Equity & Diversity Opinion

3 Important School Leadership Lessons From Charlottesville

By Jill Berkowicz & Ann Myers — August 15, 2017 6 min read
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This weekend one of us went to see Dunkirk. The other one spent an afternoon commemorating America’s civilian soldiers and listening to the songs inspired and for those men and women over the course of our history. And so with an aroused of patriotism and an in our history, we watched the news. And, there, the backdrop to the weekend, whatever we did, was Charlottesville and violence, hate, racism, and death playing out in real time America.

Over the two days, voices calling out those dark forces rose. Many named them as the KKK, Neo-Nazis, and the alt-right. While we fought wars abroad to defend freedom and right horrific wrongs, terrorism in our nation predates any of us hearing about ISIS. Today, we heard the Attorney General speak of domestic terrorism and we must acknowledge it as a part of our historical path and our present as well. We waited, with so many others, for the POTUS to lend his moral authority to reject those who perpetrate this darkness in our land.

The values that built our country must be claimed and spoken out loud over and over again. A new school year has already begun in some parts of the country and we wonder what will be said about the weekend news. Schools cannot simply hope that this event and events like it will stay far away from our communities and outside of the walls of the school building. News enters our homes, pops up on smartphones and sends us alerts. In some families and churches and communities, there will be conversations and in others it will be ignored or avoided. Even if the students, themselves, are not consumers of this news, parents and communities are. The sense of discomfort that invades our lives as a result of these incidents also invades our schools. So, what do we do?

As the country is involved in the sorting out of the hate language and actions that took place in Charlottesville, educators can take three lessons to heart. One is to remember our purpose and to teach. Another is to focus on language and communication and the third is to pay attention to how we care for students.

Remember to Teach ... Always

Public schools have been criticized for teaching the wrong values or for teaching none. This moment calls us to assert that we have a role in teaching our history and in teaching the values that formed us as a nation and that motivate us still. We heard no news this weekend that offered nay depth of reporting to teach about the words they were using. At the end of the day, no insight was provided to understand white supremacy or Nazism. But, schools have that obligation. We cannot claim our responsibility without teaching what those ideologies are and how they have impacted our history. The roots of the KKK are in this country and that organization, its belief system and its members have are a part of our history that need to be taught. The new label “alt-right” also must become part of the lesson. Increasingly, we will need to figure out how to reconcile our two political parties with the popular labels “left” and “right”. Schools must prepare the foundation upon which citizens, as individuals, chose to stand.

And, where but public schools do we create a citizenry with an understanding of the relationship between rights and responsibilities, between democracy and despotism and why our founders created three branches of government with different but equal powers. History and democratic (small d) values are educational responsibilities. To try to avoid it is to abdicate our leadership and societal function.

Careful Language and Communication

Attention was paid to what the president said and what he didn’t say. Some will argue it was purposeful that he did not mention the groups who were in the rally (until Monday) and that it revealed his own bias or his willingness to put his political agenda above his moral one. Others think he has little grasp on how his words and actions play out in our country. In a New York Times Editorial they said:

Mr. Trump is alone in modern presidential history in his willingness to summon demons of bigotry and intolerance in service to himself. He began his political career on a lie about President Barack Obama’s citizenship and has failed to firmly condemn the words and deeds of white supremacists, neo-Nazis, Ku Klux Klan leaders and other bigots who rallied behind him. A number of these people, including David Duke, the former Klan imperial wizard, and Richard Spencer, self-styled theorist of the alt-right, were part of the amen chorus of bigots in Charlottesville.

We follow these events as two citizens who are two life-long supporters of public education. No matter the motivation for the president’s verbal response to this shameful and tragic event in Charlottesville, voices that lay claim to the values of our country are important to raise.

Good things have happened in response to this melee. Politicians from all parties have stepped up to name racism and to confront it as unacceptable. Citizens can and do disagree about race, ideas, philosophies, legislation, immigration, gender identity, health care, education, the environment, national security, and our role in the world. The wrestle among us is vital to our democracy. The power of our democracy lies in finding the common ground from which to move ahead together and leaders, historically, have needed to articulate the values on which we take a stand.

Charlottesville is providing that opportunity. Voices are rising and claiming the high ground, saying out loud what the values are for this country, inclusive, welcoming, and striving for common ground. We should hold tight to that movement and join it with invigorated energy. Perhaps this may help us rebalance how we treat one another.

The Students

When we talk about ‘every child’, often the ones who are quiet and do not raise problems remain invisible. James Alex Fields, now twenty, reportedly graduated from high school in 2015, just two years ago. Reports of his behavior in high school from one of his teachers sounded familiar. In a CNN interview one of his high school teachers described him as quiet and reserved and...

“It was quite clear he had some really extreme views and maybe a little bit of anger behind them,” Weimer said. “Feeling, what’s the word I’m looking for, oppressed or persecuted. He really bought into this white supremacist thing. He was very big into Nazism. He really had a fondness for Adolf Hitler.”

Within our schools, everywhere, there are those who are disaffected and simmering with rage. There are those who are looking for a place to belong. We need to reach them, at least to try to keep them connected to society and part of the strong fabric the country can create. But, they slip away when we look aside. Of course, mental health and other life influences can outplay our greatest efforts, but renewed effort to reach each disengaged student is worth it. It is not the sole responsibility of school systems to put a child on a right course but we surely have a role in the child’s journey and we can make a difference. Today, we are saddened that when the paths of these two young lives intersected, it was with violence and hatred and it cost an American life, not in a war overseas or even a war here at home but then, we must accept that violence isn’t limited to wars. But, school leaders must be the heroes who limit it everywhere.

Ann Myers and Jill Berkowicz are the authors of The STEM Shift (2015, Corwin) a book about leading the shift into 21st century schools. Ann and Jill welcome connecting through Twitter & Email.

Photo by Bram Janssens courtesy of 123rf

The opinions expressed in Leadership 360 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.