In an election year full of deep divisions, deadly confrontations and dogmatic thinking, teaching young citizens is challenging for even the most seasoned teacher. Yet tragedies, both current and historical, provide guidance for the classroom.
As a history teacher, I look to the past for answers. Lincoln comes to mind. The Civil War was near an end — a war that left 600,000 people dead and 1.2 million citizens injured — but a divided nation was still at war over extreme sectarian beliefs.
Yet Lincoln in his second inaugural address delivered a message of conciliation. Despite one side fighting to preserve the American original sin of slavery, Lincoln did not castigate, blame, or name call. Instead he offered open arms and forgiveness.
He preached “With malice towards none with charity for all.” Lincoln did not distinguish between North and South. He pleaded, “Let us … bind up the nation’s wounds, to care for him who shall have borne the battle and for his widow and his orphan.”
Lincoln wanted the country’s citizens to embrace their commonalities as humans and Americans. It is a message suited for any classroom.
Fast forward to this year, when the horrid Dallas police officer shooting offers teachers a pressing and practical lesson for this election year full of divisive conflicts. One of the protesters, a black woman, was wounded. Despite her wounds, she moved to shield her children with her body. Police officers in turn did the same for her — risking their lives for a protester.
She had brought her children to be a part of the march, to learn about the issues of race and justice, to practice engaged citizenship, even though she had never been anti-police. In fact, one of her boys wants to grow up to be a police officer. It seems you can be on more than one side at once.
As a teacher you have to be on 30 sides all at once:
• The side of a kid who wonders every day if his police officer mom will come home that night.
• A kid whose father, an African-American, is asked to get out of the car after being stopped for a “minor traffic violation.” Again.
• A kid whose mom is reluctant to fill out a school health form because of her vaccination beliefs.
• A kid who fears the upcoming election may lead to his parents being arrested and sent away.
• A kid whose moms just got married.
• A kid whose independent reading text is a Bible.
• A kid who wears a hijab.
• A kid whose dad lost his job when the factory moved to Asia.
• A kid whose parents’ dedication and hard work paid off in college degrees, successful careers, and a home on the hill.
• A kid whose parents think you are spreading “liberal lies.”
• A kid whose parents who think you are a “conservative tyrant.”
If every kid sees that you are on their side, you are teaching them that their views and voices matter and, more importantly, so do the views and voices of every other kid in that classroom. You teach students that we can civilly discuss even the most contentious issues because every voice is respected, especially those that you disagree with.
If every kid thinks you are on their side, you are living the words of Lincoln. You are giving life to the First Amendment.
This doesn’t mean teachers should or should not express political views; that is a topic for another time. But in a year of great division, teachers can build civility that lasts a lifetime, so that in the next divisive election or conversation those kids can say, “I know what to do, my teacher taught me!”
Whose side am I on? The kids’ side.
About our First Person series:
First Person is where Chalkbeat features personal essays by educators, students, parents, and others trying to improve public education. Read our submission guidelines here.