We Are Not Each Other’s Enemies

We are living in a time of dichotomies and it deeply troubles me.

Before I begin, I want to say that healthy disagreement is productive.  It is at the heart of democracy.  As much as I dislike conflict, I appreciate the opportunity to dialogue and hear alternative perspectives.  While the final result may not be changed opinions on either side, there is productivity in conversation, in humanizing beliefs that are not our own, in understanding who another person is, what their beliefs are based upon and how their core values can be strikingly similar to one’s own (or not), but manifested in a completely different way.  Because I assume that most people are good, in conversation and dialogue with others, it’s not hard for me to find common ground and connect with humanity, even when one’s beliefs are very different from my own. But I have to come from a place of willingness to engage, not from a place of defending my own long-considered core values.

The problem, for me, is that many of us rarely have conversations with those with whom we disagree anymore, and few of us are critical of the perspectives that we tend to agree with.  We have one-side conversations in echo chambers and beat up on people with opposing views. We speak in dichotomies as if people who are advocating for their beliefs, their rights, their perspectives, are our enemies.  I’m not tone policing here.  I know people are angry when they are misinterpreted, when they are living in systems in which they feel helpless, unheard or unrecognized.  I know that there are real consequences for many people (individually and because of their group membership) when civil and human rights are threatened (and I mean this on both sides, in a non-partisan way right now–parents of students with disabilities are on both sides of the aisle; people with pre-existing health conditions; people of color; veterans; the homeless; Muslims), but what I’m saying is that even in advocating for those among the least of us whom we have a heart for (the unborn; refugees; the homeless; children; the people of Flint), we face criticism and dichotomy.  Comments like wishing that people who cared so much about immigrants and refugees cared about homeless veterans.  Who made up this dichotomy?  Who said that people can’t care about both?  I have been asked why I run for clean water for children in Africa when the children of Flint don’t have clean water.  I can advocate for clean water globally and domestically, actually.  Comments like saying all people who are against abortion also don’t care about providing options for children, women, and families who need social supports.  One can be pro-life and mean more than pro-birth.  One can also be pro-choice and believe in the sanctity and beauty of life.  One can advocate for Veteran’s rights while believing fundamentally that the military system needs to be scaled down and that unjust war is wrong.  One can believe in gun control measures without wanting to take away your personal firearm.  And, we can agree to disagree on these issues. But we can also be passionately angry in respectful ways that aren’t personally attacking.

And, we can all do our part in spreading good instead of ugliness.  When did your neighbor become your enemy?  I have a lot of disagreements fundamentally with people because I have strong beliefs, but I’m still going to advocate for what I believe is right in a positive way, and if you’re working towards what you believe is right (as opposed to critiquing someone’s else’s donation, contribution, not doing enough, doing it wrong, whatever it is) while, of course, being critical and thinking through what you believe is right and wrong, good for you.  Why are we wasting our time arguing with people we don’t know when there is so much we could be doing?  Yes, protest. Yes, call.  Yes, join movements.  Yes, state your beliefs. But if you don’t agree with these things, don’t poop on other people’s rights to exercise their democratic rights. Be proactive instead of reactive.  Advocate for your beliefs in your way.

I am a passionate advocate for human rights.  All human rights.  I feel pretty consistent there.  I’m for government supports AND for non-governmental relief organizations to support what the government doesn’t provide to those in need. I protest. I donate. I educate. I listen. I vote. If you do those things too, awesome.  If you don’t and you do something else, great! Stand up for what you believe in. Start where you are. Do what you can. When you can.  I genuinely believe that most Americans are good people that are trying to do the best they can with the information they have. I’m happy to provide more information when asked or resources that one can click on.  But I’m also happy to listen because it helps me to gain perspective, whether we agree or not. I hope you’ll accord me the same respect.

Even reading over this post, it feels like I’m trying to tell you readers what to do or make people wrong for what they’re doing.  I’m not.  You do you.  I will love you no matter what.  But, I just hope that we might consider that injustice as an enemy shouldn’t be a partisan or religious issue and that we might challenge ourselves to have conversations that may be uncomfortable.

These are strange and divisive times in our nation, and in these times, we need community more than ever.

Moving through Critique

Another semester, another set of evaluations.

Evaluation time always stresses me out, to be frank.  I’m still working towards tenure and although my evaluations are generally high, I know they’re vitally important to the tenure and promotion process so I worry.

But it goes beyond simple self-interest.  If it were just about not getting tenure, it wouldn’t be so important.  It’s also about self-improvement.  Part of why I dislike the end-of-semester evaluation process is because it’s a one-way conversation.  I would have liked to genuinely sit down with critical students and engage with these critiques earlier in the process, not because I worry about the tenure process, but because I believe in what I do and I believe in the value of understanding when what I do doesn’t land with students the way that I intend.

This semester, I had 2.5 critical evaluations (2 sets of critical comments; 1 set of semi-critical numerical markings with no comments) out of 57 students in my pre-service credential courses.  It’s a 95% approval rate, my best friend pointed out to me.  You can’t make everyone happy, my husband told me.  I know, logically, that these are still high evaluation marks, particularly given the stances I took last semester in the courses I taught. These things are true, but the critiques I received offer points of reflection.

The two major critiques that I received in the Fall had to do with responding respectfully to student concerns (by 2 students) and bias in the course that I held on the day following the election (1 student).  Another critique was that I shouldn’t assume people have time for endless reflection (1 student) and that there’s too much work in my courses (there is a lot of work, but, to be fair, I gave warning of this at the beginning of the semester…and frankly, good teaching is a lot of work).

