuality.
We make choices every day in our schools; for those that are making decisions that uphold the value of public schools they have (or should have at their core) a mission to allow the diversity that defines us to make us stronger and more empathetic, and not the opposite.
Today there is difference and that difference (no matter the shape or size) is all present and accounted for in the halls of our public schools. In those halls we must do our best to uphold our goals of inclusivity and access. If you don’t want to live in that world of difference than say goodbye. Because the choice is not about you, it is about something much greater than you: public education for all.
Public education provides access to free and equitable education, opportunities to unify diverse populations with different perspectives and values, and equal opportunities for all children to access their own fruitful future.
Public education is not about the voice and values of one. Public education does not discriminate. Public education is a saving grace for some and a devil’s pulpit for others.
That’s the beauty of it all, by its very nature public education pushes us all to learn.
As our country continues to struggle with purpose and perspective let our public schools lead the way. No one voice is greater than the other. No one voice is more worthy of inclusion than the other.
Support our public schools, support all of our children, support the vision that was set hundreds of years ago. Enable our children to reach their potential equitably.
Just remember that 19 year old and how conflicted he was, and everything that he learned and internalized from life experiences. And do better. Every single one of our kids deserve it.