Educators today have a moral imperative to prepare students to face the world that exists beyond the classroom walls and to provide them with the tools to make it better. While this may always have been true, the events that have occurred in our country over the past year have made this work even more urgent. Our schools must serve as the foundation for helping to advance racial equity and social justice in this country and around the world.
I began my teaching career in New York City, around the same time the genocide in Sudan’s Darfur region entered the consciousness of human rights advocates around the world. As a result, when I taught my students about the Holocaust, we also learned about the different ways that each person can be an upstander. When we learned about student protests at Tiananmen Square in China, we saw how unarmed individuals can stand up to tanks. When I taught students about modern civil rights movements, we learned how youth can lead their elders on to the path of justice and speak truth to power.
This experience culminated in a class trip to Washington, D.C., where we attended a rally on the Mall to urge the U.S. government to take action to end the genocide. It was a life-changing experience for my students, some of whom went on to become teachers, or to pursue careers in social justice. For me, it reinforced the necessity of this type of learning.
As the superintendent of the Shaker Heights City Schools, I am honored to serve in a community that is committed to racial and social justice. Several years ago, our board of education adopted an educational equity policy, and our strategic plan centers on advancing inclusion and academic excellence while disrupting the systems and structures that have led to discrimination and marginalization. In the past year, we have established the district’s first Office of Diversity, Equity and Inclusion and launched an educational equity initiative in partnership with the Shaker Schools Foundation to ensure that these efforts will be sustained into the future.
This work is leading to changes in learning and teaching in our classrooms. For example, following the events at the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6, we dedicated instructional time across the district to a panel discussion, where Black students and staff shared their experiences and perspectives, and so that members of our school community could discuss how to confront and challenge racism in our society. More recently, after the jury in the trial of Derek Chauvin rendered its verdict, members of our high school Student Group on Race Relations and Minority Achievement Committee Scholars program spent parts of their school day facilitating conversations with peers and faculty about the significance of the trial.
Real-life lessons are not confined to today’s headlines. At our high school, students in our advanced German classes are in the process of translating the memoir of Max Reiner, a Jewish-German journalist who wrote extensively about his experiences living in Berlin from 1906 to 1938, when he escaped to Palestine. Reiner’s memoir has been part of the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum’s collection since 2015, and this spring, students in the class had the opportunity to meet with Joseph Blalock, a relative of Reiner, who has helped spearhead the effort to have his work translated.
In her inaugural poem earlier this year, National Youth Poet Laureate Amanda Gorman, reminded us that victory means “the past we step into and how we repair it.” Gorman’s poem captures how we must envision the mission and importance of our schools. While this work may sometimes be painful, and we may, at times, feel unprepared, it is the only way to enable our students to make the world a better place.
David Glasner is the superintendent of the Shaker Heights City School District.