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MLK Day 2017 – Finding Common Ground

Superintendent Reflective Essay

January 17, 2017


William S. McKersie, Ph.D.

Superintendent, Weston Public Schools


Each year as a superintendent, I have sent out a MLK Day message to all district staff. In a modest way, I want my colleagues to take a moment to reflect on why we enjoy a break from school to honor Dr. King’s life and work.

In thinking about this year’s message, my mind (maybe my heart) grabbed hold of J. Anthony Lukas’ 1985 book, Common Ground: A Turbulent Decade in the Lives of Three American Families. Winner of the Pulitzer Prize, the National Book Critics Circle Award and the American Book Award, Common Ground is considered a seminal work on the nexus of race, class, public policy and public education.

The following excerpt from a “Choice Review” hints as to why my mind (and heart) grabbed Common Ground.

Review by Choice Review Lukas accomplishes for urban history what Alex Haley did for black history by personalizing and chronicling the decade after the assassination of Martin Luther King. Lukas selects representatives of the three dominant ethnic groups in Boston-Yankee, black, and Irish-whose uneasy truce was shattered during this volatile decade, and weaves into their histories the lives of five prominent Boston figures representative of church, state, and citizen's groups. The urban crisis triggered by the busing issue is pivotal for Lukas. Each chapter focuses on one family or prominent citizen. Well written and carefully researched, Lukas's book succeeds in making the issues of the decade vivid and gripping. This book is an excellent introduction for students and the general public alike on how race, class, and ethnicity intersect in people's lives.-D. Campbell, Indiana University-Bloomington (Copyright American Library Association)

Several decades since Common Ground appeared, where are we in finding the basis, the standing, to connect and work together as a nation and society? Where are we in finding common ground so many decades since Dr. King called and worked for American unity and shared purpose—regardless of race, gender, ethnicity or religion? Each of you have answers to these questions.

As educators, what does the search for common ground require? What is our obligation to help our students learn how to function and lead among diverse groups? What does common ground mean if you teach the youngest or oldest of Weston students? What does it mean relative to your particular subject or specialty? Again, each of you have answers to these questions.

For my answers, let me repeat what I said at the Opening Convocation in August:

As educators, we are fundamentally in the human business. Our vocation, by choice, is to guide, nurture, develop humans to the highest reaches of their potential. Our vocation, done best, focuses on the entire human being—their mind, their thinking, their physical abilities, their creative talents, their emotions, their social capacities.

Why does it matter today to delve into the purpose and meaning of our Human Vocation? Simply put, never before has the work of educators been more essential to a civil, just and caring society.

We have a problem, a big problem. Just look at what has transpired this summer nationally and internationally, in terms of violence, intolerance, hatred, anger, divisiveness, loss of life and a degrading of public discourse and debates such that the worse of our human tendencies is given prominence. All of this lands in our laps as educators. This fall, we go into schools and classrooms situated in a larger context where demeaning and belittling language and actions, and worse, violence, have become daily events and in many forums encouraged, not discouraged. Our students are watching and listening! Our students are at risk of being exposed to only fleeting examples of the intellectual, emotional and social rigor that ensures a vibrant civil society.

In sounding this alarm, in citing this problem, I am not being partisan. I am being human. We have a human problem.

A diversity of viewpoints, backgrounds, approaches and priorities are the core of a democracy. Tough, critical minds and thinkers are required to promote and navigate this diversity. Leaders must be willing and able to debate, to be criticized, to be pushed to act ever faster in the face of constantly changing ideas, practices and situations. They must be tough, they must be critical, they must be decisive in ways that advance a civil society. However, to paraphrase Dan Rothstein of The Right Question Project, they must persist in questions and inquiry that are rooted in a desire for growth and progress, not with questions that simply tear down, destroy or put up barriers.

To borrow from a recent David Brooks’ column, our leaders must be masters in the “art of gracious leadership.” Brooks writes, “Such people have a gentle strength. They are aggressive and kind, free of sharp elbows, comfortable revealing and being unabashed by their transgressions…I’m thinking of all-time greats like Lincoln, Gandhi, Mandela and Dorothy Day, as well as closer figures ranging from Francis to Havel…to Martin Luther King.” Brooks continues, “if you treat the world as a friendly and hopeful place, as a web of relationships, you’ll look for the good news in people and not the bad…Gracious leaders create a more gracious environment by greeting the world openly and so end up maximizing their influence and effectiveness.”

Weston educators, this is why we matter. We work in schools and a district, set in a community and town, with remarkable riches—social-capital, economic capital, superb facilities, comprehensive support systems, the best of teachers and administrators. Our students arrive with uncommon resources in their lives. They are positioned to be leaders in all ways. They are positioned to be the generation that ensures we are viable as a nation democratically, economically and socially. In other words, our Weston students are the keys to a civil, just and caring society.

Every student in Weston, preschool through 12th grade, must be seen, supported, fostered, taught, challenged, coached, counseled and celebrated as a leader—as a key to a civil, just and caring nation and world.

That is my big challenge, my very serious charge, to each and every one of you. That is our Human Vocation.

Common Ground….Dr. King….2017….Weston. Let’s make the connections to ensure we are doing all we can to honor the legacy of Dr. King and our urgent need for a civil, just and caring nation and world.

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24 School Road     Weston, Connecticut 06883
Phone: 203-221-6550     Fax: 203-221-1253
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