How forgiveness and self-empowerment can rebuild trust in education
My Uncle Mac lived on the plains of Saskatchewan, Canada, and had beautiful beds of petunias that encircled his farmhouse. At five years old, I was enamored by the varying shades of these violet flowers. My dad instructed me not to step into the flower beds, but like many five-year-olds, I thought I was sly. When it seemed like no one was looking, I stepped in the bed and accidentally crushed one of the purple petunias.
My dad, no doubt feeling terrible himself, told me to apologize to Uncle Mac. I did so with my knees quaking and my voice shaking. I knew I had done something wrong, and had no idea how my uncle would react. Would he be angry? Would he yell? Would he never speak to me again?
To my surprise, Uncle Mac did none of those things. Plucking a small purple flower from behind the porch, he sat me on his knee and gently placed it behind my ear. Through this small gesture, Uncle Mac gave me something I was yearning for—the reassurance that, although I was imperfect, I was still a part of the family.
Whether it is in interactions with neighbors or people in our communities, schools, and institutions, I believe everyone yearns for this gift of human dignity. Yet, particularly in our educational communities, it seems that we are less and less willing to give each other room to be wrong and to grow from our mistakes. Part of the wonder of our education system is the celebration of and interaction with diverse perspectives. In education, no one human perspective is more valid than another. The perspective of a teacher is no more valid than that of a parent, nor is the perspective of an administrator more valid than that of a board member. This is distinct from a perspective being correct, however. Perspectives may be flawed, incomplete, or totally wrong, but they are still ways that people see the world, and they must be acknowledged before they can be corrected. In order to live up to this value, the concerns of all people should be taken seriously and addressed in a way that benefits them individually and also the community as a whole.
With good reason, many parents feel understandably frustrated with the lack of curricular transparency in schools. At the same time, many teachers feel like they have been unwittingly caught in a culture war that has stripped them of their expertise. The perspectives of parents and teachers alike each contain their own validity, and are backed up by personal experiences that should not be disregarded as quickly or cavalierly as they currently are. Despite the common desire to educate children, these differing perspectives result in conflict and finger-pointing, instead of productive conversation. No one feels seen or heard by others. No one seems willing or able to listen, understand, or forgive.
What can be done to fix this?
The "easy" answer might be, "We all need to have an opportunity to air our grievances and tell each other how we feel." That is an important part of the solution, but it’s only useful to a certain extent. Giving ourselves and others the space for an authentic conversation is helpful if—and this is a big "if"—it is grounded in self-talk that is constructive rather than destructive; unifying rather than divisive. If we contextualize ourselves in a way that is negative or antagonistic, we will inevitably fall into this pattern when engaging with others. This kind of self-talk is what professor and rhetorician Erec Smith discusses when he writes about "intrapersonal empowerment." According to Smith, the intrapersonal serves as both a key to the door of empowerment, and the ability to walk through that door. To put it simply, the ways we regard ourselves internally affects the ways we interact with the world around us. This is important to think about, especially when there is declining trust within a community over difficult issues.
I believe that this kind of negative self-talk is one of the main reasons teachers, parents, and other educational stakeholders are locked into a holding pattern. It is too easy to vilify someone with a different perspective and think of them as the “enemy,” instead of just another human with a different way of thinking. The answer to successfully navigating the difficult relationships between educators, parents, and administrators lies first and foremost in the stories we tell ourselves. How can people who are invested in the education of children work towards challenging disempowering internal stories? How can we speak to ourselves in ways that help us widen the circle of humanity for everyone, instead of restricting ourselves to the fears and frustrations of our individual stories?
I can imagine a situation where a parent might call me to ask why a certain book is being read in my classroom. Before talking with this parent, there are a few ways I could talk to myself. First, I could be afraid of the parent’s reaction and think, "I bet this parent thinks I'm 'grooming' children and wants to tell me what a horrible person I am. I really don’t want to take this call today." Or, I might speak to myself out of indignation and frustration, saying, "I can't believe I have to spend time explaining the reasons I have for including this book in my classroom library. Why doesn't this parent trust my expertise?" Using Smith’s idea of intrapersonal empowerment, however, I could speak to myself more constructively by thinking, "I can see that this parent has real concerns about this. I don't know if we will see eye to eye, but I am open to finding a path forward that works for both of us."
I think telling constructive internal stories begins with the very thing my Uncle Mac taught me: the forgiveness of ourselves and of others. By giving me the purple petunia—the same flower that I unwittingly crushed when I stepped into his flower bed—Uncle Mac wasn't condoning my actions or saying it was okay that I had disobeyed my father. He was choosing to move on and use forgiveness as his vehicle for resolving the situation and creating change within me. Thanks to him, instead of lasting anger or shame, the only evidence that remains of this mishap for me is a picture of my five-year-old self with the purple flower tucked behind my ear—and the lesson that I learned about listening to my dad.
In the same way, practicing forgiveness is essential for educators, families, and community members if we want to strengthen the trust in our communities. When some members of the educational community feel hurt or misunderstood, we should attempt to find common ground and recognize everyone’s capacity for change. Only then will we be able to move forward together. Mistrust doesn't have to be the story we tell ourselves, nor does it have to be the story that continues to tear down partnerships between educators, parents, and community members. By remembering our own humanity, we can remember the humanity of others. By seeking to understand first ourselves and then one another, we can also begin to forgive ourselves and each other. By shifting our self-talk towards empowerment, we can create new stories that are constructive and optimistic, and allow for the possibility for constructive disagreement with others. If we just shift our perspectives, we can begin to build bridges that empower us and our children to take hold of a more hopeful future.
The opinions expressed here do not necessarily reflect those of the Foundation Against Intolerance & Racism or its employees.
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