Educating Potential

The Oppressive Schools Letter – Take 2

I’ve had some hard conversations about my original post on the Oppressive Schools letter. A colleague posted a comment that captures a lot of the details of these conversations and it’s worth reading. I thought about editing my first post but I actually think the distinction in how I would communicate about these ideas in light of the conversations is worth preserving. These are hard subjects to address, these are hard conversations to have. That is the whole point. But it’s worth documenting that dialogue allows for growth. In that spirit, I’m posting here something that I think better captures what I’ve learned and where I stand.

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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 the authors of the letter, 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 is so troublesome for me.

Anyone who knows me knows that I care deeply about words and how they are used. They also know I care about the intentions of leaders and educators, and the words “oppressive” and “dehumanizing” are strong words that seem, at first, to not leave much room for good intent. When spoken out loud or even written, these words feel like a judgment of character. They often serve to make people defensive and/or shut down. I struggled with signing my name to language that would make people disengage from the constructive conversation and action that can move us towards improving systems.

Through my conversations, though, I have come to understand that the authors also care deeply about words and how they are used, and they chose their words deliberately. A comment posted onto the original Oppressive Letters blog details some of this thinking so I won’t attempt to summarize. But one idea that has struck me is that, much like the words “racist” and “sexist,” the words “oppressive” and “dehumanizing” do not describe intention, only impact. A person can have the best of intentions and still behave in a way that is sexist – a reality that most of my female acquaintances have experienced at least once. Similarly, a school can have the best of intentions and can still be oppressive.

I struggle with the knowledge that avoiding these words serves to make some of us feel more comfortable while making other individuals – including the authors of the letter – feel silenced. It validates the sense that these words are “fighting words” and must only be used in the most extreme cases, rather than helping us to see and name the everyday, systemic ways in which individuals are marginalized and hurt by systemic power, privilege and behaviors. In light of where our country stands in relationship to much of the political and policy progress we thought we had made over the last 30 years, I do believe that identifying, naming and addressing these issues feels more important than ever.

There is no doubt that for some students and families the impact of school policies has been hurtful and has come at considerable cost. 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. Although I was not ready to sign an open letter that used these words because I worried about the hurtful impact of the language to many of the individuals who work in or participate in schools and systems, 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.

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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