After nearly a quarter century of educating three generations of public school children, the majority of my former eighth grade students are now of voting age. I therefore take the election of Donald Trump and what he represents very personally.
Frankly, I had thought that I, as well as my colleagues across the country, had not only taught, but had helped raise, our students better.
I may indeed reside in La La Land, but I assumed that current educational staples like multiculturalism, gender equity, collaboration, global citizenship, creativity, social-emotional learning, ecology, and critical thinking had long been steeped into the collective American consciousness. And this shortlist of how educators now honor the whole child, as well as the whole planet, barely touches upon the myriad ways teachers nationwide are making positive impacts upon our youth.
The question before me then becomes: Why haven’t our concerted efforts as educators made more of a difference in creating a society that embraces and exemplifies inclusion, intellect, and altruism?
As a married gay man and all-around sensitive soul, I have borne witness to a past and present rife with hatred, oppression, violence, corruption, and greed. Yet my hopes always rest squarely with the promise of the children I am privileged to interact with on a daily basis. My goal for each of my precious students is to help them move forward, bit by bit, every day—advancing toward the end goal being independent enough to then move themselves (and others) continually forward. I also teach my students to appreciate process and progress just as much as product.
Turning Back the Clock
I am deeply troubled by what the current administration will do to the progress we Americans have made in terms of equal rights, human dignity, world peace, global stability, public education, and protecting the environment. There is obviously more work to be done, and vigilance is always called for.
However, turning back the clock by rousing old divisions, re-institutionalizing discrimination, resurrecting warmongering, rewarding robber barons, and raping the land is not only scary, it is profoundly demoralizing for someone who has devoted his entire life’s work to promoting understanding rather than indictment, inspiring reason rather than reaction, and valuing goodwill over greed. Despite my own admitted shortcomings, it simply cannot be the case that I am alone in teaching and living these virtues.
Something has gone terribly wrong. But instead of merely grumbling about it, I feel personally responsible for offering solutions.
For most of my life, I have been eagerly waiting for the most ignorant, intolerant, and avaricious among us to simply die out (particularly those cronies who hold the cards and carry the clout) so that the succeeding, more enlightened and empathetic generation can replace them. Obviously, that passive plan has not worked out for those of us who do not worship money and power.
Protests have their place, but I have placed my stock in being part of the profession that influences and empowers the next group of leaders and lawmakers to be worthy stewards of people and planet. I am hereby transforming my anger, confusion, and dismay concerning the ever-escalating madness I see before me into answers and actions for how I can better be an agent of constructive conversation and change.
In the following list, I have synthesized what I see as the common character flaws that have lead us to the nearly intractable divisions polarizing and paralyzing this country. I want to counter the tendency of people to be attracted to bombast, bullying, bitterness, and bigotry because they think such ugliness connotes leadership, decisiveness, and strength.
I offer this list as a reminder to myself, as well as a guidepost to parents and other educators, to redouble our efforts in addressing and remedying these issues as they present themselves to the children we both care for and care about so deeply.
The Seven Deadly Ss Currently Dividing and Depreciating Humankind
It is in the seeking and swallowing of simplistic, instantaneous “solutions” that we perpetually pass the buck, kick the can down the road, end up in crisis, and fail to address root causes—all of which only further exacerbate and often render impossible the implementation of what could have been real fixes to real problems. We too often blindly follow the easy way out and do not want to hold the real culprits liable, especially when that also entails looking ourselves in the mirror, temporarily tightening our own belts, or rolling up our sleeves.
Owning up to the fact that there are no shortcuts to working hard while also working smart is a lesson every person must take to heart. Learning a strong and strategic work ethic begins at home and is reinforced throughout school.
Yet when due dates and deadlines are not enforced, unlimited second chances and free passes become the norm, and excuses and outrage will get you out of everything, why would we expect society to own up to anything, especially when easy “answers” are constantly being dangled before us? Bailed out, bankrupt, or just bumming around, too many are looking to get off the hook or looking for handouts instead of searching for sound avenues toward investment and accountability.
Firm adult leadership, both at home and at school, cultivates kids who are respectful, responsible, and reliable—all of which are the very qualities that make good citizens. Teaching students how to plan, prepare, and budget their resources also builds a future electorate who make prudent decisions that are mutually beneficial to others. In fact, it seems many adult Americans could themselves also gain from a refresher course in duty and diligence.
2. Scapegoating and Self-Righteousness
The tendency to leap to blame others is an insidious snare to which we are all susceptible and that the unscrupulous among us always use to their advantage. Instead of looking inward to discern our own complicity or looking objectively outward at the facts, we too often cling to a victim mentality, preferring fury rather than finesse to redress our grievances.
