As I am sure most of you already know, students across the country recently participated in a series of student led walk-outs, a self-organized response to the lack of legislative action following horrific acts of violence most recently in Parkland, Florida. I suspect that the vast majority of educators are supportive of the walk-out, or at the very least have decided they will remain neutral and not get in the way of the protest.

However, there have been students taking to social media to share stories of faculty and staff at their school taking steps to prevent such a walkout. One particularly concerning Tweet is pictured below:

This truly shocked me. I cannot imagine behaving like this towards students in any situation, especially one in which students were choosing to exercise their rights and participate in a widespread, peaceful protest that directly relates to their lives. Indeed, it is about the very sanctity of their right to live, and to feel safe and secure in school.

That said, I don’t want to dwell too much on these negative instances. Although they certainly exist, there are undoubtedly more examples of encouraging and supportive teachers. Instead, I wanted to use this as an opportunity to reflect on what I believe to be the role of an educator, both in general as well as more specifically as it relates to civil engagement, activism and speech.

Not just an Information Dump

First off, teachers do much more than simply pass on a body of knowledge for students to memorize and regurgitate. Teachers also work to make students better thinkers and lifelong learners; content matters, without a doubt, but the content also serves as a vessel to connect with students on a much more fundamental level, and help them gain skills and practices they can utilize for the rest of their lives. This is a topic that likely deserves its own post, but suffice it to say that a good chunk of the information (names, dates, facts, etc.) that students learn will be lost. It is the experiences, ideas, strategies and skills that will stick.

When I personally look back on my favorite classes/teachers, what I learned is certainly meaningful, but even more important for me are the experiences – how I learned, the way the teacher structured the class and interacted with her/his students, and the culture and environment within which learning took place.

If I were to rank my top five favorite classes throughout elementary, middle and high school, they would include 1st grade, 5th grade, 7th grade science, 9th grade math, 10th grade english and 11th grade history. That’s quite a range. It isn’t as though my personal interest in social studies and history was the deciding factor – in fact, history only shows up once. What mattered was my interest, engagement and comfort level within each class, all of which are heavily influenced by the teacher.

Beyond Academics

But the role of a teacher goes even further still. Teachers, especially when they have managed to forged a relationship of trust and mutual respect, can serve of guides in ways that move beyond academics. That includes encouraging and fostering a sense of agency, a desire to make a difference, and the ability to go out and act on that desire. This can take many different shapes – it can be political, but it doesn’t have to be. It may be related to future employment goals, or inventing a new gadget, or pursuing artistic endeavors, or anything else. Educators should, wherever possible, enable their students to express themselves, their beliefs, and their goals.

As an aspiring history/social studies teacher, I, perhaps more than many, think often about the foundations of the United States, both literal and figurative. And in both modes, the country was founded on protest. We exist because colonists were unhappy with conditions under the King. They declared their independence, and eventually earned it. The framers of the Constitution enshrined the rights to speech and assembly in our founding document. There is perhaps nothing more central to our existence than dissent.

In my view, educators have a responsibility to respect students’ right to air their grievances in a peaceful way. We don’t have to agree with their ideas, and in such cases we may prefer to simply observe rather than participate. And of course it is a different matter if the movement in question is hateful, violent, or poses an emergent danger. But apart from that, protest and activism by students should be allowed (and ideally should be actively supported). These experiences may end up being just as important to their development as humans and citizens as the official curriculum.