I am a retired teacher educator whose career spanned 30 years including UCSB, UC Berkeley, and Antioch University Santa Barbara. I have recommended hundreds of teachers, many of whom have taken positions in our local school districts, including Goleta. My work required time in classrooms observing children, teachers, and school personnel. This letter is based on this foundation of experience and knowledge.
Abate states, “Telling young immature children about serious sexual topics (Code for gender non-conforming people?) and difficult racial issues (The historical narrative that includes the voices of all those who lived it?) is harming their mental health.”
My observations throughout the years lead to an entirely different understanding of what is causing the anxiety and harming our youth’s mental health. First, contrary to your assertion of anxiety caused by “serious sexual topics,” I often observed the capacity of even our youngest children to not only see the variance and diversity of their classmates, but to achieve a caring appreciation of that wonderful diversity. As the song goes, “You’ve got to be taught to hate and fear…” Children accept the world as it is, as long as they find a place in it that develops their own sense of well-being.
The children most likely to experience anxiety, and those most likely to consider suicide, are the children who don’t have that sense of safety when they come to school. Not long ago a child was murdered in Oxnard because he was gay. It is a dangerous world to navigate when you are gender non-conforming. Teachers that create environments that are safe spaces for all the children are addressing this real lived experience while they support every child to develop the emotional capacity to feel empathy. They don’t “talk about serious sexual topics,” they carefully and intentionally create spaces where all children feel they belong. Based on years of observation, this is absolutely true in Goleta and has been for years. It is clear that a safe environment for all children underpins the strongest learning communities where every child has the best chance to learn. The ethical practice of inclusion is not a liberal conspiracy. It is the moral practice of professional educators.
I do not discount the very real dangers that we, and our youth, are facing that contribute to anxiety and insecurity. Drought, wildfires, mudslides, and oil spills exacerbated by a warming planet, adults in power behaving inappropriately, compounded by the global coronavirus pandemic are actual, real causes of anxiety across all demographics. Is it hard to understand why our children are hurting? Their world is in constant crisis. What about the obscenity of school shootings? Our children practice safety drills to mitigate the actual possibility of death because automatic rifles meant for war are ubiquitous. These are genuine causes of anxiety in our youth, not paranoid fears of gender non-conformity. Do we need to blame the transgender kids, or the migrants seeking a better life?
The second issue Abate believes contributes to anxiety is “difficult racial issues.” Again, I refute the premise that young children can’t grasp that our American history is multi-textual, and it must be told with many voices. Several years ago, one kindergarten cooperating teacher lined the chairs up like a bus so that her students could act out Rosa Parks’ act of dignified revolt. Watching the experience has stayed with me, and I’m sure the children in her class also remember that lesson all these years later. Young children can understand historical contexts through multiple voices without getting anxious. Skilled teachers encourage their students to use original source material, make inferences, and assert claims based on logical interpretations of data. While it seems to make some adults anxious to consider the variance in historical perspectives, when treated as an inquiry, students come to their own understandings of historical events. Pretending our history is not deeply troubling as well as aspirational is not wise. In the end it leads to distrust of those who refused to tell the whole story, and often disillusionment with authority.
One last thought: The contemporary removal of books from school and public libraries, ostensibly to protect children from images and ideas that might make them uncomfortable has too much in common with authoritarian book bonfires. So far we aren’t burning books in the streets, only making some important historical voices more difficult to hear. Is that what a high quality education does? Reduce history to one cleaned up version, palatable to one segment of our society? Or is that a recipe for dangerous authoritarian mind control?
My wholehearted support goes to the Goleta teachers who open their classrooms to the voices of the full range of American experience while they welcome every child as a valued member of a caring learning community.