Law & Courts Opinion

A #SafetyPin Thanksgiving

By Nancy Flanagan — November 24, 2016 3 min read
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Fifteen days ago, we woke up to a new world.

We now have a new and, frankly, shocking cast of characters heading up all the important political and social initiatives in America. Free-floating rage and casual acts of terror have become commonplace:

The Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC) has documented more than 700 incidents of active bigotry since Donald Trump's election; 40 percent of all the incidents occurred in schools. Of these documented incidents, 206 were anti-immigrant, 151 were anti-Black, 80 were anti-gay, 60 were vandalism that involved swastikas, 51 were anti-Muslim, and 36 were attacks on women.

The fact that schools have become a staging ground for active bigotry is not at all surprising to me. Kids always reflect the values they’ve seen expressed at home and in the media (whether that media is accurate or not). Teachers know this. And they know precisely how to deal with ugly student behaviors without involving their own political beliefs.

As it happened, I was scheduled to work with young musicians in a public school for three days, immediately following the election. Each day I was there, I saw more teachers wearing safety pins. Each lunchtime discussion was more focused on “how can we all help kids understand that they are safe here?” This was an overwhelmingly white school in a small town where there were lots of red voters, but teachers’ first response was toward dignity, equity, and peace for their students.

Now, I understand and appreciate the pushback against safety pins. They’re a cheap, adopted response to generations of blatant discrimination. They’re too little, too late, too faddish, way too easily co-opted.

On those days, in that context, however, they were a first stab at caring. They were instructional tools.

And guess what? Even feeble-effort safety pins are so scary that they have been banned in at least one school district—not surprisingly, a white suburban district in Kansas. During the same week that our cherished Bill of Rights permitted a meeting of white nationalists saluting Donald Trump in the nation’s capital.

This might be a hill where teachers are willing to die.

I’ve written plenty about how teachers have been officially discouraged from any number of things that constitute professional educational practice: crafting their own lessons, interpreting curricular guidelines to fit what they know about children, trusting their own data and observations. Now they’re forbidden to act as guardians of children’s well-being?

My friends Bruce Baker and Bill Ivey reminded that (in Twitter-speak) “in context of classroom and/or when acting as agent of state/district, teachers lack 1st amendment protection. Point here is that district has authority to regulate curricular speech in this way. Doesn’t mean they have to, though. Ideally, teachers and administrators can work together to establish a good, safe environment for all kids, avoid this. Most disturbing, in current political context, expressing messages of human decency seems to qualify as politically divisive speech.”

Exactly. When does human decency surpass Don’t Rock the Boat school leadership? Aren’t these extraordinary times? Aren’t the lives of children and the fate of public education at stake?

I am embarrassed to say that the National Network of State Teachers of the Year (NNSTOY), an organization I belong to, which should be a stronghold of unvarnished teacher advocacy, sent around a little memo saying:

For anyone who has worked seriously in policy and advocacy, you know that this work requires deep thought and a chess-player's mentality. In other words, we must constantly ask ourselves, "If I take this action, what will be the result if A occurs or B occurs? What will be the impact of my actions two or three steps down the road? Will the impact of my action match my intent in making it?" These are serious questions and require deep thoughtful planning. To that end, I would ask that you not post political commentary on the NNSTOY Facebook pages; please keep this to your personal pages.

And while you’re at it, keep your safety pins under wraps, OK?

Here’s my hope, on this Thanksgiving Day—a day when we are called to pause, as a nation, and be grateful for our abundant blessings.

I hope that schools will once again become a staging ground for re-learning how to behave as if we were, in fact, blessed. As if we had a free and fair government, a vigilant and courageous press and a cornucopia of opportunity for all, not just the economic top tier. As if our clear purpose, as educators, was to build smart citizens and encourage critical thought.

Pass the turkey.

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