When you fly high above our land, you can’t always distinguish the United States from Canada or from Mexico. As many have said before me, a country, perhaps particularly the United States, is a story we tell ourselves. The events of Jan. 6—an insurrection aimed at subverting the vote of the people and the response from many that “this isn’t what America is"—should teach us an important lesson about a national failing of our education system.
As educators, we have an enormous responsibility to get the story of our country, in all its complexities, right. In the days immediately following Jan. 6, we face not only a crucial test but a sacred responsibility to provide the space in our classrooms for and to thoughtfully facilitate the telling of many American stories. Let me invite you to be diligent about what Nigerian writer Chimamanda Ngozi Adiche calls “the danger of a single story.” We have the important task of helping our students share their story without fear that it will be diminished because it is not part of the story we want to tell ourselves.
Fulfilling this tall order requires us to do four things really well—both now and in the long term—lift student voice, diversify the educator workforce, truly integrate our schools, and empower and trust our professional educators.
I grew up in a deeply conservative town. When I protested the coming Iraq war as a high school senior, my car windows were smashed in. The year before, I sat in my Advanced Placement Modern European History course learning about autocrats coming to power and hearing my teacher proclaim that such a thing would never happen in the United States. When I slowly raised my hand to remind the teacher that the United States had supported dictators in other countries, she abruptly shut me down and made me feel a fool in front of my classmates.
Why have we not prioritized in every way possible having a teacher workforce that not only looks like our students but also shares common life experiences with them?
For me, a middle-class white kid, the dissonance was between my teacher and my parents. But for so many of our students, the tension is much deeper, not a difference in what they learn from two people but between their lived everyday reality and a story told by history books. Often, the story is so unfamiliar they tune out rather than engage.
And this conflict is made more difficult for students of color when nearly every educator who stands in front of them has led a drastically different and usually more privileged life. Why have we not prioritized and incentivized in every way possible having a teacher workforce that not only looks like our students but also shares common life experiences with them? That is the lifeline of hope that many students need.
As a white teacher in a school of nearly all Black and Latino students, I saw the beautiful and, importantly, different way my students connected with our Black and Latino educators. Far too many students in our country miss the emboldened sense of possibility they impart. And yet the system often treated those professionals with little respect and even fewer genuine opportunities for leadership.
This calling to provide the space for many stories is also what makes it so critical we fight for truly integrated schools. Without spaces that open windows into the worlds of others while honoring students’ own, the goal of guiding students to see the complexities of this country becomes even more unreachable. Integrating our schools doesn’t stop, of course, with students of diverse backgrounds gathering in the same school building; it also requires treating all students equitably and affirming their dignity within that space.
Finally, all this ambitious action can still fall short if we haven’t empowered and trusted our educators. While I believe national academic standards are essential to ensure all students are equipped with the knowledge and skills we want citizens to have, teachers need flexibility to connect with students and be effective. Educators should not be fearful that seizing a teachable moment or exploring controversial topics will land them in hot water. When we respect and empower our educators and treat them as the professionals they are, they can focus their energy on their most important task: preparing citizens for life in a democracy.
In the days following those terrible moments at the Capitol, in classrooms across the United States, educators will listen to students, question their assumptions, and connect their stories to broader histories. I wish I could be a fly on the wall in every classroom. I know I would see countless educators meeting the challenge of this fearsome time by elevating the voices of all their students. And that’s how we write a better story for our country.