I initially drafted this commentary in response to a news story in the Idaho Statesman about a group of Middleton School District employees’ behavior at a Halloween event at the school. Because the news cycle was dominated by the elections, the Statesman was understandably unable to publish this. But I have been given the opportunity to run it now and have accepted that opportunity.
My reason for this choice is simple: Those most negatively affected by this behavior are the students, many of whom are not in a position to express their feelings about these actions. I am speaking for them in the hope that this gives them voice and that we can re-center them – the students – as our primary objective as educators.
I woke one morning the week before elections and was immediately ashamed by an act perpetrated by a few members of our public education community. I read how a group of teachers in the Middleton School District went to a party dressed up as Mexicans and in costume as a wall that read “Make America Great Again,” a politically charged gesture obviously aimed at our Hispanic population. This is shameful behavior that reflects poorly upon Idaho and the entire public education system.
I am an administrator in Boise for the University of Idaho, a high-performing academic and research university. I am also a professor of law in that institution. When I meet people in public, they often treat me as some sort of apex educator because of those roles; however, the truth of the matter is that the most important educators in the system are the K-12 educators, by far. The reason is simple: These are the foundational educators who touch every student in our state, tasked with the socially critical role of ensuring that each and every one of these students is prepared to tackle the challenges of life once they leave high school. This is so whether the student immediately joins the workforce, learns a trade or earns a degree.
As educators, we have a duty to serve – and respect – all of our students, regardless of race, economic status, gender and a litany of other characteristics that make up the complex individuals in our student body, writ large, from kindergarten through doctoral programs, and every step in between. We also have a duty to teach these students to respect one another and to treat others with civility, even if our views and backgrounds differ. Above all, we have an obligation to make our educational institutions — from primary through secondary and postsecondary — places where our students feel welcome and safe in the learning environment, a place where they want to come and learn.
Engaging in such blatantly demeaning activities toward any of our constituents causes us to fail in our duties and obligations to all of our students. And it is this failure by a small group of my colleagues, teaching at a different level but still part of the same important system, that caused me to feel such shame that morning. We failed our students that day.
To the perpetrators of this sophomoric and ignorant act: Do better, be better, and be the example our students need and deserve. To the many, many other K-12 teachers who go to work every day on behalf of all of our students, continue your good works, and thank you so much for all that you do to make Idaho a better place for our children. I know how important your work is, and I know that the actions of a few don’t reflect upon the important work that the many do every day.