Randi Weingarten, President, merican Federation of Teachers
Teachers have always had a huge responsibility for the next generation: To teach and nurture students so they have the opportunity to live fulfilling lives. To make our classrooms and schools safe and affirming. To help young people develop the skills, confidence, and sense of responsibility to be engaged citizens.
As schools reopen this season, the role of America’s teachers is even bigger—they are called on to be defenders of decency and guardians of democracy because, while our democracy has never been perfect, today its very existence is threatened.
Our freedoms are under attack by a president who threatens to imprison his political opponents, who openly wishes he could “get rid” of journalists, and who props up white nationalism.
Our elections are undermined by widespread voter suppression, by extreme partisan gerrymandering (which was just upheld by the Supreme Court), and by open invitations to foreign interference—with Trump even joking about it with Vladimir Putin recently.
Our very moral character as a nation is tested when government leaders portray immigrants and asylum-seekers not as people in need, but as invaders so threatening and worthless that the government’s inhumane treatment of them—denying even children adequate food, sleep and hygiene—is somehow deserved. The shooter in El Paso, Texas used the president’s own language in his hate-filled manifesto, and since then, the administration has gone on to wage a continued war against immigrant families, raiding their workplaces, and subjecting them to inhumane conditions in detention centers. I have come to the chilling realization that the president of the United States, by his actions, is leading a homegrown hate movement.
Americans must be clear-eyed about the perilous time we are in. In a civil society, there is no “both sides” on matters of human dignity, equal rights, tolerance of diversity, truth or the rule of law. These are not options against which other beliefs can be regarded as equally worthy. But today these values need defending.
That’s why this summer I gave a speech (aft.org/news/weingarten-educators-must-save-democracy) to 1,200 educators at the American Federation of Teachers’ TEACH conference about the gravity of our situation. The fight to safeguard democracy begins in America’s classrooms and schools, where we both embrace America’s diversity and forge a common identity. Our public schools are where young people develop the skills they need to be engaged and empowered citizens—voice, latitude, and the ability to think for oneself. Teachers must have the freedom to teach these skills—which may not be measured on standardized tests, but which are the measure of a vibrant citizenry.
When classrooms are freed from the tyranny of standardized testing and test prep, there is time for students to analyze problems in their communities and advocate for change. When teachers don’t have to adhere to lock-step pacing calendars, they can model democratic deliberation—where disagreements are over ideas, not people, and dissenting views are respectfully heard, not shouted down; and where opinions need to be supported with logical arguments and evidence, and not simply asserted.
Public education at its best provides a ladder of opportunity, a path out of poverty, and a place where America’s pluralism is celebrated. Democracy in education has always been the foundation for providing education for democracy.
Alexis de Tocqueville, the 19th-century observer of American democracy, wrote: “America is great because she is good. If America ceases to be good, America will cease to be great.”
When this moment in history is written, let it be said that Americans defended what is best about our country, and fought the worst. That hope won against fear, aspiration over frustration, and humanity over cruelty. That we defeated demagoguery. And that our public schools were a sturdy cornerstone helping to preserve our democracy. #
Randi Weingarten is president of the 1.7 million-member American Federation of Teachers, AFL-CIO, which represents teachers; paraprofessionals; and school-related personnel; higher-education faculty and staff; nurses and other healthcare professionals; local, state and federal government employees; and early childhood educators.