On Wednesday, a violent mob seeking to overturn President Trump’s election loss pushed through police barricades to storm the U.S. Capitol. The frenzied scene—and our country’s long, troubled history of extremist violence and rhetoric that laid the groundwork for it—has left many Americans wondering where we go from here. And educators are no exception.
To learn how some school communities are dealing with the aftermath, we reached out to a handful of principals to ask: What are you saying to your staff and students about the violence at the Capitol?
Here are several excerpts of their responses which they shared with their school communities on the evening of January 6.
Andre Benito Mountain, the principal of Marbut Traditional Theme School in Georgia, told his elementary school community:
The events that we witnessed yesterday at the Capitol underscore how important it is for us to continue to educate our scholars about democracy, how our government works, and how to think critically about the information we see in the news media and social media. We hope that parents and educators use this moment of transition and political tension as an opportunity to discuss issues of social justice, protest, and privilege in our society. We are preparing the next generation of informed and active voters who will shape the future of our great nation.
Eric Juli, the principal at Shaker Heights High School in Ohio, emailed his staff:
We’re trapped in a pandemic, stuck at home for approaching 300 days, and you are charged with speaking to mostly blank screens, into the void. Maybe there are teenagers on the other side of the void, listening to your every word, and maybe they aren’t. Who knows? I believe Thursday is an opportunity to ask students to show their faces by showing your vulnerability; by showing your honesty; by framing your questions. Will it work? I’m an optimist. But it might not. But I know tomorrow isn’t a regular day of school. And sometimes greatness happens on irregular days.
It is my belief that there’s no expectation that school has to be business as usual tomorrow. Or as usual as it can be remotely in a pandemic. It’s also my belief that if every teacher, every period talks about today, all day, that will probably be a little much for everyone. There’s balance to be had, and I have no idea how to find it. But I trust you. And I trust your judgement, and I believe you will know period by period what is the right thing to do in your classes. Government teachers, U.S. history teachers, economics teachers, theater teachers, art teachers, English teachers, tomorrow can be a day of learning by doing. There’s primary source material to be had. There’s speeches, and responses, and social media to check out.
You have an impossible task tomorrow. I offer you support in any way I can. If you want me to come to your class, I’ll do my best to join. If you need a break from class, I can do my best to cover you. Please know in advance that there isn’t any right way to handle tomorrow. I don’t think you can make a mistake. So whatever you choose to do, I admire you for teaching tomorrow. I respect your choice, and I’m proud to work with you all in these difficult circumstances.
I’ll close with this. And these are unformed thoughts for sure. I believe working in a public school is an honor. I believe that public education is an important part of our democracy. I spent so many years in impoverished, difficult schools and I was asked regularly why I didn’t leave. In my grad school program, all but one of my cohort has left public education to enter the worlds of private, independent, and charter schools. I am so proud to contribute to our democracy through public education. Our work matters. It mattered yesterday. It matters today, and it will always matter. And your work as teachers matters the most. Your work is impossible right now. It’s thankless, and it’s fairly awful. And it matters more now than it has ever mattered before.
Final thoughts for real. I feel comfortable sharing my thinking about race and issues of equity. Some of you are equally comfortable, and others of you are less so. There’s no doubt our kids are thinking about today through the lens of race. My wife just showed me a post on Facebook, and I’m paraphrasing here, but it was essentially, “We’re not asking you to shoot them like you shoot us. We’re asking you not to shoot us, like you won’t shoot them.” Our kids have questions. They have fears. They have gaps in their knowledge. They have confusion and misconceptions. You are the front line. You are the people with the opportunity to discuss, answer, share, and wonder together. It’s wonderful and impossibly difficult at the same time.
Patrick D. Burke, the principal of South Burlington High School in Vermont, told his students:
I am certainly someone who believes in protest. As a private citizen and as a public school leader responding to (or choosing to engage in) protest is not always an easy decision. Don’t get me wrong, once I educate myself about an issue I will have an opinion, I care about social, political, and economic issues and as a citizen I will do the work that protecting my values entails. Sometimes it’s voting, often it’s more than that, including at times participating in some form of protest.
If what happened in Washington today was a protest, my opinions regarding the motivation for such a peaceful protest would not matter. I would support the protesters’ right to assemble. However, what is happening in Washington, D.C., today is not a protest and I agree with Vermont’s Republican Governor Phil Scott who said, “This is a very disturbing time for our nation. What we are seeing today at the U.S. Capitol is not a peaceful protest—it is an unacceptable attack on our democracy.”
I believe in our nation and its democratic ideals and I believe together Americans are strong enough to get through this. I think you will have bright futures in our country where despite flaws and imperfections, opportunity remains bountiful.
I hope I’m right.
We also asked teachers on Twitter what they’ve been hearing from their administrators. Here’s some of what they shared:
Note: The principal responses were edited for length and clarity.