The civic responsibility of teachers: a view from Russia

epishkola - kto ia?

Late last Spring, my Russian colleague Mikhail Epshtein publicly shared a letter he had originally sent to the school community of which he has been principal for over 20 years. Epishkola is a private progressive school in St. Petersburg, born in the liberalizing era of the early 1990s. It is a school that continues to evolve its philosophy and practice of progressive education – albeit in an atmosphere of increasing fear and repression. In his letter, Mikhail mourns the dismantling of a “cornerstone of civil society” in the city. TSRNO, a non-profit incubator whose beneficiaries included Mikhail’s school, was targeted by a new law that designates non-profit organizations as “foreign agents,” effectively removing them from society and shutting them down. However, Mikhail’s letter doesn’t focus on the threat to his own school and other non-profits posed by this event. Rather, it focuses on his own complicity in what happened. His interpretation outlines the civic responsibility of teachers. My translation of Mikhail’s letter follows (click here for the original Russian version); in an upcoming blog post I will discuss connections with the education context in Chicago.

ABOUT CITIZENSHIP: Reflections at the broken trough

by Mikhail Epshtein

I wrote a private letter to colleagues – teachers, graduates, parents of students at the school, in which I have been working for 20 years. But writing it, I realized that what had happened could be important beyond just this community. I decided to publish my thoughts more widely. As an opportunity for all of us to reflect… on our near future.

This is the situation, which, unfortunately, has recently become the usual: prosecutors come to a non-profit organization in order to close it, or at least drastically complicate its life. The formal reason for coming? The organization has received grants from foreign foundations. Informally, though, the reason is that the organization has dared to act independently: it comes to public authorities with new ideas as to how they can improve their activities for the benefit of their citizens.

And for our government such impertinence is offensive, so, instead of stretching out a hand of cooperation, it clamps down on troublemakers by establishing draconian laws against NGOs.

This time, prosecutors came to check on the St. Petersburg NGO Development Center (TSRNO). The specialist found that TSRNO has committed two serious offenses (in essence – criminal offenses): it receives grants of foreign funds, and engages in political activities. So, under the guise of the Center, a nest of “foreign agents” has hatched.

And so, the employees of the organization get to choose one of two things: either “with feeling, with propriety, with deliberation,” drowning in a sea of ​​bureaucratic problems, or, self-destruct immediately.

TSRNO is one of the oldest non-profit organizations of the city. It helps other nonprofit organizations to operate more efficiently; it organizes dialogue between the community and the city government and business. I believe that TSRNO today is one of the cornerstones of civil society in St. Petersburg.

Our private school is one of these non-profit organizations. We have cooperated with TSRNO for many years. And, along with other colleagues involved in this work, I have been friends with people in this organization for almost 30 years. I know their motives and am deeply aware of the importance of this organization for the city. Of course, they are not in any way “foreign agents” – in whatever sense this term is used. They are people who freely and thoughtfully try to make life in Russia better.

What exactly is the “political activity” TSRNO does? It is charged with the desire to actively cooperate with the state, preparing draft legislation, participating in the examination of laws and so on. Today, this is called “undesirable activity.”

I, like my colleagues at TSRNO, believe it is important to cooperate with foreign counterparts – for the common good. I do not see why we have to be closed off from the outside world. I have lots of friends and partners in different countries, and I know that they wish us only well. And our organization has received numerous grants from foreign organizations and we used the money to develop the school. Should we therefore be considered foreign agents?

I see what is happening in the country – again, as in the 1930s and at the turn of 1940-1950-s: mutual hatred is being sowed, people are being forced to hang labels on others, labels which will block and ultimately shut down their activities.

But why do I go on at such length and with such pathos?!

Because this story is very personal to me.

* * *

The fact is that that prosecutor, who came to TSRNO and charged it with being a “foreign agent,” happens to be a graduate of our school.

What are my feelings and thoughts about this?

First. I consider it necessary to apologize to my TSRNO colleagues and the entire nonprofit community of the city. I apologize for the fact that it was a graduate of our school who was the prosecutor taking part in this awful event.

We took part in his education for 10 years. Hence, we bear some of the blame for his choice.

Second. I feel personally guilty in this situation.

Guilty in the first place toward our graduate who is now working in the prosecutor’s office. Obviously, we were not able to make school a place that would help him understand the value of civil society. We weren’t clear enough in telling him about the persecution of the Communist regime, the atmosphere that prevailed in the country during that time, the role of the interrogators and the judiciary, and about the mechanisms that initiated and maintained the persecutions. We did not create the conditions for kids to be able to get experience in civic participation in the life of the school, city and country. In the time that he was in our school, we didn’t succeed in instilling in him a sense of the joy of freedom – his own and others, and of the need to defend this freedom.

This guy always wanted to be a lawyer. And we didn’t succeed in warning him about the moral complexities that he would inevitably face while working in the prosecutor’s office at this time.

