Thursday, January 22, 2015

Rising Above, Part 1

This is the first post in a six-part series on general education issues.  I was recently invited to be part of a panel discussion after a screening of the film Rise Above the Mark, and these posts will continue that conversation.  This space will not be used for a review or critique of the film, parts of which I agreed with and parts of which I did not.  The film and the discussion it has inspired have, however, brought key education issues into a broader forum, and it is these that I will address in this series.

How do we build mutual respect between teachers and parents, teachers and legislators, and teachers and the community?

When my Latin students read the war writings of Julius Caesar, we spend a bit of time discussing ethnic slurs and why they are so important.  Yes, you read that correctly.  Slurs play an incredibly important role in war, for killing another person is one of the most difficult things to do.  Not only did the Roman army require a centurion to lead units into battle, but it also needed an officer called the optio, who pushed them from behind, for in addition to the blood, bodily waste, and screams surrounding you, you also had to contend with having to kill someone who was a father, a son, or a brother, just like you.  Enter slurs.  It is easier to kill someone who is not the same as you, someone who may not even be human.  Take the word "gook," for example, which has a longer etymological history than you may know.  What does that word mean?  Practically speaking, it is a nonsense word.  To kill someone whose title makes no sense is surely easier than to kill a recognized father or son.

Why is that?  The reason is that slurs represent abstractions, not the real thing.  Yes, it can be argued that the naming of anything involves abstraction (think Postman and Korzybski), but stay with me here.  It is easy to hate hippies, but less easy to hate Bob when he walks up and shakes hands with you.  It is easy to scorn "those rich fat cats," but less easy to scorn CEO Smith when she sits across the table from you to talk about the issues.  And it is so very easy indeed for teachers to blame parents and legislators and for parents to blame teachers and legislators and for legislators to blame teachers and parents when "teacher" and "parent" and "legislator" remain words on a page, abstractions that perform a semantic and emotional role like that of slurs.

So how do we build respect among the primary parties that shape our children's education?  We get involved.  We talk.  We visit schools and homes and legislative offices.  We do not limit ourselves to brash lobbying of verbal grenades from behind the security of social media.  We do not advocate for plans in the abstract that look good on paper but that have little hope of working in the real world, for at the end of the day.  We are talking about flesh and blood people, and as we all know, working directly with people is messy.  It is confusing.  It is not always straightforward.  Logic and emotions and life experiences compete for the right to dictate the terms of discussion.  It is time consuming and expensive.  It is slow going.  Yet for all the momentary satisfaction of pointing a finger at the abstracted source of our ills, this does no good.  In the end, it is the tried and true practice of interacting meaningfully with each other that has the only chance for building respect among these parties.  What will you check on your agenda for tomorrow?

Visit one of my local schools
□ Ask to meet with a state legislator
□ Hold a meeting of parents and educators at a school
□ Volunteer at an after-school program
□ Ask my children's teachers/principal what they need
□ Ask my congressperson or senator for information about upcoming bills
□ Attend a local school board meeting
□ Attend a state school board meeting
□ Attend a congressional session on education
□ Engage in a personal email or phone conversation with someone involved in education

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