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Civil discourse key to school success

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The daily hurtful rhetoric in our community and across our nation has the potential of producing alarming levels of anxiety among children of color.

As students enter Oregon's classrooms each day, they are doing so under a cloud of vulnerability, fear, and confusion. The daily hurtful rhetoric in our community and across our nation has the potential of producing alarming levels of anxiety among children of color and inflaming gender, racial, religious and ethnic tensions in the classroom.

This tension is tremendous and profound. All students, regardless of whether or not they are members of targeted groups, are vulnerable to this stress, and we know the impact stress can have on academics and behavior.

To counter this sense of fear and vulnerability, our public schools must be places where each student's history and culture is honored — places where school staff truly know each of their students on a deeply personal level. Our schools must be places where the unique interests, talents, and gifts of each student are cultivated. 

We must create this type of school experience if we are going to positively impact the lives and learning of each of our students. When we create these inclusive learning environments, we give our students a sense of hope and realize the promise of our public education system. 

Making this vision a reality for Oregon's students is becoming more difficult in our country and in our local communities where divisiveness has taken on a disturbing tone of hate and bigotry. Today, we are in a climate where the rules of civility and respect for different opinions have changed in dramatic ways. Some of our most vulnerable student groups lie in the crossroads. 

Matt UtterbackThe diversity of our students and families is part of the fabric that makes a strong community. They should not be afraid to be themselves in our schools. Educators have an obligation to each other, each student, and every family to ensure a sense of safety, respect, and love. Unlike tolerance, which would have us acknowledge our differences, love knows that each of us has worth and value. Love has us defend each other from hurt and harm.

When we commit to protecting each other, we must also commit to interrupting when we hear or see offensive words and acts. We must commit to creating schools that are protected from discrimination. We must commit to communicate, daily, to each student that we will protect, advocate for, and value them equally no matter their race, gender, gender identity, religion, sexual orientation, language or ethnicity.   

When we take these actions, we model for our students what we want to hear and see from them. One of the most powerful actions we can teach our students is to engage in respectful conversations. This is the foundation for civil discourse. When we allow our students to listen to one another, and when we create space for multiple and diverse perspectives on various issues, we develop competent and critical thinkers. 

Taking these actions has a cumulative effect that creates a culture of success. When we repeat these actions, it creates momentum. When we build momentum, we positively impact the trajectory for each of our students, allowing them to reach their full potential.

Matt Utterback is superintendent of the North Clackamas School District. He is the 2017 Oregon Superintendent of the Year and a 2017 finalist for National Superintendent of the Year. Email him at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..