As we gear up to get back to school this fall, NYSUT President Melinda Person offers this insight on the importance of public schools as the center of our communities.
This commentary first aired on WAMC Northeast Public Radio Thursday, August 3, 2023. You can listen to the entire commentary online at WAMC.org, and learn more about NYSUT's Public Schools Unite Us initiative at publicschoolsuniteus.org.
Public schools unite us
WAMC Northeast Public Radio | By Melinda Person
Published August 3, 2023 at 12:52 PM EDT
Pub·lic — what does that mean? If you look it up in the dictionary you’ll see:
“adjective: of or concerning the people as a whole. Common. Communal. Collective. Shared.
Public schools and public-school teachers are important for many reasons, but perhaps the most significant is this: In a world that is increasingly fragmented, public schools unite us!
They help children embrace human differences. They teach civility, kindness, and respect. Public schools strengthen our fraying social fabric by instilling these values in the next generation. In so many ways, public schools unite us!
Public schools are where kids meet other kids of different races and ethnic backgrounds, often for the first time. The humanizing effect of seeing teachers treat ALL students with kindness can’t be overstated. Likewise, the process of making friends with black, white, brown, and Asian classmates is a powerful antidote to the prejudice that kids see elsewhere. When diverse students work together in math class or play together in P.E., their similarities become more important than their differences. And that becomes the way they see the world.
In public schools, kids also meet people of different faith traditions. When a Catholic student gets invited to her best friend’s bat mitzvah, or a Hindu athlete sees Buddhist traditions practiced by her soccer teammate, it leads to the kind of understanding we need in a functional democracy. When a teacher takes a minute at the start of class to recognize and explain Eid, Diwali, or Rosh Hashanah, kids see common themes among different faiths.
In public schools, kids meet people of different political beliefs, often for the first time. When a teacher presents a lesson with opposing perspectives—such as the pros and cons of electric cars—students become aware that there are multiple ways to view complex issues. When a student finds out that a respected classmate likes different political candidates than they do, the student learns that it’s possible to disagree and remain friends.
Public schools unite us!
In public schools, kids meet other kids with unique needs, strengths and abilities. For those old enough to remember when those differences weren’t appreciated, it is heartwarming to see the progress that public schools have made. When a middle-school teacher pairs a strong reader with a student who has dyslexia, or a high school teacher helps his students befriend others from a special education classroom, we become a kinder, more inclusive society.
In public schools, kids meet people with different sexual orientations and gender identities, often for the first time. Public schools—at least in New York—aim to create safe, welcoming environments for LGBTQ+ kids. That helps make their classmates more understanding and better prepared to deal with the world in which they live.
In his best-selling book from 2000, “Bowling Alone,” Robert Putnam uses the title metaphor to demonstrate that fewer Americans are participating in shared or communal activities. He describes how a lack of interaction between people of different groups has removed key ingredients that are required for communities to thrive. Twenty-three years later, due to an increased reliance on technology and a pandemic, the problem’s gotten worse. We no longer just bowl alone, many of us live in a silo, polarized from those with different backgrounds and life experiences.
Public schools are one of the last places where we still come together. Where we learn to be civil and kind to those around us, regardless of human differences. Where we recognize our shared humanity. Children benefit from the opportunities public schools provide, but the power of these shared experiences extends outward through entire communities. Public schools are part of the solution to a divided world, because in this way, public schools unite us all.
Melinda Person is president of the nearly 700,000-member New York State United Teachers.