Where We Stand: Empathy for All

Together, Parents and Teachers Help Students Thrive

By Randi Weingarten

American Educator, Winter 2021-22This is a fraught time. COVID-19 has been deeply disruptive to families. Even though kids are back in their classrooms, it has been a very tough school year. I’ve seen students’ joy as they learn alongside their friends and teachers, and I’ve seen their social and emotional struggles as we all endure the uncertainty and anxiety of the ongoing pandemic.

Just as we all need to be pulling together, there are divisive forces pouncing on families’ fears to stoke division—fears many people have about the effects of the pandemic and school closures and fears some people have over a growing racial reckoning. Culture warriors, who have turned basic COVID-19 safety precautions into ideological battles, are now trying to make any discussion of race, racism, or discrimination toxic. They are bullying teachers and trying to stop us from teaching accurate history. They are also touting “parents’ rights” as a way to force extreme views into public schools’ curricula.

Public schools need to be safe and welcoming, particularly now. Our students need to be prepared for life and culture, for career and—yes—civic engagement. These culture wars are the opposite of what we need. They divide, when parents and teachers have to be each other’s partners. We have to work together—it’s how we help kids thrive.

We need to have real conversations about the importance of learning from a common curriculum, teaching accurate history, and having empathy for everyone, especially during these uneasy times. And while every child should know our country’s history—the good and the bad, in an age-appropriate way of course—no child should be made to feel bad about who he, she, or they are. That goes for gender, religion, skin color, sexuality, or any aspect of identity. Learning to treat each other as we would want to be treated, to discern fact from fiction, and to engage with others on uncomfortable issues will help our students be prepared for their lives.

I was a high school social studies teacher. I taught difficult but important topics, including the effects of slavery, and I know how important it is to create empathy for everyone—students and families—so that the classroom is a safe and welcoming environment. Since George Floyd’s murder, many Republicans have claimed that making students feel bad is part and parcel of learning about racism in America. That’s not true. Our kids are not responsible for the past. But learning about the past helps prepare them, in the words of the Constitution, for “a more perfect Union.”

Parents, teachers, administrators, and community members have to work through these issues together. We have to listen to each other. I talk to parents frequently—including parents who disagree with me. When we talk, we find ways to trust, and we find common ground. Despite what the culture warriors claim, there’s a lot of common ground on teaching honest history. A USA Today/Ipsos poll conducted this fall found that about three-quarters of parents want their children to learn about slavery and racism in school. Teaching history is a crucial part of teaching students how to think critically. When we do that, we move this country to a fairer, more just place.

Learning to think critically is all the more important now that misinformation and disinformation are everywhere. In this issue of American Educator, high school science teacher Alyson Miller explains how she approaches controversial topics like evolution, climate change, and race. She establishes trust with and among her students. Then, she gets to know her students and their beliefs so she can meet them where they are.

We should apply these lessons to all the issues around schooling this year. Take vaccines. We know they are safe and effective. While we believe they are our best chance to beat the pandemic, we need to meet families where they are and empathize with them as we share the facts. This is what educators are doing, and it’s working: according to an Axios/Ipsos poll in early November, 75 percent of parents think their local schools are doing a good job balancing health and safety with other priorities.

We all want to get our lives back—without masks, social distancing, or quarantines—and we all want our kids to get their mojo back. The bottom line is that parents and educators are partners in children’s education and well-being. We’ve got to work together to ensure every public school is a place where parents are happy to send their children, educators want to work, and children thrive.

American Educator, Winter 2021-2022
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