Politics and Morality in the classroom

Last week, terrorists attacked Paris.  There are major political, practical and moral questions that abound as a result of this.  Our country is debating whether bombing is appropriate and what to do about Syrian refugees entering America.  These are all big questions as they make us question our own belief systems and values.  As educators it is important for us to remember that this is an important lesson for our students too.

Based entirely on anecdotal evidence, in my experience teachers are hesitant to discuss hot button political and/or moral issues with their classes.  We fear that we will offend someone in the class, which is only heightened when we read stories of teachers getting in trouble for their comments.  Sometimes we are concerned that we don’t have the time to discuss these issues because of testing and curricular requirements.  I contest that we, as educators, have a responsibility to discuss these sort of issues.

Today, in class, we read Emerson’s Nature and began discussing his idea of the oversoul.  Whether you know anything about Transcendentalism and the works of Emerson is irrelevant, but stemming from this is the concept of human connections.  In fact, the question I posed to my classes today is: “Do we have a responsibility to other humans?  And if so, what is that responsibility?”  In light of that question, how can one not discuss the current issues regarding refugees?

With my seniors, we study British literature which includes the epic Beowulf in which we view the concept of the epic hero.  An obvious question in this unit is: “What is heroism?”  Without a doubt students drum up examples of modern day heroism to include police men, firefighters, and military men.  So I always ask the follow up question: “Are all members of the military heroes?”  And the answer is largely yes.  I then hand out an article from the early 2000’s detailing a veteran of the Iraq war who killed his entire family and committed suicide after suffering from PTSD, and ask if he still qualifies as a hero.  Suddenly many students are unsure.  Does these actions in some way take away from his service?  There isn’t necessarily a right answer, but now I have them contemplating the issue of heroism much more deeply.

My seniors also read Geoffrey Chaucer’s The Canterbury Tales, and we look at the various pilgrims and consider their various vices and virtues to ask the broader question: “Are humans generally good or bad?”  We also live in southern New Hampshire, so when the Boston Marathon bombings occurred, that is an act of terrorism that hit pretty close to home for our community.  How could I possibly ask students if humans are good or bad and not ask them to look at the events of that day?  Did bad things happen that day?  Yes.  Did good things happen that day?  Yes–the outpouring of help and support was phenomenal.

I don’t ask my students these questions because there is necessarily a right answer.  I don’t ask these questions of students because they are embedded in my curriculum.  I ask these questions of my students because they are questions that matter.  School is about more than just gaining skills to join the work force or advance on to the next level of skill.  School is about finding ourselves and tackling difficult questions.  We must help students understand their beliefs and values.  We mustn’t be afraid of asking moral and ethical questions in our classes.

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Just say no!

Teachers are stressed, overworked,  and underpaid.  We have insane expectations put on us from all aspects of the school community–school leaders, parents, and ourselves.  The best teachers are constantly rewriting lesson plans and materials, grading, reflecting on their practice, and communicating with their students and their parents because we know it matters.  But, boy, is it difficult not to get burned out.  Data and research all over the country indicates that teachers are leaving the profession due to these stressors, and a commonly cited stressor is parents.

And that’s sad.  Parents are such an integral part of the school community.  Engaging parents with the school can completely revolutionize a school’s culture.  We know based on data and anecdotal evidence that engaging parents with the school helps students immensely.  And yet, so many teachers are frustrated by demands made by parents.

Yesterday, I participated in a long meeting regarding all sorts of school related issues, so naturally the topic of dealing with unreasonable parent requests came up.  We are required to post all our assignments on our class webpages managed through Aspen–our student management system.  One of my colleagues, whom I have a great deal of respect for, asked if it is acceptable to respond to parent emails requesting assignments with: Ït’s on Aspen” Another colleague lamented that a parent has requested that all assignments be emailed to her directly while her child is out because she “refuses to use Aspen.”

These stories caught me off guard because my immediate response to both was to just tell the parents NO.  In both of these scenarios (to which most of colleagues nodded along as they have similar stories), the teacher is angered at the need to spend her time duplicating work.  And in both scenarios, the teacher has made a reasonable effort to communicate assignments to parents.  Just because the parent doesn’t want to access the materials through the web page, the teacher shouldn’t have to go out of her way to do excess work.

Why are we so afraid to say No to parents?  Just because we know we need to engage them in the school community doesn’t mean that they get to make whatever demands they want.  Schools should make reasonable efforts to communicate with parents, certainly, but it is unreasonable to expect teachers to say yes to every parent demand.

While I have dealt with very unreasonable parents in my career, they are the exception.  I have found that most parents are reasonable and simply want what is best for their child and don’t realize that their requests are unreasonable.  Having conversations with these parents is important; hear their side and explain yours, and I would certainly hope that administration would stand behind you.

Just tell me what to do

I’ve been hearing a lot of teachers lately say of their leaders “Just tell me what to do.”  I’m going to be real honest here: as a teacher who is looking to move into a leadership role, this sentiment bothers me.  “Just tell me what to do” can mean two separate things, and I fear that it is being said in a detrimental way.

When a teacher says to a school leader “just tell me what to do,” this can be a great thing.  It might indicate that the teacher has a great deal of respect and trust for the leader.  The underlying message from the teacher here is: I trust you; I trust your decisions; what can I do to see your vision through?  If teachers are saying “Just tell me what to do,” and this is what they mean, then bravo.

Unfortunately, it can also mean the exact opposite.  “Just tell me what to do” can mean: I give up; I don’t care enough about this particular issue; I just want to complete the motions and move on.  This is the sentiment that bothers me.  We have this great opportunity as educators to enact change, to work together for the betterment of our students.  I’d hate to think we would ever get so discouraged that we give up or don’t care.  Unfortunately, so many of us seem to be crumbling under the great demands of our profession.

I hope teachers never lose sight of what is truly important, and we continue to fight for those things despite the demands of leaders and outside forces.  And I hope that when leaders hear their staff say “just tell me what to do,” they really consider what teachers really mean when they say this.