Virginia Milken Educators React to the Violence in Charlottesville

After violent protests erupted in Charlottesville last weekend, Milken Educators in Virginia were asked how they would be talking about the incidents with their students. In many districts it’s still summer break, so the difficult conversations will have to wait, but the subject remains just as important. Here’s what they’re thinking.


Wade Whitehead (VA ’00)

Fifth-grade teacher, Crystal Spring School, Roanoke

The tragic violence in Charlottesville has a complex context here in Virginia. Some southerners still refer to the Civil War as the “War of Northern Aggression.” Monuments and references to the Confederacy are found in towns and cities across our Commonwealth but are offset by increasing diversity of background and thought. Virginia’s unmistakable role in the Civil War (and, truly, in the story of our country) is baked in. Just last week, I spent time with a friend whose grandfather was once a slave in southern Virginia. Even in 2017, many of our communities are just two generations removed from the Civil War itself.

While most of the conversation during a time like this tends to take one side or the other, I contend that our most dangerous enemy is neutrality. Students—and their teachers—need to discuss and understand the difference between bystanders, who simply watch, and upstanders, who step in to solve. As I will tell my students, if you choose not to decide, you still have made a choice.

We must reinforce that words matter. Words can hurt and words can heal. We must also model, every day and in every class, what it means to think first and speak second.

While history is often credited to heroes and well-known icons, it is actually written by far more anonymous people who act on conscience and with character. Milken Educators across the country should be connecting students and their families to the Lowell Milken Center for Unsung Heroes to introduce them to people who don’t appear in any textbook but who changed the world for the better. The Center’s Unsung Heroes, including Irena SendlerKen Reinhardt and Sheyann Webb, changed the trajectory of history through words and deeds. None of them just stood around. Discovering and sharing stories of ordinary people who achieved extraordinary things—even in the face of unmistakable evil and nearly insurmountable odds—will inspire our students and communities to lock arms and keep climbing.

Educators must understand the importance of rapport and relationships during any contemplation of divisive issues like this. A few years ago, I wrote “I Will: A Pledge for Teachers,” which I make every year before the first day of school. One of its tenets is “I will remember that knowledge without kindness is both pointless and dangerous.” That’s a very important truth that all students deserve to contemplate.

As we tackle this challenge, I am sure of one thing: We have never needed incredible classroom teachers more than we do right now.

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