(Following are remarks I shared with the Faculty and Staff on September 1st upon our return to school to plan for a new year.)
As I contemplate a new school year—a year like one we’ve never experienced—I am also taking stock in the world around us and the national events that dominate the news cycle, clog our social media, and unsettle even the most “chill” among us.
I want to talk with you today not about district goals, hybrid learning, your remote schedule, training or disinfectant; I want to share with you two words that have crowded my thoughts on my morning runs: Fear & Hope.
I want to let you know what’s on my mind as we confront a new and challenging school year, and these two words keep surfacing in my thoughts: Fear. Hope.
Let’s start with Fear. Why not? It’s the easiest to acknowledge. There is a lot of fear around us, impacting folks in different ways. I mean, it’s pretty scary out there:
• Videos of hurricanes in the Gulf and wildfires out West run like apocalyptic movies that we here in New England watch from afar on TV
• Record high unemployment that has impacted families, friends, and colleagues, many right here in Needham
• Political acrimony and animosity, especially at the Federal level, which nurtures conspiracy, resentment, and hate
• Violence against people of color, particularly Black men; Racial inequality & civic unrest fueled by longstanding systems of oppression and racism
• A global disease that has killed almost 900,000 people and upended the way of life for the entire planet.
There is a lot to worry about, a lot to be afraid about. A lot to fear.
Sometimes fear is created by the cowards among us; those who hide behind power to manipulate reason and provoke terror. There is rage, anger, and deceit coming from the highest offices in this land all the way to the neighbor who maligns and denigrates the newly placed “Black Lives Matter” sign in your front yard. There are those who nurture and exploit our fear; they blame the other for misfortune or economic malaise. They trade in half-truths and lies; they encourage bigotry, hate and intolerance for the other—the other person who looks, or prays, or loves differently—all in an effort to incite and instigate; all to embolden fear.
And there is another kind of fear, a fear which has its roots in a genuine and legitimate concern and worry about how, for example, we can manage this pandemic, help those who have lost loved ones or jobs, confront the ambiguities of social distancing, testing, and masking. We wonder: Will my family be safe during this health emergency? What if I get sick? How do I teach under these circumstances? Can I be successful with my students? Who can I depend on? With so many unanswered questions and concerns, it’s disconcerting, unsettling, and frightening. And fear easily and happily fills the void.
In all of this, we wonder how as a family unit, a community, or nation we can navigate through the uncertainty, the charged messages, and doubt. How do we manage the anxiety we are experiencing as parents, co-workers, and educators? What a thing, this fear is; it can limit us and weaken and destroy our ability to move forward and to heal; it can cripple and capsize our aspirations and dreams.
Fear is stoked by those lacking courage and it also exists when we feel vulnerable and at risk.
I believe the antidote to fear and fear mongering is truthfulness and honesty; empathy and understanding; valor and bravery—all of this is the essence of hope. This kind of hope dashes fear and makes room for listening, learning, leaning in, and stepping forward. On the eve of a new school year, even one as complicated and convoluted as this one, we find ourselves with fear all around us—but HOPE before us.
In this new school year, even with its uncertainties, we have a responsibility to build caring relationships with our students and support innovative learning… We have an opportunity to inspire civility, respect, and an anti-racist culture in which all children are valued and loved. We have an obligation to serve our students, empower their lives, and give hope to this world.
So what does hope look like in the Needham Public Schools in the fall of 2020?
• It looks like the work of over 300 Needham teachers who took the summer to reconsider curriculum, reinvent their instruction, and revise programs to meet the needs of all students in a new academic year;
• It looks like the implementation of a Full Day Kindergarten program based in play, exploration, and self-discovery that demonstrates the power of student choice in learning.
• It looks like the continued development of our Portrait of a Needham Graduate competencies which support equity and reinforce problem solving, collaboration, creativity, social responsibility, and student voice as key attributes of a successful grad.
• It looks like the recently completed School Facilities Study which will be presented in September and outlines a pathway to re-envision Mitchell and Pollard.
• It looks like the investment the School Committee and community made to provide increased special education supports in all areas to boost learning for our most vulnerable students.
• Hope looks like the hundreds of Needham youth who filled the streets in June to protest the brutal killing of George Floyd at the hands of police and the racial injustices that persist in a nation we love. Their chants of “Black Lives Matter” must be heard as a cry for equity and their words are also a hope-filled call to action.
• And hope looks like the planning of 20 educators who researched, designed and will lead the implementation of our very first ever K-5 Racial Literacy Curriculum which will complement and enrich a revised 4th and 5th grade social studies program that incorporates diverse perspectives and experiences.
We are incredibly fortunate as educators in this community to enter into a new season of hope, one that I believe can marginalize and vanquish fear. We have an extraordinary opportunity to tap into the natural and youthful hope of our students and bring them up! This youthful hope allows the most cynical and tired among us to endure difficult times, to persist, and to move forward even when the evidence suggests otherwise. The bubbling energy, tenacity, and courage of young people reminds us why we do this work, why we care so deeply.
Yet, this is not easy work. Battling fear with hope is challenging.
Confronting a culture of ignorance, racism, intolerance, and incivility—all tools of fear—is exhausting. Unpacking one’s own uncertainties, anxieties, and worries is equally daunting. And we have a choice. We can make a difference; we can choose to vanquish fear and unleash hope.
One of my favorite American writers is Maya Angelou, and she said this once: “Hope and fear cannot occupy space at the same time. Invite one to stay.”
This morning, in spite of the demagogues and agitators who hawk fear; despite the dangers and turmoil that exist in the world; and in consideration of the genuine uncertainties and doubts in our own lives, invite hope to stay.
You see, in many ways our work as educators is an act of defiance and love in a weary world hungry for dignity, justice, and peace.
Invite hope to stay and remember in the coming year that in each lesson you prepare, every family you assist, and each student you build a relationship with you are committing an act of hope; an act of hope in the power, possibility, and promise of each child.
There can be no bigger responsibility.
And no greater joy.
Here’s to a great year.