…we should show our expectations for our students through our own actions and behaviors.

First posted in 2011, I’m sharing this one again because it still stands.


My first principal, Mr. Leroy Byars, who had been a very successful football coach, always admonished the staff at our school to “lead from the front.”  He said we should show our expectations for our students through our own actions and behaviors.

As I reflect on the life and work of Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., it strikes me how well he exemplified that admonition—and how many of us in public education do not.

One of my favorite pieces to teach to both my high school and community college students, is Dr. King’s “Letter From Birmingham Jail.” Written in 1963, while he was being held in solitary confinement in Birmingham, Alabama during the intense struggle against segregation there, the letter is his response to a published letter from eight local clergymen urging an end to the civil rights activities in the city. Specifically, the writers wanted an end to the nonviolent direct actions (demonstrations, sit-ins) led by Dr. King and the local activists. King’s letter is one of the greatest examples of persuasive writing in American history, second only to the Declaration of Independence.

In the letter, King is especially poignant in expressing his sad frustration with those “moderates” who claim to be in support of ending segregation, but refuse to speak out or support the efforts to end it. He particularly rebukes those in the Christian community who shrink from their responsibility to intercede on behalf of their Black brothers and sisters. One of his most quoted statements from that letter:

“We will have to repent in this generation not merely for the hateful words and actions of the bad people, but for the appalling silence of the good people.”

Rev. King put his beliefs into action. He never expected others to do more than he himself was willing to risk. How many of us–parents, educators, and policymakers—will have that same testimony?

How many of us will continue to pretend we can just “close our doors and teach,” while gross inequity of resources remains the norm for many U.S. teachers and their students?

How many of us will continue to allow the classrooms and schools of “other people’s children” to be reduced to test prep drill camps?

How long will we continue to force too many children to spend their school days in fear of gangs, threats, and abuse, while we allow a precious few to enjoy pleasant, even inspiring learning environments?

How long will we let ignorant or malicious voices fill the public space with distortions of teachers, teacher education, or teacher unions, hoping the hurt and the damage to the entire teaching profession will just go away?

Dr. King, and the thousands of grassroots foot soldiers in the civil rigthts movement did more than dream, and so should everyone who believes in full, free, quality public education for every child in America.


I encourage you to share one of Dr. King’s greatest speeches, “The Two America’s” given at Stanford University in 1967, with your students and peers.

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