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Wanted: Lemon Meringue.

On several occasions as a pre-service teacher, I was asked to define and reflect upon my ideal/comprehensive approach to classroom management. Reflecting on my goals for students – for them to be joyful, open-minded as well as strong and powerful – and my goals for my own teaching persona, I eventually settled on a food metaphor: lemon meringue.

The key to perfect lemon meringue is finding the right balance between sweet and tart. In the classroom, sweet often looked like cozy reading/thinking spaces filled with hand-sewn pillows, engaging activities driven by students’ interests, and a broad-smiled teacher who was always willing to give a hug or an ear to a student in need of either.

Tart, on the other hand, looked like an insistence on diligent work, consistent enforcement of our (jointly-defined) classroom rules, and an occasionally stern-voiced teacher who could flash her mama’s best “I know you know better than that!” look when needed.

The kids, though they wouldn’t call it that, eventually evolved a similar approach. For instance, “Don’t Hate, Collaborate” was appropriate in cases of simple disagreement. But they would nottolerate bullying.

We didn’t always nail it perfectly. But on balance, we were all headed in the right direction.

Transitioning from education to education politics, and more deeply into the world of politics in general, I think about this pretty often. As a writer and an advocate in a high-stakes environment, I fully agree that it’s not just OK, but necessary to be forceful in defense of important goals. When we’re talking about the future of public education, or our (steadily less) free society, we absolutely need to call out – and eventually push out – liars and bullies who use their access and clout to push unjust or ineffective agendas. Pointed dialogue? Satire? BRING IT. I believe in using evidence, experience and wit to tear down bad or false ideas with prejudice, and if necessary, to isolate those who consistently push them.

But in order to actually get things done, we also need to learn to distinguish the difference between an opponent (someone with whom we have an honest disagreement) and an enemy (someone who actually wishes us harm). Honest disagreement is healthy; it’s how we guard against going too far in one given direction. But it’s not OK to deliberately deceive or intimidate people to prevent them from having an honest and open discussion.

(For example, it’s good to have a reality-based, reasoned, even incisive debate about balancing the rights of individuals vs. the State when talking about adding government programs. It’s bad to spread lies about death panels in order to poison that debate. Discussing different ways to improve teacher quality? Good. Using your power to humiliate people, or spread misinformation about due process and teacher evaluation methods? Bad.)

It’s also not OK to just be ornery for being ornery’s sake. There’s a fine line between intelligent critique/satire and just plain old being mean, which we don’t always toe successfully when dealing with hot-button issues (I’ll cop to this one, too). I get especially tired of seeing people I like, who should be allies, savagely eating some of our own because they disagree on tactics or strategy. As even my fifth-graders understood, it’s possible to disagree/be a critical friend without being a jerk. In-fighting, and being mean without proving a point, only helps your enemy.

Sigh. I wish more grown-ups would ask themselves before tweeting, speaking, or writing: Am I dealing with a friend, an opponent, or an enemy? Or, going back to the pie metaphor: Is this too tart – even sour – or just right?

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Sabrina Joy Stevens

Sabrina Joy Stevens is a teacher, writer, and activist who has worked with students in struggling communities in Philadelphia and Denver. She recently helped to o...