Third. I do not think it’s right to gloss over the situation. It is necessary to talk about it and to draw conclusions.

Many believe that a particular contractor is not at fault. They submit that this decision came down from above, and the employee of the prosecutor’s office just did what his bosses told him to.

But I do not think it’s right to put this all at the feet of the system. There are always specific actors. Remember, like E. Schwartz in the play “Dragon?” “I was taught …” – “We were all taught…” -“But why did you have to be the best student, you bastard?!”

Yes, of course, we can blame Stalin and the Communist Party in general for the repression way back then, but there were also those many individual neighbors and co-workers who “knocked,” and the many specific investigators who abused people in the dungeons, and took pleasure in it.

There are always specific people who could have, in their particular situation, done something differently.

It’s convenient to hide behind the “system” in doing harm. But I think that in these cases, the country must know the faces of its “heroes.” And it is important to publicly name all those involved: including that official, who had the power to make the lives of a large number of people really hard, and the school in which he was raised.

Maybe, if this kind of public naming had been done at the time, we would not now be experiencing this apparent return to the past.

Finally, the fourth matter. We need to think seriously about what this story pushes us to change in schooling. This young man was our student for 10 years. And he was a very diligent and successful student. In terms of learning the curriculum.

But his participation in “the TSRNO story” once again shows that academic success is not enough: it is important to help students to make ethical decisions in difficult situations – for example, when it comes to a choice between conscience and career.

We need to understand – as we continue to work to the socio-political situation that is emerging now in this country. The difficulty is that we are in a very contradictory situation.

We in the school can not (in fact – we aren’t allowed) to actively and thoroughly acquaint children with the current political situation; we can not articulate our point of view on what is happening. If we do, we pull children into political debate, and they and their parents may have different ideas about what is happening. Plus, there isn’t enough time for anything but physics-mathematics-geography …

But teaching the values of freedom must be more central in the educational program of the school. We must not fail to warn children about the time in which we live today, what difficulties they will face. They did not live in the Soviet Union, but we did, and we have experience.

Otherwise, I fear, very soon we too will find ourselves “foreign agents,” and our graduates will come to designate the school as unreliable and close it.

So I ask: Is it worth ten years of diligently providing children with an arsenal of intellectual tools, only then to see them put to use as prosecutors who destroy what is civically and humanly precious to us?

Social Responsibility in Russian and American Education OR: who saved the world?



When my Russian friend Vera visited schools in the States last fall, one experience shocked her so much that it dominated her subsequent conversations about education in America.  In a high school history class, she asked students what they knew about World War II.  In their telling, all was lost until the Americans swooped in and won the war.

Vera was appalled.  She had grown up in a culture where the sacrifices made by the defenders of Leningrad against the Nazi invaders were held up and internalized at the very deepest levels: their courage had not only saved the city and the country, but the world.  School and family alike taught students to revere this heritage of collective sacrifice.

She couldn’t believe that American students didn’t know about this.  As she stood wondering, the American history teacher pointed out to his students the difference between the numbers of American deaths – certainly significant enough – and the unfathomable number of Russian deaths in World War II.  The students were astonished at the difference between the story they had thought to be true and what they learned from this re-focus.

I heard Vera’s story with chagrin, and when she talked about it in Russian schools, I worried about the impact it had on people there – would they hate us for our disregard of their part in a war that united our countries? I felt responsible for the ignorance of my fellow Americans.

Vera had no such concerns.  As she and I toured Russian schools, teachers and administrators emphasized the importance of basing ethical, social, and civic education in reverence for the history of the Russian citizens and veterans who defended the country in the Great Patriotic War.  Vera was interested in poking at their belief in the all-importance of this history, so she frequently told her story of the American history class, to stir up a little cognitive dissonance.  

I am drawn to the difference in the narratives represented here – not as a matter of historical accuracy, but as a question of social responsibility. The Russian students and American students in Vera’s story each believe their country saved the world, and the act that they see as saving the world illuminates what they see social responsibility to mean.

The Russian heroes of the Great Patriotic War, the soldiers and the citizens who withstood the 872 day Nazi blockade of Leningrad at the cost of their lives, were defending their land.  We can see a corresponding emphasis in Russians’ views on history and civic duty that is protective, focused on safeguarding the past and caring for the present.  

 In the American students’ narrative, the U.S. flies in from beyond, and saves the day. The civic mythology that corresponds to the American heroism of WWII is one of quick and dramatic rescue.  The Americans are the liberators, and our story of social responsibility is one of liberation: freedom from the oppression of the past and release into a bright new future.  

I think this narrative of social responsibility is one that limits and confuses — rather than clarifying and expanding — people’s relationship with the world beyond themselves.  I was impatient with the fixation on the past that I got from Russian views of civic education, but I also am disturbed by the disregard for context that I see in some American views of civic education.  My hope, and I think Vera’s too, is that through cross-cultural dialogue on social responsibility, both Russians and Americans can gain self-awareness that is liberating, sustaining, and renewing.


