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Semester in review and students as change agents

Randall F. Clemens

Originally posted at

The semester is ending. Students are submitting papers. Professors are grading papers. And, hopefully, all had a great four months. As I reflect, I am thankful for a challenging and rewarding semester. I am grateful to have a career that allows me—via research, teaching, and service—to interact with an array of people and, along the way, to become a better professor and person.

And yet, as we look back, it is impossible not to think about many troubling events that have occurred, from mass shootings to blatant racism. Across the world, people are experiencing repeated acts of symbolic and physical violence. Most believe the current state of affairs needs to change. However, judging from national dialogue, there seems to be little agreement about how to do so. More locally, reading my Facebook feed has become a schizophrenic act. One person frustratingly posts about a blustery demagogue; another frequently retweets memes about the right to bear arms. There seems to be a heightened amount of political and ideological strife. More than anything, there seems to be quite a bit of prostrate frustration.

Maybe I’m naive, but I still believe in our capacity to create a better world. Two weeks ago, my students reminded me why and, perhaps, how.

In class, we discussed an article by Jeannie Oakes and Martin Lipton about school reform as a social movement. An overwhelming amount of leadership lit talks (very rosily) about the importance of consensus building and collaboration—and we read some of the work earlier in the semester. Oakes and Lipton’s point is that, if we are serious about equity, we have to acknowledge that it's not in everyone's best interests. Positive change is conflict-based. It requires leaders to adopt a grassroots mentality to bring attention to and contest racist, sexist, classist, xenophobic, and a variety of other prejudiced actions and policies that are reaffirming inequities in our schools and neighborhoods. I was blown away by how respectful, thoughtful, and passionate students were when discussing the topic. There are so many negative examples of injustice occurring across the country and world right now. It would be an easy out for students to be cynical.

Most of the students in the class are aspiring school leaders. It was our last in-person class of the semester. We've talked before about the challenges of being a principal, balancing professional and personal responsibilities. A district mandate may not always be in the best interest of students. But, if you choose to advocate for students or teachers and believe in social justice, that may also put your job in jeopardy. That's not easy for a variety of reasons, especially considering family and financial obligations.

It was such a great moment as students acknowledged that they want to and have to be the ones to ensure equitable opportunities for all students. It was such a pleasure to be a part of their conversations during the semester, to see them challenge and learn from each other. And, it's reaffirming to know they're working in our schools and for our students.

Happy holidays and cheers to a new year.