Thoughts are Free; Actions Have a Cost

As a teacher, I am entrusted with your children, no matter who they are or what they’re like.  Every teacher has students we like and students we don’t particularly like; teachers who say otherwise are most likely not being honest with themselves.  If you believe otherwise, try teaching physics to a bunch of students who haven’t learned trigonometry yet and see if you feel differently about the kid who’s on task, asks clarifying questions and tries to work out the example problems than you do about the kid who is continually talking over you about what a friend said during English class, or the kid who shouts out, “This is stupid!  Why do we need to know this?”

I don’t pretend to like all my students the same (because the kids are smart enough to not believe it anyway), but I do promise them that I will always do my best to be aware of my feelings, and that I will continuously compensate, to make sure I treat absolutely everyone as fairly as I possibly can, no matter what my feelings might be, and no matter whether I’m having a good or bad day.  This means I have to go out of my way to bring the kid who’s talking about her friend back into the discussion, and to explain to the disruptive kid why it matters in terms of doing well in the class and why it might make a difference later in his life.  What I don’t get to do is make sarcastic or belittling remarks to the kids who are frustrating me, or who disagree with my priorities.  What I don’t get to do is treat the kids who are helpful differently from the kids who are aggravating (beyond addressing the disruptive behaviors directly).  What I don’t get to do is make it harder than it already is for the kids who aren’t like me and don’t share my values and priorities.

And so it is with our society after the election.  Supporters of Donald Trump don’t have to like people who are marginalized (Muslims, Latinos, African-Americans, LGBTs, etc.), but they don’t get to act on their biases.  Supporters of Hillary Clinton don’t have to like rural white Republicans who voted for Trump, but they don’t get to act on their biases either.  There is a dangerous trend that has been emboldened during this campaign of legitimizing discrimination and embracing hate speech and mob mentality.  These things are not and have never been acceptable.  While it has always been true that no one can tell anyone else what to think or how to feel, civilized people have to act civilly, no matter what they might be thinking or feeling.

Voltaire once said, “I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it.”  In 1984, when protesters burned an American flag during the Republican National Convention, my father (a Vietnam veteran) was understandably upset by the protest, but when I offered to make him a T-shirt that said, “I fought for your right to burn that flag!” he replied, “If you do, I’ll wear it.”

I may disagree with someone’s values down to the core, but the day I treat that person with any less respect and dignity than someone I agree with (or worse yet, act in a way that violates that person’s basic civil rights), I have abandoned one of the core ideals that has preserved our metastable American democracy for nearly two-and-one-half centuries.  The day I decide that I don’t have to believe in the disruptive kid, reach him, teach him physics with trigonometry, and do everything in my power to help him succeed in my class and in life is the day I have to stop calling myself a real teacher.  The day I decide that I’m allowed to mistreat someone because I disagree with that person’s values is the day I have to stop calling myself a real American.

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About Mr. Bigler

Physics teacher at Lynn English High School in Lynn, MA. Proud father of two daughters. Violist & morris dancer.

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6 Responses to Thoughts are Free; Actions Have a Cost

  1. Alan says:

    Nice post. I always maintain that a teacher must have favorite students because that sets the standard for how he should try to treat all of his students.

  2. Anna Barrett says:

    Nice – thoughtful as always, Jeff! Glad you went into teaching.

  3. Brian Carlson says:

    Agreed, so now how do we instill that in the groups that are violently protesting the election (not all protests are violent, but I am concerned about those that are), for those that believe in our election process until their candidate doesn’t win?

    I didn’t support Obama in either of his wins, and was upset that he won, however, I didn’t burn anything, I didn’t riot, I went to work the next day because that is what I do….in fact the only thing I destroyed on those election nights were a couple of brain cells with my beer. Colleges that are cancelling classes and delaying tests because of “distraught” students over Hillary’s loss is, IMHO, disgraceful…..but who am I, just a demonized rural white male working 2 jobs and contributing a significant amount of my earnings that will no doubt be in some percentage going to support those that are now the haters……………..

  4. Laurel Sharp says:

    Thanks for this, Jeff

  5. David Policar says:

    “I may disagree with someone’s values down to the core, but the day I treat that person with any less respect and dignity than someone I agree with (or worse yet, act in a way that violates that person’s basic civil rights), I have abandoned one of the core ideals that has preserved our metastable American democracy for nearly two-and-one-half centuries.”

    Sure.

    But also? When that disruptive kid starts attacking other kids in your classroom, you have additional responsibilities.

    Yes, by all means, approach the attacker with love and compassion and a commitment to their personal development and growth.

    But also? Protect their target, with that same love and compassion and commitment to their personal development and growth, and ALSO with a commitment to their safety.

    If you can do both of those things, that’s wonderful.

    If you can’t? Well, I know which one I think is more important, and I suspect you agree with me.

    • Mr. Bigler says:

      I think you’re confusing “treat someone with respect and dignity” with “excuse someone from the consequences of his/her actions”. One of the challenges of teaching is being able to enforce a consequence without compromising the respect and dignity of the recipient.

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