Opinion Blog

Peter DeWitt's

Finding Common Ground

A former K-5 public school principal turned author, presenter, and leadership coach, DeWitt provides insights and advice for education leaders. He can be found at www.petermdewitt.com. Read more from this blog.

Education Opinion

Check Your ‘Selfie’ Advice From a 58-Year Veteran Teacher

By Lisa Westman — February 05, 2017 5 min read
  • Save to favorites
  • Print

Today’s guest post is written by frequent Finding Common Ground blogger Lisa Westman. Lisa is an instructional coach specializing in differentiation for Skokie School District 73.5 in suburban Chicago. She taught middle school gifted humanities, ELA, and SS for twelve years before becoming a coach.

Take a minute and think about where you were when:
1) JFK was shot

2) The Challenger Space Shuttle exploded

3) The Twin Towers were destroyed on 9/11

My answers are:
1) 14 years before I was born

2) A student in third grade

3) One month into my first year teaching

However, my colleague and friend, Tom O’Brien’s answers are all the same; he was in his classroom, teaching. And, Tom is still teaching. In fact, this school year marks Tom’s 58th year as a middle school teacher.

With close to 60 years of experience, Mr. O’Brien is quite familiar with teaching during times of uncertainty. He understands the intricacy of meeting students’ needs and strives to strike the delicate balance of giving students enough objective information, so they feel safe, but not too much information to cause them fear.

In the days since President Trump’s election and inauguration, Mr. O’Brien has had the opportunity to put his skills to the test as he determines the best way to field questions and concerns from students about the current state of our nation.

A Serendipitous Encounter
Last year, I had the privilege of joining Mr. O’Brien on the last day of school when he met his incoming 8th graders and explained the foundation of his class:

“History is not about memorizing facts. This class is not about me telling you what you need to know. History is about learning from our past. This class is about empowerment. Remember, dates change. People don’t. Make connections, own your learning.”

Lately, this quote has weighed heavily on my mind as I have been struggling to focus on anything other than historical connections. And, the links I am making are frightening.

It has been easy for me to place blame on certain individuals and groups of people whose views, in my opinion, threaten to “ruin” our country. It has also been very easy for me to confirm my biases. Contrarily, it has not been easy for me to see anyone else’s point of view.

But, I have come to I realize that my feelings are counterproductive. I am perpetuating a divide that is tearing our country in half. And, while I want to look at the bright side, I am struggling to find one.

In an effort to feel better about our country’s future, I had lunch with Tom with the hope of tapping into his wealth of historical knowledge. During lunch, I rattled off the list of terrifying historical parallels that keep coming to mind (i.e. Japanese Internment Camps, The Holocaust, McCarthyism) and I asked (ok, begged) Tom to share a historical similarity that was promising. What has happened in history that tells us everything will be ok?

What did I learn?
As cliche as it may be, history does repeat itself. But, if we aren’t looking carefully we may not see the reasons why.

I learned there are similarities between society today and civilizations as far back as Ancient Greece. And, more important than the likenesses are the lessons. Specifically, Tom reflected on the difference between The Persian Wars (The Greeks vs. Persia 492-449 BC) and The Peloponnesian War (Athens vs. Sparta 431-404 BC).

During the Persian Wars, Greece was successful in defeating Persia in large part because Athens and Sparta put their differences aside and joined forces. However, shortly after their victory, Athens and Sparta engaged in a series of brutal civil wars known as the Peloponnesian Wars, which stemmed from conflicting political views and contrasting value systems. These internecine battles ultimately led to the implosion of the Greek civilization.

The most notable difference between The Persian Wars and The Peloponnesian Wars was the focus. During The Persian Wars, Greeks’ priority was freedom for Greek citizens regardless of where they were from, and during the Peloponnesian Wars, the focus shifted to what was best for individual city-states with blatant disregard for the common good.

Tom presented me with these two “stories,” and left me to form my own connections. After a few minutes of thinking, I asked Tom if he was trying to tell me that people today are more concerned with self-interests than the interests of others. Tom answered my question with another question:

Is “The Selfie” A Metaphor For Today’s Culture?
This question gave me the chills. I immediately thought of a disturbing viral video which recently appeared in my Facebook feed called Holocaust + Selfie Culture = ‘Yolocaust’ and, I started to wonder if as a society we are so hyperfocused on ourselves that we are missing the mark on the most formidable threat to our country. Perhaps, our most pressing issue isn’t what our government is doing wrong, but what as a society have we done to allow it to take place?

We Must Come Together and We Can Start In The Classroom
During our lunch, Tom reminded me that an educator’s job is to help students process their thoughts, not to tell them how to think.

He remarked that over the past 58 years students have not changed much. Middle school students still experience the same trials and tribulations of entering adulthood. They still feel the pressures of the world around them. But, with that being said, his students’ reaction to the election has been the strongest he has ever seen.

Students’ heightened responses are likely due to the increased availability and accessibility of information. However, another observation Tom shared forced me to think more deeply about the our students reactions.

Tom explained that when JFK was assassinated, students were justifiably distraught. They had many questions, with the common question being, “what is going to happen to JFK’s children?” Since the election and inauguration of President Trump, the question most frequently asked is, “what is going to happen to me?”

