How Might We Be Our Best Educator Selves Despite the Politics of Now?

Photo by Vladimir Kudinov on Unsplash

“I like good humans. A lot.”

While hundred of comments from politicians and public figures over the past couple of years have ignited the vein in my forehead and taken me to full underbite-y, I have done my best to remain fairly apolitical on my Twitter feed:

Today’s story of President Trump’s rally in Alabama broke me — and I’m not entirely sure why this is the one that finally did it.

'Tell That Son of a B**** He's Fired': Trump Blasts NFL Anthem Kneelers

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Over on Facebook, I am quite outspoken about my politics. For the record, I consider myself a fiscal moderate, a social progressive and a comic book nerd. I vote my conscience rather than my party line, I call my representatives and my senators, I speak up at school board and town meetings, and I stand with quiet respect during anthems — national or otherwise — and other moments of public solemnity. I’m the grandson of veterans of foreign wars, the son of a retail store manager turned small business owner and a legal secretary turned school district administrative assistant, as well as the husband of a school librarian. I’m an Eagle Scout who has been inactive in the organization since they made public their intolerance for the LGBTQ community and who remains unconvinced that the organization has truly changed despite its press releases.

And I like good humans. A lot.

Good humans are kind.

Good humans help.

Good humans tend to balance confidence with humility.

Good humans tend to look for the best in others while making mental notes of room for improvement.

Good humans open doors, even if they might lower their eyes because they are shy or not say much because they prefer to keep quiet counsel.

Good humans donate what time and energy they can afford to making the world a better place for other good humans and those trying to become better humans.

Good humans can disagree on politics and economics, religious and social beliefs, because good humans find pathways to co-exist.

Good humans practice empathy.

Good humans maintain growth mindsets with regards to their values and principles.

While it’s difficult in 2017 to remain apolitical on Twitter, I have generally done so by focusing my energy on promoting good human-ing.

Equity, tolerance, diversity, empathy, understanding. I tend to like and retweet, even evangelize for pedagogies and practices that grow these capacities in education, innovation, and technology.

Though when I read a tweet primarily aimed at a direct criticism of a political figure or ideology, I rarely retweet or add my own commentary. I click that heart in solidarity. To let that voice know there’s another out there who agrees. And to also keep myself . . . safe.

And I don’t mean personal security safe — I am fortunate and enjoy privilege far too many do not. I mean professional safety — avoiding the conversations about conflicts of interest, about education versus indoctrination, about teaching versus preaching, and generally threatening the time I could be using in the service of helping students become more critical thinkers, persistent problem solvers and conscious consumers.

And today I broke. Calling football players who do not rise for the national anthem “sons of bitches” is something I expect to hear in line at a store or from a nearby stool at a bar. It’s something I expect to hear in the parking lot during an evening of Friday night lights or while I pump gas into my truck.

It’s not something I expect to hear from the President of the United States. And today I heard just that. (I have also heard President Trump traffic in false equivalencies about civil rights activism and white supremacy activism, make outlandish accusations directed at world leaders and private citizens alike, and wheel and deal with the safety and security of most everyone living in the United States who is not white, Christian and/or wealthy — most everything else said that frustrated, disgusted or underbitey-ed me was said during the campaign stump. Or before.)

Though I have found my mindset around improvisation — dealing with whatever is coming your way and transforming it into something meaningful — has made it possible to practice professional preservation and political fidelity.

I posted a couple of quick tweets about the Alabama campaign rally for the 2020 election. I retweeted a couple of pithy commentaries. I received some likes. Some retweets. And I received a response suggesting I write this short piece about my perspective on how to navigate these waters as a professional educator.

It’s hard. It can be very, very hard. Though I have found my mindset around improvisation — dealing with whatever is coming your way and transforming it into something meaningful — has made it possible to practice professional preservation and political fidelity.

Acceptance. Accept that others in the building, especially in your classroom may have different ideas and opinions. And that is okay. They can still be good humans even if they believe in different paths toward a greater good. (And it is okay to work alongside bad humans sometimes. With time, they may become good humans. See the next item.)

Communicate. Communicate your truth rather than preach your truth. I use the phrases, “In my experience . . . “ and the disclaimer “Folks, this is my opinion — this is not a fact.” Most importantly, I have tried in the middle stage of my career to listen more, speak less. Communication is 90% listening, 10% expressing. Provide students opportunities to express their viewpoints and the context for them. And honor the risks they are taking by expressing an understanding of where they may be coming from so they know they are heard. Diffuse the tension and the potential for conflict by understanding, not endorsing. Following that with, “In my experience, that has not been the case,” has led to great conversations and eye openings on both sides.

Trust. Build a culture of trust in the room. Where ideas can be shared that may be unpopular, that may be half formed, that are open to question. Some of my favorite students are those that have called me on my positions and challenged them — not through yelling or outrage or threatening to call their parents but rather by asking thoughtful, tough questions and making astute observations of my patterns.

One of my favorite moments: several students expressed their appreciation that my room was a place where thinking differently was encouraged, all points of view were okay, and one of student pushed back. “I disagree. I love this class too and I think Mr. Ryder wants us to be kind and empathetic and tolerant and everything. And if we are going to express ideas that are hateful and racist, he’s probably not going to let those be here. He’s pretty clear that he has particular point of view. He wants people to feel safe and he wants us to think about what that means.” Note: the quotation marks here indicate a student’s voice through the filter of my memory — not necessarily a direct quote. My students tend to be less verbose than I tend to recall.

There wasn’t any nuance, there wasn’t any, “on both sides,” there wasn’t any hedging.

And perhaps today’s why I felt the need to express myself. Something about a president calling for the firing of a professional athlete who expresses a social and political position through a simple, quiet, non-violent act, as well as calling that athlete a “son of a bitch” . . . that makes the world in which we live less safe. There wasn’t any nuance, there wasn’t any, “on both sides,” there wasn’t any hedging. This was, “The President of the United States says fire people who share different political beliefs from you AND call them names you cannot use in school while doing so.”

That’s not being a good human.

You can follow my valiant attempts at being a good human on Twitter and Instagram as well as visiting Want more ideas for exploring challenging questions and building a culture of acceptance, communication and trust in the classroom? Check out my new book with Amy Burvall, Intention: Critical Creativity in the Classroom from EdTechTeam Press. Ask for it where better books are sold or grab it from Amazon.

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