In recent months, the complexity of our democracy has become startlingly obvious. As is our right, Americans are speaking out, expressing conflicting opinions about potential policy changes and their ramifications. I applaud the rising voices; it is the mark of our free society that we can speak uncensored and initiate change. I am, however, disheartened by what I perceive to be a rise in incivility.
On the surface, civility seems like a weak term; we don’t often associate social change with politeness and courtesy. But in fact, civility encompasses more than manners. It is the rulebook for the respectful interactions that are necessary to draw the best of ideas from all people in a community, an organization, a classroom. Civility creates a safe environment in which the most impassioned debates can occur, leading to deeper understanding and tolerance even when disagreement lingers. Civility builds relationships, and relationships can lead us to solutions that we could never reach in isolation.
Whether subtle or overt, incivility can be a destructive force in any organization or community. As educators, we of course know its impact on children and teens. When children feel unsafe, if they feel they may fall victim to teasing or ridicule, they try to hide. They withhold their most creative thoughts, falling short of fulfilling their potential as learners. What a loss, not only for those children but for our classrooms, community, and world, when ideas are left unshared because voices have been silenced by disrespect. With Internet personalities, television celebrities, and elected officials from both parties modeling incivility, our youth have too few examples of how to behave in a way that promotes empathy, compassion, cooperation, and progress in our world.
But we are making progress. Our district’s curricula have evolved beyond traditional basics in recent years, and now include lessons aimed at developing social competence, emotional wellness, mutual respect, collaboration, and cultural proficiency — terms never used by teachers only a few decades ago. They all add up to building a constructive environment for children — a safe space in which they can share their ideas without fear. Many are flourishing, demonstrating how brightly they can shine when their world is a safe one.
I have every confidence that these busy children will become tomorrow’s leaders, creating a more just and civilized future for us all. It is a joy to watch them at work.
Benjamin H. Picard, Ed.D.
Superintendent of Schools
Sunnyvale School District