Cultivating a win-win mindset is not difficult, but it does take practice. Acquiring the commitment to choose dialogue and concord over remaining disgruntled and contemptuous is one of the most noble endeavors one can undertake, as well as one of the most useful skills that can be taught.
The classroom is the perfect forum to foster civility, logic, informed opinion, respectful debate, accurate evidence, and measured response. Great teachers not only encourage student voice, they also enrich it with eloquence and articulation.
Moreover, subjecting others to your personal religious dogma always reveals more sanctimony and insecurity than piousness or purity. Just as scapegoating is about obfuscating and condemnation, self-righteousness is about control and criticism. If anyone needs to be criticized or controlled, it is ourselves—by ourselves, alone and independently.
So much more can be accomplished from living by example and conviction rather than from living by persecution and coercion. Educators who celebrate diversity and teach tolerance give kids a glimpse of what a wonderful world it could be free from a fixation on assigning blame and accusing others of blasphemy.
3. Stereotyping and Segregating
The more we pigeonhole others before we get to know them as individuals, the more likely we are to engage in outright acts of discrimination, no matter how “small.” Habitually harboring prejudiced thoughts is a slippery slope that can also lead to purposely separating ourselves from those who seem fundamentally different from us.
One key is to earnestly search for connections to prove to ourselves that all members of the human race always have more in common than may be gleaned from a cursory glance or an apprehensive approach. Teachers are especially well positioned to support their students in identifying underlying similarities between ostensibly disparate groups—be it throughout history, through literature, across the world, or right in one’s own backyard.
But until you personally interact with people whom you normally do not associate with or whom you do not know much about—at school, at work, or at social events—all your studying and understanding are mostly abstractions. The more we actually extend ourselves to others, as well as expand our circle of friends, the more we make real our open-mindedness.
The other answer to building bridges rather than erecting walls also resides right within us: We cannot control the attitudes of others, but our own actions certainly influence how another’s limited perception towards us is either remodeled or reinforced.
Instead of always crying foul—even when we have legitimate reason to do so—it is equally as important to be active examples of integrity, in both word and deed. At a certain point, all but the most bigoted will be forced to abandon their prejudices when they see the vast majority of the group they had long been biased against acting in ways that invalidate their preconceptions.
As we each work to personally counter negative stereotypes, we must also counsel others who may indeed be perpetuating those stereotypes. It is incumbent on all of us, especially the most successful and influential members of a stigmatized group, to raise up their brothers and sisters to similar levels of stature and esteem. Teaching others how to live in ways defying entrenched misperceptions that stigmatize entire groups moves minds, opens hearts, and benefits all.
This is true empowerment and has nothing to do with arguments about assimilation or sacrificing one’s culture or personal identity. It is about choosing to be part of a solution rather than merely demonizing those who demonize you in an unwinnable, endless game of tit for tat. Chronically complaining about a problem that you may or may not have contributed to moves no one forward, yet we all pay a hefty price and carry a heavy burden for each day such predicaments persist.
Our public schools should be the great levelers and bastions of inclusion. Equal resources, access, and opportunities for all bring every aspect of humanity closer in both mind and body.
I don’t get it: How much wealth or power does one person really need?
It is not just that “you can’t take it with you;” it is that a select few are taking down too many innocent people while in the process of furthering their self-centered interests. Clearly, some of the elite are chronically attempting to fill a deep void within themselves that can never be satisfied – at least not in the superficial, selfish ways they are currently going about it.
If we are ever going to place people and planet over profit, we all need to be taught the benefits of compassion, community, and contribution to others. There’s nothing wrong with success, comfort, and notoriety—as long as we expand their definitions to include the tangible ways we each leave the world better off that is both sustainable and philanthropic.
And it is not just the fat cats who are guilty of turning a blind eye to the impacts and ramifications of making a quick buck or getting something for (almost) nothing. It is not okay for any of us to look the other way when we greedily grasp at any scheme or sales pitch that will put a few more pennies in our pockets without analyzing who or what may be sacrificed in the bargain. Respecting and investing in workers and ecosystems may take some discipline, but everyone benefits from such proportion and prudence.
Cultivating a classroom community of inclusion and belonging goes a long way in creating a culture of we over me. Motivating and engaging children with the intrinsic rewards reaped from passion, purpose, and patience also inspires them to seek gratification that is lasting and deeply fulfilling—and which actually helps others instead of hindering them.
