Friday, March 24, 2023

The Victor Narrative Will Serve Students Better

Over the past few decades, our society has increasingly been willing to reduce instructional time spent in the core subject areas in an effort to “be relatable,” to “meet students where they’re at,” and to create “safe spaces.” In and of themselves, these can be helpful tools for teachers and really important for students. But like anything, they can be taken too far. The extremes of each of these efforts can quickly make a good thing very bad. 

It is not uncommon to hear parents raise red flags over the increase in classroom discussions of complex social issues that over students’ heads, unrelated to the subject matter of the course, and hyper-political. Literature and history certainly open the door for important and difficult class discussions but when it’s math teachers spending class time pushing their progressive ideology, parents—and students—can find themselves extremely frustrated. Not only are they concerned about the declining focus on certain core academic subjects but they see the controversial and often politicized conversations as unnecessary distractions.

Today’s students cannot afford to be robbed of teacher-led time in the core academic subjects. But an increasing number of new teachers—fresh out of their teacher preparation programs— are committed to the belief that student learning time is better spent on conversations about “privilege” than on reading comprehension and math. This is more than a mistake or a minor error. It is quickly becoming an educational tragedy. Student reading comprehension and math proficiency scores, the very basics of K-12 educational objectives, require more instructional time to improve—not less.

Talking about highly politicized social issues shifts the focus of the conversation about inequality away from the students. When teachers steal time from a math lesson, for instance, to talk about the various tenets of woke ideology, not only has the teacher made an ill-advised tradeoff,  they’ve also done nothing to actually empower their students or improve students’ personal situation. Instead, shouldn’t we be focusing on strengthening the individual? Shouldn’t we be focusing on creating opportunities for those whose life circumstances have been hardest?

Equality and Responsibility Are Connected

Agency is especially important for those who have encountered major challenges in their lives. Strength and tenacity are virtually impossible to build in people whose agency has been taken away. Teaching children that all of the problems they will face in their lives are the result of someone else’s malintent steals their opportunities to learn, grow, and retain their dignity. Our good intentions, taken too far, may just be paving the road to proverbial hell—the very place from which we are trying to rescue many children.

The removal of responsibility and accountability from individuals robs them of their potential for dignity and self-respect. Instead of tearing up the pathway to dignity, we can remove barriers to opportunity, we can encourage, and support. 

There is an important distinction to be made in this regard, however. So-called “allies” often—not always—reveal themselves, sooner or later, to be approval-seeking followers rather than principled leaders. In what ways does declaring and apologizing for one’s privilege improve the reading skills of the third grade class in urban Detroit, for example? 

It doesn’t. 

Similarly, your students’ math comprehension will remain unmoved when you announce your ally-ship. Replace the virtue signals with actual virtue. Love. Support. Encourage. 

Teachers Must Focus on Academics

In this effort, the role of the teacher is singular: prepare students to be productive members of society. To do this, they must teach language, math, science, and history. Histories that include a victim narrative as their defining feature serve only to discourage, deflate, and disenfranchise. The “victor” narrative is more conducive to the kind of confidence that leads to sustained personal growth. History from the perspective of hope and optimism, while being honest about the past, provides students with something to strive for, rather than something against which they feel they must fight. Constantly waging war is more than exhausting—it is simplistic. It leads to a narrow-mindedness and sets the bar too low. Our children deserve better.

I was very fortunate to have several teachers who cared for me, taught me well, and encouraged me to accomplish difficult things. Those teachers instilled a love of learning in their students. They didn’t shy away from the hard truths but rather than lowering standards, they prepared the young minds in their care to meet the challenges ahead.

Genuine care for students is rarely announced or publicized. It happens between student and teacher in a classroom where the students know—long before individual help is given—that the teacher sincerely cares about them.

This is the challenge for educators today—to love and care for each student enough to prepare and encourage them to reach their own individual and full potential. This is what parents want for their children and it is what society needs of its future leaders. Actual equality requires that each individual demand to retain their personal responsibility. We can lovingly prepare each student to bear that responsibility with dignity and skill.

Matthew Nielsen


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