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An Open Letter to Educators

Updated: Sep 26, 2023

Dear Educator,

As summer comes to a close and you head back to the classroom, no doubt you’re feeling a mix of emotions. On one hand, a new school year after a few months of restoration and rejuvenation is like a clean sheet of paper and a brand new pack of Sharpies – for you and the kids. On the other hand...

...teaching is freaking hard!

At the root of just about every educational reform initiative, debate, or discussion is how to improve academic performance, quantify learning and measure success. Legislators and politicians who have never been responsible for the academic success of children opine at length to justify their attempts to “fix education” by banning books on the Holocaust and slavery, eliminating any space for students to deal with those messy social-emotional issues while investing in training teachers with concealed weapons to ensure “school safety.”

While talking heads drone on about standardized tests designed to ensure that all students are fairly measured to the same set of standards, you know that life isn’t fair. Kids don’t come to school with a standard “backpack” of experiences, preparation, or familial support. You know that the human brain does not operate efficiently if one is hungry, fearful, or anxious. You work hard to meet academic expectations while also remembering that you teach students not subjects; they are people not test scores.

You’ve been tasked with one of the most vital jobs in our society, and your sphere of influence exceeds the essential skills our children must be able to demonstrate for evaluative purposes. For far too many kids, school is an escape for the abuse, neglect, or poverty that they live with at home. You don’t get to choose your kids and you have no control over the baggage they may bring. You take them as they come, you meet them where they are, and work hard to ensure your classroom provides the psychological safety required to learn.

Good teachers do all of those things. Sadly, it's not enough.

Children - whose brains are still developing - are trying to figure out who they are and where they fit into a complicated and turbulent world. U.S. teens are more likely to die because of guns than car crashes, drug overdoses and cancer. Bullying and depression are common challenges at a time when acceptance from others is integral to their sense of self. Their worries about academics or making the sports team are superseded by mass shootings, spikes in suicides, and systemic racism (which is now classified a public health crisis).

We live in a time of unprecedented hate. In the FBI's most recent report (released in March 2023) hate crimes reported in the United States increased nearly 12% in 2021 over the previous year. 65% were targeted because of their race or ethnicity, 15.9% were targeted for their sexual orientation, and 14.1% were targeted because of their religion.

Specifically, antisemitism is at an all-time high. The ADL Audit of Antisemitic Incidents found, on average, 10 incidents for each day in 2022 – the highest level of antisemitic activity since ADL started keeping records in 1979 – following an upward trendline of hate and vitriol directed against the Jewish community over the last five years. The report also highlights a less-publicized element of that uptick: hate crimes begin in our schools.

Antisemitic harassment, vandalism and assault in middle and high schools increased by 49% in 2022 over 2021.

A wealth of research confirms that prejudice and discrimination are the foundation for hate-based violence. In this polarized world full of hateful rhetoric, racism, and xenophobia, our next generation has a front row seat to shifting social normswidely held expectations about what is, and is not, acceptable to say and do.

What is distinctive about such norms is that they play a key role in the dynamics of hate because prejudice and discrimination are the foundation for hate-based violence — not just for those being victimized, but for the those who witness it. Entire communities can feel the impact of victimization and experience what experts refer to as vicarious trauma symptoms resulting from witnessing others being bullied, harassed or threatened.

What students see and hear as what we deem socially acceptable — or unacceptable — has more sticking power than anything in a lesson plan.

The roots of antisemitic ideology for teens can be found in cues from celebrities like Ye (Kanye West) to antisemitic flyers left on lawns to comments in the classroom. When teachers utter phrases that undermine antisemitism as a societal evil, they perpetuate it rather than educate against it. Jokes about the Holocaust or comments that antisemitism isn’t actually an issue anymore because "Jews have all the money and control the world" don't just ostracize Jewish students. For teenagers whose identities are still being crystalized, remarks like that not only demonstrate irreverence for the 6 million Jews who perished from unimaginable atrocities, they embolden some students into the next bad act.

Teachers who are indifferent to hate in their classrooms and leaders who are indifferent to hate in their schools — unintentionally or not — teach students that hate is okay and diminish the psychological safety for everyone. Bad behavior that is not just tolerated, but normalized by the tacit approval of silence, is not okay. It is dangerous — for our students, our communities, and society at large.

“When I speak at schools and with students, many say it is ‘cool’ to say antisemitic remarks. It is the worst I’ve seen since I've been tracking school incidents in 1994. This is no longer a case of isolated events.” -Michael Abramson, chair of the North Carolina Commission on the Holocaust

Good teachers aren't enough.

Great teachers earn the respect and confidence of their colleagues, students, parents, and members of the community. They take professional standards of conduct seriously – not because it’s district policy, but because they know that, through their words and behavior, they teach kids character traits like honesty, integrity, and compassion.

Great teachers know that the skills and knowledge students need to go out and compete in the world isn’t limited to core content. They also know that if we want our kids to learn what it means to contribute to a community and treat others with respect and kindness, we need to show them what that looks like in our school communities.

Make no mistake. Like all professions – police officers, lawyers, doctors – education has its share of “bad apples,” too. From bullying and harassment to making “jokes” about cultural or religious ideologies to cheating on standardized tests and “scrubbing” scores, there are some teachers who demonstrate the antithesis of the highest ethical standards vested by the public with the trust and responsibility to help each student realize his or her potential as a worthy and effective member of society.

When the current reality is at odds with our stated expectations of those charged with building the foundation for our future, we have a collective responsibility to say, “That’s not okay. Our students deserve better.”

Our children deserve role models and protectors, teachers who have the moral conviction to stand up against hate of any kind and ensure school is a safe place for all. They also deserve grown-ups who have their backs when evidence to the contrary comes to light — a community that does not tolerate teachers who demonstrate questionable character, chip away at psychological safety and exacerbate stresses of adolescence rather than help kids navigate through them.

Just as we look for the great cops, the great doctors, and the great lawyers when one of their own bastardizes the profession, we are reminded that bad educators are the exception not the rule, and we look for the great ones. And students look for them, too. If you want to know what is great about your school, just ask your students. It won't be the "new math curriculum" or "the state-of-the-art computer lab." I'm betting you'll hear about some really great teachers who "listen and care," and who "I can go to when I'm struggling."

So as you begin this new school year, remember this. You didn’t become a teacher for the prestige and certainly not for the money. There will be days that you feel unappreciated, underpaid, and disrespected. There will be those days that your colleagues disappoint you and shame the profession. There will be those days when you want to throw that "World's Greatest Teacher" coffee mug across the room.

On those days, take a minute to remember why you chose one of the most important professions on the planet. And remember that today's students need great teachers more than ever.


The Center for Educational Improvement (CEI), in collaboration with Yale University Department of Psychiatry’s Program for Recovery and Community Health (Yale PRCH) is establishing a nationwide network of educational leaders trained in Compassionate School Practices (CSPs) through the Compassionate Schools Leadership Academy (CSLA). Building upon a four-year partnership between CEI and Yale PRCH, the CSLA will work to combat the challenges faced by students and teachers, which have been exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic, mental health crises for children, budget constraints, and changing sociopolitical landscapes, in preparing leaders to create inclusive learning environments.


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