Engaging Those Who Disagree Through Love and Vocation

The board room was packed, and the tension was palpable. Scores of teachers and community members had turned out to tell the board not to sign a contract with Teach for America.

When it was my turn to speak, I was angry. I was angry and frustrated. I tried to look into the eyes of the people behind the suits who I was speaking to, but it was difficult.

There was the school board, who seemed to mostly go along with whatever the superintendent wanted. There was the superintendent, who I believed made most of her decisions based on a desire to secure a job at the state’s education department. And then there was the district’s communications director. He always wore his pristine suit wherever he went and had recently told our local NPR affiliate that the district was interested in a partnership with TFA because it was difficult to find traditionally certificated teachers for vacancies they were trying to fill. I didn’t believe him.

When I spoke to them, I must have sounded venomous. Because I did not teach in the district considering the contract, I felt free to express my anger openly. On a few occasions I raised my voice, and I came close to explicitly calling the communications director a liar.

When it was over, the crowd clapped for what I had said, and I felt a sense of pride. When the board voted unanimously to approve the contract with TFA, despite every person in the room speaking against the decision to do so, the crowd made a collective groan of frustration and anger and left the room in unison, despite that the meeting was not over. The room went from being over capacity to being nearly empty in a matter of a minute.

Jonathan Haidt, social psychologist and author of The Righteous Mind, points out that very often, when we engage in political discourse, especially when we are arguing with someone who has a different point of view, we are actually not attempting to communicate with them. What we’re actually trying to do is communicate with the people around us who agree with us.

I think that’s exactly what I was doing when I gave my mostly angry speech at that board meeting. While I thought I was trying to express the kinds of words and emotions that would help the board members and superintendent understand the error in their ways, what I was really doing was showing my solidarity with the crowd.

What must the superintendent have thought of my speech? Or the communications director? I imagine that if they’d talked about it afterward, which I doubt they did, they would have mentioned how little I understood about the workings of the district, or the need to fill vital teaching vacancies. Whether they would be right in their lamentations is besides the point. I suspect they would have felt them authentically.

It strikes me that there are two places from which those of us in public education (and really any line of work or profession) draw motivation: 1) from a sense of vocation, calling, or need to do good work in the world; and 2) from a desire for success - money, reputation, and power.

It also strikes me that in our professional lives, all of us are motivated by both of these to one degree or another. There are moments when we’re more motivated by vocation than by success and vice versa. And there are those of us who draw more deeply on a regular basis from one of the motivations than from the other.

On the other hand, I also find that I draw on two different motivators when it comes to affecting positive change in my community: 1) frustration and/or anger and 2) love.

When I spoke before that school board, I was manifesting frustration and anger. I did that because I had found a way to dehumanize my audience by imagining that they participate in the work of public education solely out of a desire for personal success. In doing so, I allowed myself to wish them ill will, and, as a result, I don’t think they heard anything I had to say.

When attacked by others, it is the rare person who is able to put their ego aside and truly listen to what is being said. More often, when we feel threat, we close our ears and look for ways to prove the speaker wrong.

This is why we must be cognizant of how we seek to affect change and how our actions actually impact those around us. If our primary goal is to rally our base, then yelling and being angry can do that. But I’ve found that the negatives tend to outweigh the positives.

After that board meeting was over, the crowd regrouped in the parking lot even more angry than before and began talking about strategies to unseat the board members on election day.

When we get to this point as a community, we’ve resigned ourselves to no longer engaging the other side. We allow ourselves to take a shortcut, like thinking about how to get rid of a board member, and avoid the harder work of engaging those who disagree with us.

Why should we seek to engage those who disagree with us? Because when we do, we allow them their humanity. In doing so, we allow ourselves our humanity. And in that act of humanization, we must remember that we should listen at least as much as we speak.

Affecting positive change through love is deeper and more challenging work. It requires discipline, patience, and resolve. But its fruits are abundant.

When we yell and scream at those who disagree with us in the battle for saving the public in public education, we lose energy and hope fast. In fact, I’d say the yelling and screaming are already a sign of desperation. This method almost entirely fails to engage the other side.

John Lewis, the US House of Representatives Member who played a prominent role in the Civil Rights Movement, talks about being trained to make eye contact with those police who would beat him for marching in the movement. The goal was to force the aggressor to confront the humanity of their victim. But the same is true for those of us under attack. A true act of love requires remembering the humanity of the aggressor.

We who defend public education believe it has the potential to be an incubator for a strong civil society that does not go to war for profit, destroy the natural environment, or set material wealth as the determining factor of a person’s value. When we confront the forces who believe in high-stakes testing and ranking students to determine which jobs or colleges they should matriculate into, we must do so with love as our intention.

This does not mean that we should be less urgent or demanding in our actions. But it does mean that our tone should be different.

Had I addressed the school board that day with the intention of love and humanization, I would not have raised my voice, felt an increase in my stress level, or found it difficult to make eye contact with my audience. I would have spoken more smoothly, with more confidence, less stress, and more intelligence. My remarks would have been more difficult to write off as those of an angry, ignorant teacher.

Rather, I would have forced them to come face to face with the humanity of both myself and my students. A part of them, no matter how deeply it might be buried, that is motivated by a desire to live out their vocation and their humanity would have been touched. Were I to see one of them again, at perhaps the grocery store, it would have been far less awkward to start a conversation. And I, holding the confidence that I’d spoken my truth in a way that acknowledged both my own and their humanity, would have found it far easier to engage them in meaningful dialogue.

We should not imagine that any of us have the right to make our system of public education in our own image. But rather acknowledge that a meaningful way of educating our children will come out of this deep dialogue in our local communities.

A pre-requisite of this dialogue, however, must be that we engage with it as educators by vocation rather than educators seeking personal success. Only then can we have a dialogue that manifests love, restores our humanity, and takes us closer to restoring the public in public education. This is part of what we fight for.


  1. Thanks so much, James. This is a wise, honest and powerful piece. I'll be sharing it with the many people I know who care about public education and civil discourse. All good wishes with the vital work you are doing -- Parker Palmer

    1. Dr. Palmer, Thanks so much for taking the time to comment! I greatly admire your work and writing.

  2. Powerful reflection and self awareness modeled here.

    Like you in this situation I tend to let my passion show, and like you I am learning that I need to pick and choose the time and place, lest it undermine the very work I want to accomplish.

  3. You've touched this old cynic, James. It's too easy to let frustration and anger control our reactions to privatization. It's too easy to feel personally attacked when teachers are blasted and blamed. Those of you who are still in the trenches (I have been retired for 4 years...now a volunteer) have got to believe that things can change or risk early burnout. By focusing on calm, rational conversation you'll extend your career and probably do more good as well.

    There's a place for cheerleading, but if we're going to change minds we'll have to approach those who may disagree, but are willing to listen, and try to convince them with reason, not rantings.

    Thanks for the lesson in patience.

    1. Thank you, Stu. And thank you for continuing to engage with the struggle even after retirement.

  4. James, I'm grateful for this wonderful articulation of the adventure of creating real change, human as well as political. Bravo.

    1. Thanks so much! I was disappointed to have missed seeing you at the Search for Meaning Book Festival.


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