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The Conversation About Reopening Schools Ignores Educator’s Dignity

By Cultures Of Dignity | July 30, 2020

Image: Ina Fassbender/AFP via Getty Images

The Conversation About Reopening Schools Ignores Educator’s Dignity

Why is the conversation around reopening schools so contentious for educators? The answer is simple: their dignity is being violated.


We talk a lot about dignity  and are often inspired by our colleague Donna Hicks who breaks down dignity into 10 Essential Elements. The elements help us understand what people need in order to feel their dignity is being honored. One of the most crucial elements is safety, which Dr. Hicks defines as putting people at ease at two levels: physically, so they feel safe from bodily harm, and psychologically, so they feel safe from being humiliated and can speak without fear of retribution.

The current conversation around reopening schools denies educators this definition of safety. Educators have long abided by the realities of working in a school system: often inadequate pay, being evaluated by  students’ test scores that don’t reflect the reality of educating, and demands to be an ever expanding role of caregiver, counselor, and mental health provider. All the while exposing themselves to the regular health risks like getting colds or the flu and managing the anxiety of shooter drills and threats.

Meanwhile, educators are at the mercy of politicians giving lip service to how important their jobs are while at the same telling them they have to go back to school and not consulting them first. If educators voice their concerns, they are shamed for being selfish, for not caring about their students, or are simply being told to get over it. Teachers are so concerned about their safety they are making wills as part of their back to school plan. The impact of the current conversation around reopening sends the message that our educators safety, and their dignity, is unimportant. This is a cycle most educators fight their entire careers: being told what is best for them while being denied the opportunity to share their expertise, and then absorbing the shrapnel from those decisions. 

Many educators miss their students and desperately want to see them in their classes. And many parents and children want to go back to school. There are real costs for children staying at home to their physical and emotional health and education. However, ignoring educators’ dignity will continue the contentious relationship between those who educate children and those who make decisions about education.

So, how do we shift the conversation to grapple with tough decisions while also acknowledging dignity? 

Use the list of the Elements of Dignity to guide our actions.

  • Take a look at the list of the Elements of Dignity and think through how your school’s reopening, the national conversation surrounding it, and people in positions of power may deny educators each element of dignity. Carry that information with you when emailing school officials, critiquing educators, reading articles about reopening, or talking with others. 
  • Acknowledge the complexity and understand the confusion this situation generates for everyone involved in school: parents, administrators, teachers, and of course students.
  • If you are a parent, use the Elements of Dignity to base your thoughts and approach to what your family will do when school begins. Use the elements to prepare how you communicate with your school officials and other parents. Think about the educators’ dignity and express ways to uphold their safety while being able to do their job effectively.
  •  Use the elements to frame the conversation with your family members and ask them to reflect on what elements they aren’t receiving.

Dignity asks you to navigate the world, and your relationships, with the guiding principle that we all matter the same amount, no matter what. This ask does not stop when conversations get complicated and decision making gets hard.

If we force this conversation about reopening schools, without acknowledging the role dignity plays in our relationships, then we are asking for educators to quit, for top performers to be hired away, for teacher strikes, and for continued dismissal of recognizing the inherent worth and value of educators.

This originally appeared in our newsletter Communiquette

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