Where We Stand: Recovering Together

From Aspiration to Action

By Randi Weingarten

Randi Weingarten reading to student

Two years of pandemic upheavals have taken an enormous toll, and educators and families with school-age children have been deeply affected. Every day, they are striving to overcome challenges, accelerate learning, and bounce back from disruption and anxiety. And in the places where they are working hand in hand, they are succeeding. Because we have long known what some political operatives are now trying to use to their advantage: it is always important for parents to be engaged in their children’s schooling. And unlike what these same pundits claim, we always want parents to be involved. I have seen it firsthand in my 100-plus school visits since April 2021. Educators are heroic in supporting our kids, despite the challenges of the pandemic and the political attacks, and parents see that.

The pollsters are seeing it too: the vast majority of parents praise their schools’ handling of health and academic concerns. Following the November elections and all the hype Glenn Youngkin in Virginia and others were saying about their newfound way to divide teachers and parents, we did a deep dive of parental attitudes and found quite a different story. Parents give very high ratings to their children’s teachers and to teachers’ unions. Parents are very satisfied with the job public schools are doing to keep children safe, support their social and emotional well-being, and help them achieve their potential. And, despite what the fearmongers claim, parents want their children to learn honest history and to value diversity and differences. A few key findings are shown below; for more, visit go.aft.org/i6i.

American Educator, Spring 2022

And now, where’s Gov. Youngkin? A poll from the Wason Center for Civic Leadership found that only 41 percent of Virginia voters approve of his job performance. Nearly two-thirds want students to learn the ongoing impact of racism, and 57 percent oppose banning critical race theory in public schools.*

So why are some operatives stirring up controversy, stoking divisions, and miring public schools in political squabbles instead of supporting students’ healing and progress? For some, it’s about winning elections; for others, it’s about driving families away from public schools. It is clearly not about helping our students recover.

Journalist Ronald Brownstein explored how schools are getting swept up in culture wars, particularly “the effort by Republican-led states to censor how teachers talk about present and historic racial and gender inequities.” Jeffrey Sachs, a political scientist who tracks these bills for the free-speech group PEN America, told Brownstein he expects that ultimately all 23 Republican-controlled states will approve some version of these measures.

Make no mistake about what these extremists are doing. They are banning books that tell the stories of Black people, of gay people, of Jewish people. They are passing laws restricting teachers from teaching about true but troubling parts of our history. And they are setting up tip lines and offering bounties to “report” teachers, in an attempt to censor discussions of race, gender, and what some lawmakers deem to be “divisive” concepts.

I taught social studies and civics. I know that teachers don’t tell students what to think; we teach them how to think by helping them become more analytical. We teach honest, age-appropriate history, the good and the bad—not a mythology that erases painful truths. This is how we help the next generation become well-informed, well-read, and engaged citizens.

In this moment, more than ever in my memory, we need to find ways to come together to solve problems. And our children need to see us do just that. A recent report from the Harwood Institute for Public Innovation describes a “civic virus” leading many Americans to separate and segregate themselves:

What is happening is rooted much less in polarization—when people hold a steadfast commitment to ideological positions—and much more in the human need for community and belonging. Right now, people … are hunkered down in groups of like-minded folks, seeking protection from those with different views, different perspectives, and different experiences. And yet, people express real concerns about the toll joining these like-minded groups has on them and others….

We must begin to spread a positive contagion of authentic hope that boldly declares, “We each matter. We don’t need to agree on everything, but can find enough agreement to move forward. We can create a new trajectory of hope.”

Our public schools are vital for creating this new trajectory. Parents and educators are essential partners, helping students come back from disappointment and loss, showing up and listening to one another, and showing grace and gratitude. America is at its best when we come together.

Understanding that there are forces trying to divide us gives us a key to restoring our civic health and strengthening our country. Alexis de Tocqueville gave us a key by observing how crucial embracing diversity and solidarity is for our democracy. And this issue of American Educator offers more keys. Civil rights leader Eric K. Ward gives us a key by sharing his story of empathizing with others—even white nationalists. Fourth-grade teacher Christopher Albrecht gives us a key by revealing the supports educators need to thrive. Leo Casey and Mary Cathryn Ricker, past and present leaders of the Albert Shanker Institute, give us a key by shining a light on how public education, democracy, and the union movement reinforce each other and strengthen people’s voices. Higher education researcher Stephanie Hall gives us a key by explaining how austerity budgets have forced public colleges and universities into harmful partnerships for online programs—and what we can do about it.

Every moment in history, and every new day, can be viewed through a lens of hope or fear, aspiration or anger. We have seen how anger can consume and divide people. But we know that aspiration can lead to understanding our differences and having empathy for one another’s fears. It leads to knowing that our shared hope for a better life is not a zero-sum game—that we all benefit from access to good jobs, high-quality healthcare, effective public schools and colleges, freedom from discrimination, and a voice in our democracy. I think we can all agree that, as individuals and as a country, our hopes take us further than our fears.


*For more results from the February 2022 poll, see 
go.aft.org/fpu. (return to article)

Brownstein’s article, “Why Schools Are Taking Center Stage in the Culture Wars,” is available at go.aft.org/ox1. (return to article)

Civic Virus: Why Polarization Is a Misdiagnosis is available at go.aft.org/npf; quotes from pages 41 and 57. (return to article)

[Photo: Megan Ackerman]

American Educator, Spring 2022
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