The new school year has just begun. As a teacher, I’ve seen many beginnings to school years — 27, to be exact — but I can’t remember a more volatile environment at the start.
In Connecticut, Gov. Dannel P. Malloy proposed, out of the blue, that towns contribute to the teacher pension fund, a program in which they have never participated. In addition, the governor plans to cut a total of $928 million in Educational Cost Sharing to towns if state legislators fail to pass a budget by Oct. 1. In the district where I teach, that move would represent a $6 million loss in a $40 million budget.
Saying that Connecticut towns and school systems face a monumental challenge under such draconian cost constraints is a monumental understatement.
Nationally, President Donald Trump could not find it within himself to condemn neo-Nazis and KKK members who spewed racist ideology during a rally this summer in Charlottesville, Virginia. Instead, he repeatedly blamed the “hatred, bigotry, and violence on many sides, on many sides,” seemingly equating counter-protesters with white supremacists.
As Utah’s long-time Republican Senator Orrin Hatch said via Twitter, “We should call evil by its name. My brother didn’t give his life fighting Hitler for Nazi ideas to go unchallenged here at home.”
So as Connecticut teachers begin this school year, we are faced with economic uncertainty at home and a disturbing national environment in which hate is on the rise. It’s a daunting reality that only adds to the existing challenges of teaching.
To that reality I say, “Bring it on!”
I know the vast majority of my teaching colleagues share this attitude of resilience across Connecticut — a state whose public schools rival the best in the nation or even the world. In fact, it’s these very challenges that bring out the best in teachers.
As an English teacher, I can confidently say that the curriculum at my school — similar to many throughout the state — has always been robust, thoughtful, and now, more than ever, extremely relevant. For example, my sophomore English students will once again read A Raisin in the Sun, Lorraine Hansberry’s play based on the racism her black family faced in the 1930s when purchasing a house in a white Chicago neighborhood. In real life, the family ultimately won a landmark decision in the Supreme Court — Hansberry v. Lee (1940) — upholding their right to live in the neighborhood. What better way to reflect on the racism that still plagues America today than to read this play that puts the topic in vivid historical context?
My sophomores will also read Harper Lee’s novel To Kill a Mockingbird, a rich and entertaining tale of growing up in Depression-era Alabama that simultaneously reveals the quintessential life lessons a father teaches his daughter. Among the themes: fear of the unknown, the importance of family, the ugly truth behind bigotry, and the power of empathy. Or, as Atticus Finch tells his daughter, “You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view . . . until you climb into his skin and walk around in it.”
How relevant is that concept in America right now?
Countless other literary works I’ll teach this year have just as much relevance. Moreover, my Advanced Placement: Language & Composition and Media Literacy classes focus squarely on critical thinking. How fitting now to examine in A.P. the rhetoric and persuasive techniques of various writers as they address the issue of removing Confederate statues. How relevant in Media Lit to distinguish actual examples of fake news from a politician’s use of the term to taint news outlets he doesn’t like.
All of these examples merely scratch the surface of public education’s increasingly indispensable role. Science teachers strive to impart an attitude of authentic inquiry through the scientific method at a time when federal agencies stand to lose scientists and more citizens believe conspiracy theories. Math and tech-ed teachers instill skills required in an increasingly technological and automated economy. And world language teachers introduce students to languages and cultures that will enable them to thrive in an ethnically diverse nation and world.
So let the school year begin, challenges and all. There’s never been a more important time to teach kids how to read, write, and think. And despite the current uncertainties, I know Connecticut teachers are up to the task.
Barth Keck is an English teacher and assistant football coach who teaches courses in journalism, media literacy, and AP English Language & Composition at Haddam-Killingworth High School.
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