As summer draws to a close, teachers around the country are preparing for the coming school year — setting up their classrooms, updating lesson plans, deciding how best to shape the next generation over the months ahead.
That work became more difficult over the past two weeks.
Events surrounding Charlottesville — from the venom and violence of that day, to President Trump’s combative response, and demonstrations that followed nationwide — introduced a level of uncertainty and fear, for both students and their teachers. A degree of concern for our country’s future that will subtly — and not so subtly — impact the work of educators when they return to school this week and next.
This sense of foreboding is even more acute at schools like those in the greater Philadelphia area, whose student bodies mirror the racial and religious diversity of our local population. In these schools, we aim to celebrate both a common school identity and each student’s unique story. To nurture a sense of community and help all students embrace their personal or cultural differences. To provide a safe environment and encourage open discussions about the challenges our students face because of their race, religion, or socioeconomic background.
This raises further concerns for teachers, parents, and school administrators. How do the past two weeks of public vitriol surrounding race and religion impact our students’ educational experience, in and out of the classroom? How can schools best help children navigate this fraught political landscape, even as adults try to figure it out ourselves? What should schools do in light of the unfolding public debate about identity in America?
First and foremost, school administrators must work with teachers and parents to ensure that our schools remain a safe space for every student, where learning unfolds free of bigotry and intolerance. An environment where children see acceptance and tolerance modeled firsthand. Classrooms in which open discussions are encouraged and where racial, religious, and socioeconomic differences are welcomed.
While an especially challenging time to dive headlong into such topics, asking teachers or students to avoid them is not the answer. Children are acutely sensitive to racial, religious, and socioeconomic disparity from a young age, with studies demonstrating that students are aware of racial attitudes from early in elementary school, an age when gender bias also begins to take root. It’s not the moment to shy away from difficult topics surrounding personal and community identity. Rather, we must commit to supporting students, in age-appropriate ways, as they wrestle with these subjects.
We must likewise focus on teaching schoolchildren the critical reasoning skills that will help them wade through the abundance of information — much of which is conflicting in nature — bombarding them, on a daily basis, from social media and the internet. It is no longer sufficient to simply teach history or physics; rather, we must prioritize teaching how to analyze information, question underlying assumptions, understand context, and appreciate the impact of an author’s perspective or bias.
It’s not enough to know the “who, what, and when” of events in Charlottesville. It is equally important that our children can evaluate the origins of recent efforts to remove Confederate statues from public spaces and why the debate has grown so heated, and understand the history of white supremacists, neo-Nazis, and anti-Semitism in America. In an era of “fake news,” it’s more crucial than ever to ensure young people become critical thinkers rather than passive recipients of information.
Upon this foundation, school leaders must also incorporate character-driven studies into their lessons, with a particular focus on cultivating empathy. In concept and practice, teaching empathy — or the ability to see the world from the perspective of another — is critical to students’ success. It ensures they can most effectively navigate the workplace awaiting them after graduation, whether they find themselves working in a team, managing a group, or trying to individually influence a colleague or competitor.
This “soft skill” is even more important in light of recent events. Empathetic learners will have the critical perspective and psychological wherewithal to wrestle with the complicated debates about identity politics now facing our nation. By embracing programs intended to enhance this social emotional skill, we ensure that our children are best prepared to face the world around them.
In the words of former U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan, “Our mission … is to confront ignorance with knowledge, bigotry with tolerance, and isolation with the outstretched hand of generosity.” It’s a mission that’s more critical than ever for our schools to actively embrace. It’s a mission on which our teachers must lead the way. It’s a mission that, for students around the country, starts on the first day of class.