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Teaching What Matters Most: Should Teachers Speak Up or Shut Up?

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My partner and I once went to counseling to resolve a conflict that was tearing our working relationship and friendship apart.   In the process, I learned that I have a serious problem with letting people know that I have heard and understood their point of view. I’ve been working on fixing that character flaw for 20 years, and producing education talk radio is the perfect therapy.

I’ve now spent a decade listening to educators speak about what matters most.  I’ve sat silently as teachers, principals, superintendents, professors, parents, and advocates voice their thoughts and opinions on myriad education topics from homework and teacher assessment to growth mindset, metacognition, innovation, creativity, risk-taking and leadership. Those voices have been thoughtful, articulate, passionate, compelling and committed to doing what’s in the best interest of kids. 

Personal blogs, a zillion Twitter chats, and a bazillion hashtags have amplified those voices and spread the ideas that educators value most around the world. Every week teachers now connect online and delight in their newfound power to get their discussions to trend on Twitter -- or better yet go viral.

It was unthinkable a decade ago, but we now live in a world where every educator’s voice can be heard.

That’s why I was left scratching my head about how little I’ve been hearing from educators on the subject everyone around the world is discussing.  I was confused and puzzled by the deafening silence until I read the following article.

Teachers are expected to remain politically neutral. These Teachers of the Year say they can’t.

This article led to another and the more I read the deeper I began to understand just how troubled, conflicted and stressed many educators are.

Educators around the country are struggling to handle hyper-sensitive, radioactive, conversations that are spilling into to their classroom.  Racism, sexism, scandals, lies and unprecedented incivility have many educators trapped in a vise. Some teachers want to avoid these discussions at all costs.  Others say silence is not an option. 

The struggle of values is epic:

   -- Creating a safe space for children versus encouraging responsible discussion.

   -- Remaining politically neutral versus championing our common values.

   -- Respecting freedom of speech versus condemning the normalization of inappropriate language.

   -- Teaching common civic ideals versus respecting parents’ desire to control the ideas their kids embrace.

   -- Teaching critical thinking versus challenging partisan errors of fact.

I get it; this is tough stuff that can strain relationships with kids, parents, peers and maybe even cost you your job. I understand.

So should educators speak up or shut up?

I’m biased on too many counts to mention:

I’ve been committed to amplifying the voices of educators for over a decade.  

Listening to people who are typically silent, step up and speak out about language and behavior that is fundamentally ignorant has been a call to action for me.

Most importantly, I believe that this is a defining moment in the history of our nation. A moment that is too important for thoughtful, articulate, influential voices to take a pass, sit out or stand down.

Democracy is messy. As we speak, there are 18-year olds who have put their lives on the line in some hostile country, so we can be free to go to the mall this weekend, gear up for Halloween and have the option to stay silent or speak up.

But I think the ten former teachers of the year in the article above said it best;

“There are times when silence is the voice of complicity. This year’s presidential election is one such time….

We teach children that girls are just as smart, capable, and worthy of respect as boys…

We teach children that the content of their character, not the color of their skin, determines their worth….

We teach children to stand up for what is right when they see someone acting cruelly or disrespectfully toward others…

Words matter. So do actions. Even when children don’t listen to what we say, they pay very careful attention to what we do." 

By our actions, we teach children what matters most. 

This post kicks off a series we are producing about navigating the election discussion in schools and classrooms. We begin with a thoughtful and powerful segment with  Ben Gilpin, Brad Gustafson and Patrick Riccards titled: Should educators speak up or shut up?”

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I'm the executive producer of BAM Radio Network, which means I get to eat, sleep and drink education talk radio. Over the last nine years, I've been a fly on the wall in over 3,500 discussions between some of the most thoughtful, passionate and fascinating educators in the nation. On these pages I share the most important lessons I've learned from them, along with an occasional rogue insight of my own. BACKGROUND: I am a 25-year veteran of the media. Over those two-and-a-half decades, I had the opportunity to author four books; write for The Wall Street Journal, the Los Angeles Times, The Washington Times; and spent three years as a popular radio talk show host on KIEV in Los Angeles. I worked for seven years as an "on air" political commentator and co-hosted the Emmy Award-winning program Life and Times on PBS television. I eventually moved on to become a business reporter at KTLA in Hollywood. Owing to some great mentors, some good timing and perhaps a shortage of available talent, I managed to pick up five Emmy nominations and one Emmy Award along the way. Oh by the way, I went to Harvard. Well … actually, I was invited to speak there once, but I really learned a lot from the experience. :)

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