5. Self-Obsession Leading to Self-Delusion
A pervasive narcissism is plaguing adults and children alike as the number of our “friends” and followers, likes, comments, and shares increasingly define our self worth. Suddenly everything seems up for public display, no selfie is too salacious, and the art of conversation is doled out in bouts of no more than 140 characters.
Too many are seeking connection in all the wrong places and in all the wrong ways, ironically making us all more disconnected than ever. No wonder it is still so easy for us to scapegoat, stereotype, and segregate ourselves from one another. With all our self-absorption, we have no real time to feel intertwined with one another.
They call it social media, but it is mostly self-promotion and narcissism as we frantically document the most banal aspects of our day and then anxiously await the approval of others. It would be one thing if we were marketing a product, but to sell and brand ourselves smacks of the same emptiness that enslaves the compulsively rich and powerful.
There is nothing wrong with sharing accomplishments, bursts of creativity, and special occasions with close friends and family. But endless photos of meals you had no hand in preparing or yet another shot of how incredibly hot (you hope) you look stink of a shallowness and desperation that has very little to do with actual socializing.
We are blithely leading ourselves to distraction. As we spend less time staring at the boob tube and more time navel-gazing, this change has nothing to do with sensible self-reflection. In fact, this diversion is just what those in power desire. The opiate of the masses now resides in right your pocket or purse blissfully buzzing and binging away.
No one can begin to see others and external situations clearly until they possess the clarity of self-awareness. Thus the best teachers do not allow their students to merely be entertained by bright and blinking objects or to wallow in only what they prefer.
Great teachers instead take their students beyond what they already know, can do, believe, or think they are interested in. Great teachers also take their students below the surface to explore and discover new insights and connections to what they had previously known or believed. Great teachers ultimately take their student back inward to reflect on their prior assumptions and to think critically about what they have read or been told.
6. Small Mindedness and a Sense of Entitlement
In some ways, we are now less scared of each other yet are more concerned that someone or some group appears to have more than we do or is somehow taking what is/was “rightfully” ours. Along with this pettiness, we have fooled ourselves into thinking that fame equals real love, possessions mean more than close relationships, and virtual interactions are the same as face-to-face conversations, experiences, and adventures.
Competition must be balanced with cooperation and camaraderie. Resentment must be replaced with mutual regard and shared responsibility. Classrooms must be microcosms of these necessities because we all need each other more than ever. Unless you live completely off the grid, our creature comforts, as well as our ultimate survival, depend entirely on everyone doing their part—in concert, conscientiously, and on a consistent basis.
One of the seeds of the aforementioned selfishness is an ingrained sense of entitlement that inordinately emboldens people to expect and demand what actually must be earned and appreciated. We also expect to be rescued for situations that are own damn fault. It is in this area where I see too many parents and teachers moving backwards in the ways they coddle, enable, and spoil children instead of providing guidelines and guidance for how to conduct oneself with courtesy, cooperation, and consistency.
Both individually and collectively, we do not make much progress when we approach life thinking we “deserve” more than some basic freedoms, necessities, and protections—and compared to many others, we should consider ourselves exceedingly fortunate when we are granted even those. Viewing life as an embarrassment of riches rather than an abundance of resentments creates an attitude of gratitude that leads to a contentment that helps us discern the difference between what we want and what we need.
7. Set in One’s Ways
More so than at any other time in history, adaptability and attention to market and societal changes may mean the difference between economic opportunity and extended unemployment. Likewise, possessing the quality of tolerance may mean the difference between peace of mind and perpetual handwringing.
We have become pigheaded in our refusal to accept that things change. This longing for the good old days with the good old boys is always based on a narrow perspective of how the past favorably affected you. It never takes into account how many others were left out, cast aside, or put down—and never acknowledges that change was in fact long overdue.
In many ways, I am a traditionalist. I do not believe in change for change’s sake. As a teacher, I have endured too many sweeping swings of the educational pendulum, as well as the disastrous casting out of the baby with the bathwater.
Yet change is inevitable, and those who would rather complain than adapt to change are easy marks for all the political scapegoating and shortsightedness that continually hold us back as a country.
Every teacher got into this business to make a difference. I still intend to make the biggest difference I can.
It took me several months to write this article because I needed to pinpoint the reasons why I felt so personally responsible and how I could help. I welcome your comments below.
Learn how parents and teachers work together as allies in education and as partners in nurturing the whole child by reading A Teacher’s Inside Advice to Parents: How Children Thrive with Leadership, Love, Laughter, and Learning.