Doing Time in Schools

In a recent op-ed, Henry Giroux criticizes the message communicated to and about students in returning them to classes after Hurricane Sandy: they are doing time, and the focus is on the numbers  as usual: counting days of attendance and test score data, not engaging in education about what most matters, like the disaster and its impacts and on social and educational conditions that are shaping students’ lives.  What are students returning to?  Schools in the vice-grip of tests.

Caught up in a market-driven notion of pedagogy that emphasizes testing, competition, and enshrines a kind of pathological individualism, public schools are being emptied of public values … that allows students to think about what it means to be critical citizens and civic agents willing to help others.  [High stakes evaluation of students and teachers is] basically a full-fledged attack on schools as places where students learn the knowledge, skills and values that enable them to be reflective about themselves, their relations to others, the history that informs who they are and their relationship to others and the world. 

Policy-makers’ fixation with test scores is a failure of intelligence and imagination that is unworthy of this country.  High-stakes testing is imposed and used as a sloppy expedient, because so many school communities have been too destabilized to allow for meaningful measurement of learning and growth.  People within schools, communities, and families know that learning and growing are long-term matters, requiring sophisticated modes of assessment.   Evaluating students and teachers by numbers only, over short periods of time, is educationally unsound.

Now, as the students at the private school I teach at are in the midst of their college application process, I’m thinking about the measures that accompany their learning.  In particular, I’m thinking of a core piece of the college application, the “All-school recommendation” that faculty and staff collectively create for each student.  The “All-school” is a three-page letter that tells the story of the student as a learner — and as a human being.   Not only does the letter highlight students’ strengths and offer context for their weaknesses, it follows them over the course of all their years in the high school. It is written by teachers who have known the student and who articulate their respect for his or her work.  And though our students are still stressed out about the college application process, they know that they will all have the opportunity to go to college.  In part this is because the measures that shape their lives are connected to who they are, and express abiding belief in who they will be.

At our school, assessment measures are continuous with the rest of students’ education.  They are created by educators, who know what knowledge and capacities are needed in the world, and who have had the freedom to prepare students accordingly.  This relationship of mutual trust and respect  is a solid foundation for learning, and for building a life; it should not be available only to privileged students.

The continuity and integration that are at the heart of quality education are incompatible with the evaluation measures that are threatening learning in the public schools.  If the measurements can’t support learning, they should be held back until they can demonstrate success.

strike lessons

“If we can’t teach history, we’ll make history!”

–the sign of a striking teacher

I have been asking teachers on the picket line how they addressed the strike with their students in the days before it started.  A teacher this morning said that the administration had told them that they could teach students about labor history and the concept of strikes, but they couldn’t mention the current strike.  This is a good example of the mandated disconnect that puts real learning out of reach in many schools.  When we don’t teach the strike, we’re telling students that learning is supposed to be about other people and other times, not about engaging intelligently with the matter of our lives here and now.  Your current reality, we tell the students, doesn’t count, doesn’t figure in to what you know, what you can do, what you learn.

I’m sure a lot of teachers are wondering how they’ll teach about the strike when they go back to school.  I know hundreds of teachers who incorporate civic learning into their English, Arts, Language, Math, Science, and Social Studies classes.   They know that first and foremost students aren’t learning how to parse a sentence or write an equation; first and foremost students are learning how to make sense of their world.   Students are learning to look closely, to ask questions, to listen to one another and to speak clearly.  Teachers want students to understand the social conditions and historical forces that impact their lives – and to develop creative, healthy, and wise ways of shaping the future.   The key text is the student’s own life, and her relation to the larger community.  Any day in any neighborhood in Chicago offers plenty of material for civic learning.  But a civic learning approach to the strike yields especially potent implications for education for democracy.

I’m particularly interested in what the teachers are modeling for their students by striking.  They are stepping outside of the school; they are joining together and supporting one another; they are taking risks; they are analyzing and sharing that analysis in compelling and creative ways.  They are striking for and with the students.  They are each giving voice to the hundreds of students they work with.

The teachers on the picket lines are also addressing questions that are central to students’ lives:

How do you respond when you’re being threatened?  Teachers are modeling civic power: they have talked, argued, thought, decided, and are carrying out their decision.  They have sought and found power in community.  They are showing students a way of responding to threats, bullying, and disrespect that isn’t violent or fear-based.

What does it mean to work?  Strikers make it abundantly clear that work is not just about doing what’s right in front of you, keeping your head down and your nose to the grindstone.  It’s certainly not about doing what you’re told.  Working must also include putting your head up and looking around and responding to what’s going on.

How do I prepare for the future when things are uncertain?  The striking teachers have to take things one day at a time, very literally, and they manage it by keeping track of what’s going on around them, keeping in communication and collaborating. Every moment brings change, but by holding this moment in a bigger frame of the long-range vision, the teachers keep focused, strong, and brimming with the grace and humor that makes life good all around.

When classes resume, the lessons of the strike will live on.