So, here’s the thing–I don’t want to actually spend this reflective moment justifying myself.  Some of these critiques (reflection, hard work, advocacy) are part of who I am and my professional identity.  I embrace and accept that those things.

But, I am listening to the critique as well.  I have been thinking a lot, in this post election era about the importance of listening and empathy.  No, it wasn’t my intention EVER to disrespect or belittle a student.  It also wasn’t my intention to create an unsafe, biased space on the day after the election (in fact, it was my intention to do the exact opposite).  But, I am acutely aware of the power that I have as a professor, and respect for students is at the CORE of who I am, so I want these students to know that (whether or not it was my intention or even whether or not I agree with them), I hear you; I get that you were left in a space where you felt disrespected, and I am using your critique to think about ways to be more vigilant in expressing my intentions and creating a space for dialogue where more voices can be heard. We can only ever move forward if we can begin to listen to one another instead of staying safely in our own camps.

And, if the student who wrote the evaluation that referred to being a “failure of a teacher” if their students don’t vote is reading this blog, I want to apologize if I said anything like that.  I honestly do not recall saying this, and I think it’s an incredibly problematic statement, given that some students (undocumented students, immigrant non-naturalized students) don’t even have the right to vote in this country AND given the complexity of teaching–no one point makes a teacher a failure.  We are all trying our best.  I do think that it’s important to teach students civic engagement.  I don’t apologize for that.  I do think that students need to participate in their families, communities, and society in productive ways. And, I think it’s important to vote.  Voting is one of those ways.  But, I certainly wouldn’t ever judge a teacher’s success based on the voting rate of their students.  So, for that, if I said that or left you with that, I apologize.

But, here’s the thing.  We are all trying our best.  I am too.  I’ve been at the teaching thing for a long time, yes, and the human thing for even longer.  But, I am imperfect.  My beliefs and intentions don’t always match my actions or how I’m received.   Sometimes they do and we’ll disagree.  Granted.  Sometimes they don’t and my actions will get misinterpreted. Granted.  Sometimes, I need to be more thoughtful about how I speak out of emotion about the things which I am passionate about.  Granted.  But I cannot let the critique stop me from action, from advocacy, and from engaging with that which I fear.

And that is why, despite the fact that I also don’t have so much time for reflection, I do it: because I have to keep acting every day; because the course of a semester is long and I have just begun a new semester where I am certain to make mistakes; because this work is my calling.  I have a deep love for my students and their future students. Personally, I want to keep improving. And as a member of this society, I constantly see openings for action that call me to do better. But I refuse to be driven by the fear of critique.

The work is hard.  And critique is hard…particularly when you are trying to step out and be heard. But, all of this is necessary if we are to be the change that we wish to see–whatever one’s version of that change may be.

Confirmations & Commitments

Here are some core things that if you know me, you know I believe/ advocate for:

  • Parents have particular insights, experiences and knowledge about their children that are valuable and should be taken into consideration by educators, schools and districts
  • Every child deserves the opportunity to have an excellent, free public education
  • Many public schools, particularly those serving children with the highest needs (with high populations of English Language Learners, students in poverty, students of color, and students with disabilities), are heavily under-resourced and ask teachers to do more with less.  
  • So many deeply committed educators are exhausted, continuing to work tirelessly, and trying to make a difference with students.  They are expected to be “miracle workers” yet treated with disrespect as professionals, low pay, difficult working conditions, and little access to ongoing quality professional development
  • When we focus on proficiency rather than growth, we don’t meet all students where they’re at and provide appropriate differentiated instruction that can really help all students succeed and move towards their fullest potential.  Instead, we focus on students that are “close” to the next achievement level, in the middle, leaving many students to fend for themselves at the highest and lowest achievement levels.
  • If we give federal funding to schools without requiring them to honor the Individuals with Disabilities in Education Act (IDEA), we are allowing discrimination and taking away the rights and choice of parents of students with special needs, and these students themselves, to have appropriate opportunities and equitable access to quality education.
  • Guns don’t belong in schools. Neither do Grizzly Bears.
  • When we take away money from public schools, we are taking away from students who already have the least choice.  School choice vouchers, while appealing on the surface, particularly for someone like me, who is in the middle class and would love to have quality education subsidized for my children, are not enough to cover most private school tuition.  This also does not include transportation and childcare costs involved in sending children to private schools, uniform requirements, materials, etc.  When we divest in public schools, we leave these schools and teachers with even less resources to support students who have the fewest options and who can be rejected from a private or charter school based on behavior, student need or lottery.
  • I am, and will always be, a champion of public education.  As a graduate of public education K-PhD, a teacher in public schools (middle school-university) and a teacher educator, I know that strong public education is at the foundation of strong democracy.

I see the writing on the wall, but it really doesn’t change my work.  Public educators committed to equity for all students have always fought within a system that perpetuates inequality.  It has always been my reality as an educator.  I know I  must continue to fight, to advocate, to use my voice to help people to understand why something that seems positive or harmless actually does an incredible amount of harm to many, many children.  I know that some people will try to explain to me why choices against public education could benefit them personally (or me personally) or their children (or my children) and justify their beliefs in that way.  I get it.  You do what you need to do. We’re all trying to do best by our children.  It just depends on how you define “our” in the our children part.

But this is my work, the work I was called to do.  To prepare the best teachers to serve ALL students and to advocate tirelessly that these teachers have adequate working conditions and contribute to our greater societal good.  I hope you’ll find a way to contribute to the renewal of public education as well.