School Climate & Safety Opinion

A Look Into Anger: What Will Students Need?

By Jill Berkowicz & Ann Myers — July 10, 2016 7 min read
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What a week we have had. The issue of race in America has been in the forefront, in graphic images, stunning in their content and implications. Fear, hate, guns, and killings became an inescapable part of America’s summer of 2016. In the days following the fatal shooting of two black men, Alton Sterling and Philando Castile, by police, the news media ran the onsite cell phone videos. Suddenly, we were all present in the convenience store parking lot and in the car stopped on the roadside outside Minneapolis. We saw police encounters that we all too familiar to some of us and a total shock to others of us. We are left with deep and troubling questions about race in America and about justice, itself. Then, violence brought violence and police in Dallas became the victims. So far as we can tell, none of these seven lives should have been taken.

Mayor Mike Rawlings of Dallas, who is white, spoke with eloquence, honesty, and concern about race. At Friday’s noontime prayer service, he owned the “rhetoric and action” of his (our) generation of leaders who have let this race issue ferment, contributing to it in our words of divisiveness.

People are angry. And, how does anger spill over? It roils about simmering until it cannot be contained. Sometimes, it ignites a man and he becomes a killer. Think of the young man in Dallas. Anger, hate and guns are a dangerous combination. Were mental health issues at play? Perhaps. Is access to automatic weapons a factor? Perhaps. But, as observers of the week’s news, as listeners to those who lost family and loved ones, as those who feel an obligation to build a better nation for the next generation, we cannot but feel the pain across and within our nation. Legitimate outrage is everywhere....and profound sorrow. Once we take the time required to grieve, we must lead with constructive action.

Leaders will never solve complex social, environmental, economic and political problems until each of us can sit for a few uncomfortable moments in the lives and in the pain of others. Sympathy is certainly appropriate but it will not be the salve that heals. Somehow, we need those who will transcend these horrific incidents and lead us into policy and actions that arise from our common humanity.

As educators, we have a responsibility to enter this conversation. As much as some might want to avoid it, filled with minefields as the dialogue will be, the issue will come to us. This is not an isolated issue. Our students are watching. What are they thinking and what are they learning? Moreover, there was a four year old child in the back seat of the car in which Philando Castile was shot and killed. Didn’t we all hear her say “It’s OK. I’m right here with you.” to her sobbing mother? That little girl and so many others also witnesses to violence we wish we could protect them from will come to school. The scars, however well healed, come too.

Three years ago, we published a reflection Through The Eyes Of An Emerging Black Leader. It was guest written by a young black educator who was reeling after the Travon Martin shooting. He writes not only in response to the shooting, but to the reaction of his white classmates in a graduate class he was taking at that time. Three years have passed, yet little has changed. We ask that you read what our young educator felt three years ago, and reflect upon each young white and black student in your schools. What do they know, feel, believe and fear? What do they need from the educators in the schools they attend? Surely, after this summer, no one can say ‘nothing’.

Every now and then it is good to remember that, however informed and intelligent one might be, one has a limited view of the world. It is why we argue for diversity on leadership teams. We wrote previously about Trayvon Martin and the Zimmerman verdict. But, in keeping with our commitment to see leadership from 360 degrees, we invited an emerging black leader to share his reaction to the verdict with us.

He was willing to do so but only anonymously. Perhaps that says it all. We wanted honesty from him and so we agreed. His perception is that there would be career repercussions if he spoke as a black man, rather than as an educator. In truth, he is both. We will lead schools and districts more ably only if we invite him, and every other person who feels the need to hold back truth from us, to speak from his being, into our conversations and decision making. We hope his fear is unfounded but we cannot dismiss it. One day, if we lead from a place of humanity that values our differences, he will know the world has changed. Until then, we will not impose our view of the world on him. We honor him and thank him for trusting us. His words follow in italics.

I have been an educator for eleven years and have spent most of my career working with students from a diverse community, a community that embraces and respects the diversity of the students within its district. As a black man and an uncle to a black male, I was beyond upset to hear the results of the Trayvon Martin case. This could have happened to me, my nephew or any one of my male family members or friends. As an educator, I thought that this could have happened to one my students and worried about how they felt upon hearing the verdict. I also worried about how other students within my district would feel and wondered what my district planned to do in order to address the matter. 

Two days after the verdict, I sat in a room full of other aspiring leaders and was shocked by the lack of empathy and interest in the discussion of this case. These educators will serve in some leadership capacity in a variety of school districts, yet most felt that the verdict would not affect “their” students. One person even indicated his district had a small percentage of black students, and that this trial would have no impact at all.

We wonder what will be taught to those students in primarily white districts. Don’t we have an obligation to prepare them to live and work in a world that is less and less white?

In many leadership classes, we have been taught that one underachieving student is one too many. Prior to our discussion of the case, I believed the educators in the room felt the same way I did- that each student mattered. I am no longer disillusioned to believe this is true. I hope that professionalism and dedication to educating and caring for students of all races and ethnicities will supersede personal opinions about the wrong or right of both Trayvon Martin and George Zimmerman.

As I sat in that room full of my colleagues, I wondered what would have been said or argued had I not been in the room. I was the only person of color. While I respect my colleagues’ right to their opinions, I wonder how they will help students cope with the myriad of issues facing them. I don’t expect anyone to understand what it is like to be a black male living in America; however I do expect educators to be able to show compassion for and sympathize with the experiences faced by students who look different and live different experiences.

I realized that my disappointment was not solely with my peers. I also was disappointed in myself for not speaking up. In the small world of education, you meet the same people in different places over and over again. Thus, it is not inconceivable that one of my fellow classmates may be sitting on an interview committee for a job where I am a candidate one day. The last thing I want to be remembered as, is the angry black man. I should have taken the opportunity to explain my point of view, but thought about my career before my conscience. I guess that I too am guilty of seeing the matter from my own perspective and not thinking first and foremost about the students.

This young man ends with an insight about himself. He teaches us two lessons. First, let us who are leaders, privileged and mostly white, remember we haven’t walked in the shoes of others. Doing so for a mile or two may change our lives and our perceptions. Until then, let’s make sure everyone is heard in the conversation and those with much to lose are not overlooked if they are silent. Secondly, let us learn from the maturity of his last understanding. There are many among us who put “thought of career above conscience” in our daily decision making. We silence those inner voices that make us uncomfortable with our choices. In so doing, we fall prey to our lesser selves. Eventually, we forget those inner voices which tried to guide us to higher ground and we become chameleonic leaders that neither serve nor lead. There are examples of these in all fields. This young man reminds us how early the first choices are made and how small the first situations are that pave a path for a lifetime. He was courageous enough to write to us. We have admiration and hope for him and for the future into which his voice will be raised (Leadership360. 8/4/13)

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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.