Education, Empathy, and Critical Thinking

A narrative essay and analyzation of our interview with Ms. Zaloudek on her life and opinions on democracy.

By Mason Mabry and Nolan Bryant from Berryville Arkansas Civic Journalism Camp in Arkansas

Teaching children, raising children, and building up their courage. These tasks are not for the faint of heart, yet Heather Zaloudek does all of these things and more. Heather exemplifies the characteristics of a keeper of democracy--someone who guides the community morally or physically to better society. She shows these traits, and many others, through her job as a teacher/ literacy facilitator at Berryville Highschool.

Throughout her life, she has been exposed to many different cultures and viewpoints. Growing up with her dad in the air force, she was constantly traveling, moving from place to place, and meeting new people. She feels that this has had a large effect on her character and personal growth, and that the travel helped her empathize with people on different levels than most American’s can. While her global travel taught her about the world outside the United States, she thought the biggest culture shock was coming back to America. When asked about culture shock, Heather said, “I think [it’s] more of a reverse culture shock when you come back to The States.” Heather’s point is a conclusion common among people traveling and experiencing different cultures. For example, Andrea Bruce, a National Geographic journalist, spoke on her very similar experiences with reverse culture shock when seeing what freedoms American’s take for granted. Generally, the problem is, people don't think about democracy until they start to be denied democracy.

Speaking on this point, when asked about if she thought her students in Berryville understood democracy, she said, “I think because Berryville is [very] high [in] minority and a lot of them are here illegally, I think a lot of those [kids] have thought about it.” Here she adds to her idea that a lot of these students who are undocumented immigrants are being disenfranchised, which encourages them to become politically active and at the same time ask themselves what democracy is. They are a part of a group of people being denied democratic rights, which forces them to think critically about what they want in a democracy. Thinking about democracy is something she believes a lot of people, especially lower socio-economic level white students, fail to do, saying, “But I think a lot of our kids don’t even think about it because [Democracy is] just like the air we breathe.”

Seeing this flaw in democracy, Heather pushed this idea on her students. She said, “I think just thinking critically, it’s so important.” If one thing could be learned and taken away by her students, it’s just to question our thinking. okay to be opinionated, but we should understand the impacts of feeling the way we do and why we feel that way. As Heather’s overall impact on her small community in Arkansas may seem insignificant at first, but looking through a broader scope, she is influencing kids like us to empathize with people, to understand them, and to think critically.

Personally, the impact Heather’s interview had on us is heartfelt, and something we often don’t question. Until recently, questioning democracy was something that flew under our radar because we never needed to. Heather taught us the importance of questioning the democracy we so freely breathe because some choke on the bitter fumes of helplessness. Take it from us: Live freely. Question often. Break stereotypes. Love one another.

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Our Democracy

The Our Democracy Education Project is a partnership with the National Writing Project and PhotoWings. PhotoWings' mission is to help photography to be better understood, created, utilized, seen, and saved. The project is also supported by the National Geographic Society and Catchlight, and explores the question, “What does democracy look like?” through the creation of a multimedia record of the state of local, everyday democracy today.