President’s Message, by Megan Tuttle, NEA-New Hampshire President
As the school year begins, I cannot help feeling that this year is very different. The events of this summer have brought headlines about violence, race, justice and equality back into our daily life. We shudder as we witness the violence, the hate that produced it, and the official response from our government that only serves to legitimize it.
Our role as educators has always been important. But this year seems different. Our ever-connected students face the news and images of bigotry and hate constantly. This year we cannot believe our annual preparations are complete if they only contain new supplies and updated curriculum plans. This year, we must ask ourselves what we are going to do to help.
The NEA-NH building in Concord sits right next to the Federal Courthouse. Once a month, on a Friday, the naturalization ceremony takes place; the last step in the process of becoming a U.S. citizen. Cars line the street and excited new citizens and their families pass by our building. The ceremony is brief, but life-changing. These new Americans come from many different places, and once a month our country is made stronger by the diversity of backgrounds, culture, and abilities they bring. Those of us that work in the Concord office are fortunate each month to be reminded just how our nation was built and from where our true strength comes.
Our preparations for this year must include an answer to the question, “how will I be a role model for justice?”
It’s my belief that we already know what we need to do. As I read through the cards we sent to Commissioner Edelblut, I am struck at how much farther our members go to reach, educate and prepare our students to be successful people and citizens. This year, these efforts must also focus on racism, justice and equality.
NEA President Lily Eskelsen Garcia recently wrote, “Do not shy away from talking about this terrible topic with the young, I beg you. There is, perhaps, nothing harder than a conversation on race. But do it, because how we feel about race; how we react to racism informs how we feel about and react to all other forms of bias and prejudice. Children of all races, religions, all gender attractions and gender identities, of all cultures and social classes must have a safe space to speak and ask questions and wonder and think and be angry and be comforted. It’s important that we let them ask all the questions and explore the complexity of our human family. And it’s important that children know that there is right and there is wrong.”
She continued, “There are not two sides to racism. Hate is wrong. Terror and intimidation are wrong. It’s important that we call racism and racial terrorism by its name. This is not about an honest disagreement between two sides. The poisonous ideology that one race or culture is superior to another race or culture is the antithesis to our country’s ideals of freedom and justice for all.”
We know that discussions of racism are typically not part of school culture or curriculum, and because racism is so complex and contentious, many of us are afraid to even broach the subject. Fears of opening a can of worms, stirring the pot and making a mistake, can be paralyzing. It often feels easier and safer to avoid the topic altogether.
To address these fears and begin the conversations, NEA’s EdJustice produced a piece called “Creating the Space to Talk About Race in Your School.” In it they stress that silence and inaction only serve to reinforce the status quo. “Avoidance speaks volumes—it communicates to students of color that racism doesn’t matter enough to warrant attention and, by omission, invalidates their experiences, perspectives, identities—and lives. White students, on the other hand, often see racism being accepted and normalized, without acknowledgement or accountability. And the lofty ideal of educational excellence and equity for all students, if it even exists at your school, may seem like a hollow commitment.”
As educators, there are “teachable moments,” opportunities to constructively and productively address race. Discussions in your classroom, the lunch room or even on the school bus can be a stepping stone to addressing race in your school community and school district. We can create the space to talk about race and open the way for powerful learning and change.
This year, commit each day to model your values and vision. Practice equity, inclusion, empathy and respect in your classroom and school. From speaking to countless former students, we know our actions, more than our words, have the greatest impact. We can play a formative role in helping students build critical skills for navigating the complexities of race, and now more than ever we cannot afford to miss the opportunity.
This will be a challenging year, no doubt. But it can also be a transformative one for us, our students, and our communities. It’s up to us to model our values and communicate the good work being done by all those who work and study in our schools.
NEA-New Hampshire’s vision is “a society made better through public education.” Now is the time for each of us to make that vision a reality.