In This Election, Vote to Build 'A City on a Hill'

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By Ariel S. Maloney

Every September, I begin my eleventh grade American literature classes by asking students to analyze excerpts from two documents. One is the Declaration of Independence, the origin of the concepts that "all men are created equal" and have the right to "life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness." The other is a 1632 speech by Reverend John Winthrop, the first governor of the Massachusetts Bay Colony. Although most people may not be aware of its name, "A Model of Christian Charity" contains a phrase that still impacts American ideology today: that we are "a city on a hill," a shining beacon of inspiration and hope to the entire world.

Over the last year, as the primary season played out and the election ramped up, I have heard these same concepts bandied about in political speeches, in the news, and on social media. It seems that while we Americans can agree that America is a great country (or needs to be "great again"), we cannot agree how to get there. We appear divided on every major policy: immigration, economics, abortion, marriage equality, race, gun control. It feels insurmountable, this chasm between sides.

But there is one way I can think of to bridge the gaps, and that is education.

Regardless of what you may have heard, schools today are about more than simply teaching rote memorization, spelling, and how to score well on standardized tests. Unfortunately, when I listen to politicians and pundits talk about the educational system, I hear lots of dismissive and degrading language. They say our schools are failing, that we teachers are greedy and lazy, and that students care more about Pokemon Go than learning.

There are a lot of things wrong with school systems, for sure, and some of that is at the school system level and some of it is merely a microcosm for other issues -- poverty, racism, homelessness, hunger -- that plague our country. But we are doing a lot of things right.

The teachers I know work tirelessly to care for our students. We teach rigorous academic skills like literacy, numeracy, critical thinking and analysis, how to read complex texts, how to use evidence to support their thinking -- the very things that an educated and informed voting populace needs to be able to do! These skills are the ones outlined in the Common Core State Standards, a political lightning rod for controversy, but an integral framework by which we teachers can ensure students across the country gain the competencies which are necessary for our children -- tomorrow's leaders -- to solve the most pressing issues of the future.

And by that token, we also teach compassion, social emotional skills, communication, understanding of other people and other cultures, empathy -- the soft skills that they will need to make the world a better and more just place. As Frederick Douglass said, "It is easier to build strong children than to repair broken men." Schools and the adults working in them care about the whole child: we know that it is not enough to teach young minds but to teach the whole person. True change takes time, and we teachers are slowly, surely, and with love and dedication trying to imbue our kids with the ability to make it happen.

As we move toward Election Day, I hope that you talk to the teachers in your community. Everyone knows at least one teacher: we are your family members, friends, neighbors, the customer behind you in line at the grocery store. Find out what matters to them, what challenges and successes are present in their schools, and which candidates at the local, state, and federal levels they believe will best support the laws and policies that will best support our kids. This needs to be more than lip service, but a true commitment of time, money, and expertise; if we continue to ignore our educational system in favor of other political issues, we are missing the primary mechanism by which we can actually effect change in the future.

Politics is not only about how to fix the problems of the past, but how to create a better tomorrow, to continue to strive to be that "city on a hill" that lives up to the idealism of our Founding Fathers. We must be mindful that it is not enough to make the world a better place for the next generation, we need to make the next generation better for the world.

Ariel Maloney is an English teacher at Cambridge Rindge and Latin School in Cambridge and a Teach Plus Teaching Policy Fellow.