Education Is the Foundation of Democracy

Matthew Kaufmann

The following post is the platform and acceptance speech of 2020 Kentucky Teacher of the Year, Matthew Kaufmann.

Education is the Foundation of our Democracy.  And we have a responsibility to protect, nurture, and empower that foundation.  We know education is under threat. Charter schools and private school vouchers threaten to take money out of our public schools for private gain, robbing our kids of funds for books, field-trips, and innovative school-buildings that are designed with the future in mind.  A money-making, test-taking culture too often holds our kids captive to tests designed against them: tests that make them fit into multiple choice bubbles; that don’t measure their ability to collaborate, synthesize, and create; tests that show them what they don’t know without honoring who they are and what they do know.  And educators are under attack through political rhetoric that labels us as “thugs” and “ignorant”, while the resources we need to meet the Maslow and academic needs of our students dwindles. Too often our work is misrepresented and minimized. But it doesn’t have to be.

We have more power than we have yet to show.  We all know education is the profession that creates all professions.  We know what so many of our kids and families are up against: working multiple jobs, health crises, and living in a world that can sometimes be merciless. We are tasked with helping form our most important resources: our kids.  Our communities. Our future. A lot goes into that work. We have challenges. Many of our students come to school hungry, tired, and hurt by systems they don’t understand. Many come in loved, joyous, and full of generosity. Many are conflicted, abused, and recovering.  Many are purpose driven, sheltered, and overcoming. Every problem and blessing in our communities walks through our classroom doors, and as teachers, we are on the front-lines tasked to love, know, and empower every kid in a seat. Education is the Foundation of Democracy because school is where we learn to play, work, grow, think, struggle, dialogue, compete, collaborate, fail, succeed,  and become who we are- together. It is a place where we are always on the edge of the next frontier. It is the place where we still welcome our “tired, poor, and huddled masses,” where we come together as a community and help each other become our best selves.

But the work is hard and some things need to change.  The attacks on public education have to stop. We also have to realize that wherever a kid is in their development and how their needs are being met, the school becomes responsible for meeting the human and academic needs of that student.  And we need more resources. Education must be fully funded so that we can have the mental health counselors we need to help our kids overcome their unique struggles, the professional development we need to continually evolve in our craft, and the buildings/technology we need to have the resources to empower our kids to overcome tomorrow’s challenges.  Education must be fully funded so we can have smaller (appropriate) class sizes, more immersion experiences and travel for our students, and pay our teachers higher salaries so that our profession attracts the best and brightest.

Education is the Foundation of Democracy, and we need to rethink our priorities.  We need to focus on relationships, collaboration, and work that causes the student to grow- rather than a test.  Deeper learning exhibitions need to be a norm in our schools. We need to bring back the skilled trades in our schools.  We need to partner with more local businesses and non-profits and get out in the community and do work that is meaningful and relevant to our kids and their immediate and long term worlds.  

We need to ask more courageous questions:  

What is really holding our kids back?  

How do inequities in funding hurt our students?  

What aren’t we teaching that could set our kids up for more success?  

What are the unique needs in our communities, and how can our schools fill in the gaps?  

How can we protect, nurture, and empower all of our kids- knowing that many have inherited systems of oppression while others have inherited systems of privilege.  

Educators are coalition builders, and we build coalitions that include everyone.  We are data and research driven. We believe in transparency of process and product. We know ALL need a seat at the table.  We believe holding conversations accountable to facts, reason, and compassion. We believe in people. And we must support our educational community and grow our Commonwealth from the schools out.    

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