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Finding Common Ground

A former K-5 public school principal turned author, presenter, and leadership coach, DeWitt provides insights and advice for education leaders. He can be found at www.petermdewitt.com. Read more from this blog.

Education Opinion

School Climate: The Issue May Be You

By Peter DeWitt — July 24, 2014 4 min read
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This blog is co-authored by Peter DeWitt and Jonathan Cohen. Jonathan is the Director of the National School Climate Center.

The other day I heard some stories about book banning in schools. Book banning in 2014. Yup, it still happens. Unfortunately, one was LGBT related. Apparently, the school district didn’t like that there was a lesbian character at the center of the story...because there must not be gay students in that school, and those students will probably never come in contact with a gay student or family.

So much for college and career ready...

Other times banning is not as obvious. It does not make the newspapers or hit the news media outlets. It’s much, much more quiet without any fanfare. School librarians, because of an unsupportive school leader, choose not to buy books because they know they will be considered “controversial” for one reason or another. It’s called self-censorship.

Who decides what is too controversial? How are these subjects too sensitive?

My first reaction would be to say to get over yourselves, but that would be insensitive. Regardless of whether school leaders or parents like it or not, there are gay students in schools and they should not made to feel as though they are less than any of the other students who go to school.

The problem with school climate may not be the students who enter the building from different backgrounds. The problem with school climate may be the very people who work in the school. When school leaders and teachers have a “If you don’t like my school go somewhere else,” attitude, they are knowingly and purposely alienating a population of students that enter their buildings or classrooms.

We should have no patience for that. It’s pathetic. School leaders and teachers need to care about each and every student who enters the building. That means the gay ones, the ones that are different races, have different economic backgrounds, and the ones who did not grow up in a healthy family like some of us did. I would go so far as to say that those students deserve an accepting and nurturing school climate, because they don’t stand the chance anywhere else.

National School Climate Center

Disrespect for diversity - be it with regard to sexual orientation, race, gender, disability ‘status’ or otherwise - is rampant. In fact, this is one of the more common school climate findings that we have discovered at the National School Climate Center: that students, parents/guardians and school personnel believe that there is a troublingly low level of respect about diversity!

As many have noted, we are all biologically programmed to be wary about “others” who are different from us. Not so long ago - from an evolutionary perspective - when we met someone who was--literally or figuratively - not from our “tribe”, they might want to eat us!

But, the other essential truth is that parents/guardians, educators and other who interact with children are always teaching them about how to recognize and manage this biologically driven wariness. It is truly tragic that so many people - consciously or in unrecognized ways -- continue to teach children that if people are different we should be afraid and/or shun them.

I agree with Peter that it is shocking -- and pathetic -- that members of our school board community would ban books because characters are gay. Reading literature brings out a better understanding, and can build acceptance instead of just...tolerance.

I would suggest that this is just one more reason why it is so essential for our educational policies and practices to explicitly, intentionally and helpfully focus on how students, parents/guardians, school personnel and even community members can and need to learn and work together to promote pro-social or “whole child” (research-based character education and social emotional learning) teaching and learning.

Today, American educational policy and practice focuses on student cognitive learning alone. Although the Common Core Standards are seemingly supposed to be a significant step forward (e.g. going way beyond reading, math and science scores and appreciating, for example, the essential importance of critical thinking) depending on which state you reside, they do not explicitly recognize and focus on the essential social, emotional, ethical and civic as well as intellectual skills, knowledge and dispositions that provide the foundation for children being able love, work and participate in democratically informed communities.

In the End

School climate is at risk because of accountability measures that focus on compliance instead of learning. Teachers are sometimes put in a position where they have to follow a script that does not offer them autonomy, and they have a harder time finding the balance between focusing on the soft skills that students need and covering required curriculum. It’s a delicate balance, and when teachers are forced to cover curriculum that they did not have any say in teaching, it makes that balance lopsided.

School climate is also at risk because we still live in a time when school districts are banning books that have main characters who may be gay, and that very population of students are entering those school buildings on a daily basis. How does banning affect them? It tells that that their school leaders do not care about them, and the simple fact is that if they are banning books because of gay characters, those school leaders do not care about that population of students.

When school leaders look around and question why their school climate may be hostile instead of inclusive, they need to look at how they lead. Unfortunately, the school leaders who need to focus on school climate the most, are completely clueless or uncaring about school climate at all.

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The opinions expressed in Peter DeWitt’s Finding Common Ground are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.