Students, especially students who attend a school with over 70 nationalities represented, have legitimate cause for concern for themselves. Teachers have legitimate concerns for themselves, as well. But, the key is to have that same concern for everyone, including the people on the “other side.”

As educators, we are obligated to present our students with unbiased evidence. Therefore, we have the unique opportunity to help our students find answers to questions about themselves while encouraging them to ask questions about others. By fulfilling this obligation, we promote perspective taking and induce dialogue about shared responsibility for creating a system of values that best describes our society as a whole.

Mr. O’Brien believes educators can accomplish this task by focusing on 4 Cs. And, he is not referring to the 4 C’s of 21st century learning. He is referencing the 4 C’s of humanity: civility, citizenship, connection, and compassion.

Questions about this post? Connect with Lisa on Twitter.

Related Tags:

The opinions expressed in Peter DeWitt’s Finding Common Ground are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.


Commenting has been disabled on edweek.org effective Sept. 8. Please visit our FAQ section for more details. To get in touch with us visit our contact page, follow us on social media, or submit a Letter to the Editor.


Events

This content is provided by our sponsor. It is not written by and does not necessarily reflect the views of Education Week's editorial staff.
Sponsor
Teaching Webinar
6 Key Trends in Teaching and Learning
As we enter the third school year affected by the pandemic—and a return to the classroom for many—we come better prepared, but questions remain. How will the last year impact teaching and learning this school
Content provided by Instructure
This content is provided by our sponsor. It is not written by and does not necessarily reflect the views of Education Week's editorial staff.
Sponsor
Equity & Diversity Webinar
Evaluating Equity to Drive District-Wide Action this School Year
Educational leaders are charged with ensuring all students receive equitable access to a high-quality education. Yet equity is more than an action. It is a lens through which we continuously review instructional practices and student
Content provided by BetterLesson
This content is provided by our sponsor. It is not written by and does not necessarily reflect the views of Education Week's editorial staff.
Sponsor
Student Well-Being Webinar
Attendance Awareness Month: The Research Behind Effective Interventions
More than a year has passed since American schools were abruptly closed to halt the spread of COVID-19. Many children have been out of regular school for most, or even all, of that time. Some
Content provided by AllHere

EdWeek Top School Jobs

Teacher Jobs
Search over ten thousand teaching jobs nationwide — elementary, middle, high school and more.
View Jobs
Principal Jobs
Find hundreds of jobs for principals, assistant principals, and other school leadership roles.
View Jobs
Administrator Jobs
Over a thousand district-level jobs: superintendents, directors, more.
View Jobs
Support Staff Jobs
Search thousands of jobs, from paraprofessionals to counselors and more.
View Jobs

Read Next

Education Schools Get the Brunt of Latest COVID Wave in South Carolina
In the past few weeks, South Carolina has set records for COVID-19 hospitalizations and new cases have approached peak levels of last winter.
4 min read
Two Camden Elementary School students in masks listen as South Carolina Gov. Henry McMaster talks about steps the school is taking to fight COVID-19, Wednesday, Sept. 15, 2021, in Camden, S.C. McMaster has adamantly and repeatedly come out against requiring masks in schools even as the average number of daily COVID-19 cases in the state has risen since early June. (AP Photo/Jeffrey Collins)
Education More States Are Requiring Schools to Teach Native American History and Culture
Advocates say their efforts have gained some momentum with the nation’s reckoning over racial injustice since the killing of George Floyd.
3 min read
A dancer participates in an intertribal dance at Schemitzun on the Mashantucket Pequot Reservation in Mashantucket, Conn., Saturday, Aug. 28, 2021. Connecticut and a handful of other states have recently decided to mandate students be taught about Native American culture and history. (AP Photo/Jessica Hill)
Education Judge's Temporary Order Allows Iowa Schools to Mandate Masks
A federal judge ordered the state to immediately halt enforcement of a law that prevents school boards from ordering masks to be worn.
4 min read
Iowa Gov. Kim Reynolds speaks to reporters following a news conference, Thursday, Aug. 19, 2021, in West Des Moines, Iowa. Reynolds lashed out at President Joe Biden Thursday after he ordered his education secretary to explore possible legal action against states that have blocked school mask mandates and other public health measures meant to protect students against COVID-19. Reynolds, a Republican, has signed a bill into law that prohibits school officials from requiring masks, raising concerns as delta variant virus cases climb across the state and schools resume classes soon. (AP Photo/Charlie Neibergall)
Education Hurricane Ida Deals New Blow to Louisiana Schools Struggling to Reopen
The opening of the school year offered teachers a chance to fully assess the pandemic's effects, only to have students forced out again.
8 min read
Six-year-old Mary-Louise Lacobon sits on a fallen tree beside the remnants of her family's home destroyed by Hurricane Ida, in Dulac, La., on Sept. 4, 2021. Louisiana students, who were back in class after a year and a half of COVID-19 disruptions kept many of them at home, are now missing school again after Hurricane Ida. A quarter-million public school students statewide have no school to report to, though top educators are promising a return is, at most, weeks away, not months.
Six-year-old Mary-Louise Lacobon sits on a fallen tree beside the remnants of her family's home destroyed by Hurricane Ida, in Dulac, La., on Sept. 4, 2021.
John Locher/AP