The Oppressive Schools letter

I said it would be a week before I posted on the Oppressive Schools letter and it’s been longer than that. The honest truth is that I struggled about whether or not to sign my name to it; the back-and-forth in my mind and heart has led to lost sleep and moments of anxiety. It’s been hard to put my finger on exactly what the issue has been and I am thankful for the chance to talk with friends, and even strangers, about that question because it has helped me clarify my thinking around why signing onto this particular articulation of the problem didn’t fit for me.

Anyone who knows me knows that I care deeply about words and how they are used. The words “oppressive” and “dehumanizing” are strong words that don’t leave much room for good intent. I didn’t suggest that the individuals who wrote and signed this letter NOT use these terms because I believe they have the right to share their perspective in as strong a set of language as they wish. But it matters to me that the intent of schools, policies and people has not been to hurt children. Using language in this letter that makes it hard to acknowledge and recognize people’s positive intentions feels counter-productive to me because it is hurtful to many of the individuals who work in or participate in schools and systems. This makes it less likely that we can engage in constructive conversation and action that can move us towards improving systems.

There is no doubt that for some students and families the impact of policies has been hurtful, and many of the individuals who ended up signing onto the Oppressive Schools letter hold the stories of these students and families, or ARE those students or family members. I have interviewed or spoken with many of them directly and I know how raw and real their hurt is. For this reason I think that as a community and as leaders we have a responsibility to listen to and acknowledge their experiences – even if the language used to communicate these experiences can feel harsh or hurtful. Because without listening, honoring and acknowledging people’s hurt, we cannot heal and then strengthen the trust and fabric of our community. Having said this, I think the most productive vehicle for such conversations is likely to be small, facilitated groups in which care is taken to respect and honor the voices and feelings of all parties coming to the table. Ultimately, my position and hope is to work towards productive problem-solving that can channel the good intentions that I believe drive people’s work into policies and practices that better reflect the outcomes we want to achieve.

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