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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

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Opinion >  Guest Opinion

Jeanne Baynes and Pui-Yan Lam: Full U.S. story must be taught to keep democracy strong

Jeanne Baynes and Pui-Yan Lam

By Jeanne Baynes and Pui-Yan Lam

Public education is a cornerstone of our democracy. It provides the necessary knowledge and critical thinking skills for the people in this country to make informed decisions and hold our government accountable. Public education can also serve as an equalizer to provide the path for social mobility and economic success regardless of one’s family background.

To build a well-informed citizenry with strong critical-thinking skills, teachers must provide a complete, honest picture of our country and our peoples. It means that students not only learn about the triumphant moments of the United States but also the ugly truths of what has happened. It means that students are exposed to the full spectrum of experiences and perspectives of the diverse peoples who make up this country rather than a selected few.

More importantly, it means that our students need to develop the ability to critically examine historical and current events and evaluate the decisions and actions of those who are responsible – including the leaders of this country.

To achieve this goal, we cannot erase the teaching and the discussions of colonialism, slavery, gender inequality, labor exploitation, homophobia and ableism in our classrooms. We cannot omit the experiences of women, BIPOC people, LGBTQ people, people with disabilities, the working class and the poor in our curriculum. We cannot avoid these topics because of the uncomfortable conversations and difficult emotions that may arise.

The most powerful, transformative education engages a range of emotions – from sadness, anger and frustration, to joy, inspiration and excitement. A classroom absent of emotions means student disengagement and apathy.

It would not be possible – or desired – for students to learn about the past and present realities of our imperfect country and our imperfect world without ever feeling angry, sad or frustrated. Through their classroom experience and professional development, teachers learn how to facilitate difficult conversations. Instead of avoiding emotions, teachers can help students process their reactions to the materials they are learning.

And, for our public education to live up to its potential as an equalizer for our community and our country, we must serve all of our students well, regardless of their socioeconomic background, race, religion, gender identity and sexual identity. It is disingenuous to frame the goal of educating all students well in our public schools as a partisan issue. It is not “pushing for a political agenda” to want our public schools to be welcoming and nurturing places where all students feel they belong.

These are not earth-shattering or radical ideas. They reflect values – such as equity, honesty, truthfulness and accountability – that most of our community members embrace. When our educators’ ability to offer a complete and truthful picture of the United States to students is being threatened, students, families and community members speak up collectively as we have seen in the Mead School District and the Central Valley School District.

It takes persistent efforts on our part to hold school leadership accountable and push for systemic changes. Local organizations, including NAACP Spokane Branch and Spokane Community Against Racism, have worked tirelessly to advocate for students so that their rights to an equitable education are upheld. We have offered know-your-educational-rights workshops. We have served on school committees and spoken up at school board meetings and other public forums. We have persuaded our school administrators to adopt a restorative and community-oriented approach to address issues with student behaviors. We have challenged school districts to reduce equity gaps in student academic performance, student disciplines and graduation rates.

None of these can be achieved by just wishing and hoping. It takes intentional, consistent efforts and well-thought-out plans from our school boards, school administrators, teachers and staff. It takes a community that values and is willing to invest in our public education. It takes engaged families and community members to share their input and support our school administrators, teachers and staff. Locally, we have seen this happening in our Spokane Public Schools where progress is being made because of the district leadership, committed teachers and staff, and communitywide engagement.

This is a time for us to remember the values of public education and renew our commitment to a quality public education for all.

Jeanne Baynes, Ed.D, is co-chair of the Spokane NAACP Education Committee. She had a distinguished decades-long career in K-12 education before going into college teaching in her retirement. Pui-Yan Lam, Ph.D., is a member of the Spokane Community Against Racism (SCAR) Steering Committee. She has been working in higher education for over 20 years. Baynes resides in Liberty Lake, and Lam resides in Spokane.

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