14 February 2008
8 Adar 1, 5768
Recently, a parent suggested that I consider creating an online suggestion box as a way to solicit more feedback about our school, particularly from students who might otherwise not feel comfortable sharing their opinions. He suggests, and I agree, that many students have opinions and concerns that they would be “eager to share anonymously but unwilling to announce in person,” most likely because they are “reluctant to march up to a very powerful figure in their lives and announce a criticism of what that powerful figure is doing.” This parent acknowledged the dangers of such a suggestion box becoming a place for people to vent, complain, or bad-mouth, but thought through with me ways that we could use this as a productive forum for stimulating communal conversation about important issues.
Since I value hearing diverse voices and opinions about our school – especially from students, and since I believe that feedback is critical for reflective practice and ongoing school improvement, I am compelled by the suggestion box suggestion. As an educator, however, I find myself concerned about the message we might send and the culture we might create by encouraging anonymous suggestions. After I exchanged a couple of emails with this parent, his wife added her voice to our email dialogue (modeling, I must observe, an online example of pluralism in practice: a three-way exchange of ideas and opinions about community, culture and education).
She honored her husband’s view while articulating my concern beautifully: “There is something to be said for this kind of openness (that anonymous postings creates). However, there is also something to be said for a different value – responsibility for what we say and how we say it. I am interested in teaching our children to speak up, and also to sign their names. Not to shoot off random thoughts, but to say: ‘here I stand and this is why’ . . . Tell me what you think and allow me the pleasure of answering you directly. This is the difference between a dialogue and a rant.”
This makhloket (principled debate) between two Gann parents strikes at the heart of our pluralistic educational mission and raises questions about our community and our culture. A vibrant, pluralistic discourse demands that we seek out and engage the many different voices in our community. It is our ethical and spiritual obligation to uncover the voices of those who are hesitant, sometimes fearful, to speak up; often it is these voices that most powerfully challenge our assumptions and status quo, and in doing so push us toward deeper self-understanding and growth. A suggestion box is a tool for uncovering voices that we might not otherwise hear.
Permitting anonymity, however, also permits both our students and us to avoid a genuine encounter with the other; it permits us to avoid taking responsibility for our ideas and our critiques and to avoid standing face to face with a real human being and his or her experiences. This kind of accountability – toward other people and for our own voices – is also critical to building a open, honest and respectful pluralistic community.
The suggestion box makhloket highlights the challenge of creating a community where students, teachers, parents and others bring their voices to the table, and are not dissuaded by power dynamics or fear. Schools are often filled with these power dynamics, yet they are antithetical to the kind of community we are trying to build here at Gann. I am hopeful that as we continue to build a culture of critical openness – of strong advocacy and taking responsibility for our ideas combined with genuine curiosity, empathy and deep listening – we will hear a greater range of voices with less need for anonymity. And we will be a stronger community because of this.
Have a restorative vacation and a Shabbat Shalom,
Rabbi Marc Baker