My students and I are watching the eroding of democracy in real time

As a high school history teacher, I talk to my students about the importance of democracy. The values ​​of participation, representation, participation in public discourse, and questioning authoritarianism in all its forms are ideas that we associate daily with our lessons. We discussed, for example, the late 19th-century workers’ movement and the black freedom movement of the 1950s and 1960s.

These conversations have been particularly resonant lately. Last week, we commemorated the annual anniversary of the January 6 riots, and our suburban New Orleans school district promoted the man who marched to the Capitol that day – someone who wrote that teachers had “no value” and “no job.” ethics “- to its advice. Although he has since resigned, the fact that Jefferson Parish’s school board once placed the man in a position of power speaks volumes about the place and the moment.

Headshot of a man with a goatee in a blue shirt.

John Guzda
Courtesy photo

I clearly remember how on January 6, 2021, one of my colleagues ran into my class to tell me that “I may want to turn on the messages.” When my students worked independently, I quickly checked the reports on my computer and decided that we had to stop what we were doing and “testify about history” ourselves. Together, we watched the insurgents run down the Stairs of the Capitol.

“Mr. Guzda, that’s fascism, isn’t it?” One student asked.

Yes, I replied, adding that the whole world is watching.

“If most of those people looked like us, they’d be shot, wouldn’t they?” another asked.

I looked at my mostly black and Latin American students. “I understand and know why you’re saying that,” I said. “I guess you’re right.”

The rest of the day is blurry, but what I remember is that apart from these observations and questions, the class was very quiet. It was not full of the jokes, laughter and joyful energy that usually permeate our room. From the expressions on my students’ faces, I knew they understood the seriousness and historical nature of what had happened.

Here, my students also learned about democracy – and its fragility.

We know this very well in our community. The same school board that installed the man who attended the Trump Assembly on January 6, 2021 and then marched to the Capitol had previously taken the extraordinary measures of eliminating the general public comment period during the school board meeting. The change came immediately after Hurricane Ida, when much of the public was out of state and writhing from the impact of a devastating storm. This policy was another example of the erosion of democracy.

Jefferson Parish School Board’s anti-democratic behavior has also been felt in terms of race issues. Despite community pleas – including social science teachers who signed the district’s letters – the majority white school board did not change the names of several schools that still honor white racists, such as Senator Allen Ellender, a zealous segregator, and Alfred Bonnabel, an educational official who supported the Confederacy and owned enslaved people. In the school system, which mainly serves black and brown students, it is striking that there was not so much commission to deal with name changes. It is evident that some people in power do not understand the generational and historical traumas that many of our students and teachers face.

Is it any wonder that I see so many Louisiana teachers (and teachers across the country) leaving their jobs? Due to lack of professional courtesy. Due to the obsession with standardized testing. Due to the growing workload and low salary.

It’s not because we don’t love our students and our work. This is often due to decisions by non-contact councils, district leaders and government officials. Even as we teachers try to instill democratic values ​​in our students, they may feel that democracy is leaving us.

John Guzda is a ruthless supporter of public schools. He serves as head of the Department of Social Studies at West Jefferson High School in Jefferson Parish, Louisiana.

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