School Climate & Safety Opinion

Leading and Teaching, Knowing the Children Are Watching

By Jill Berkowicz & Ann Myers — August 30, 2016 5 min read
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What will it take to allow children to learn from this summer’s intense series of events: shootings, questions about race and its role in our society, the Olympics, this election cycle, floods, earthquakes, and now a refusal to stand during the national anthem by an NFL quarterback, Colin Kaepernick? It is highly unlikely that students of any age have escaped being exposed to these issues. It is likely that students will return having seen adults argue, labeling each other by calling each other names, accusing each other, making statements without factual support. They may have seen communities rise up in protest when a member of the community has been shot and killed by police officers. They may have heard conversations about racism. They may have watched as homes were washed away in Louisiana and reduced to rubble in Italy. And most recently, they may have noticed that a revered NFL player refused to stand during the National Anthem. Even the youngest of our students may have been exposed to these and especially the youngest only have pieces of information, and likely little understanding.

Good, Sound, Authentic Education
Important discussions about what the challenges are and how each teacher will address them are necessary. Especially in schools where students attend classes with more than one teacher, it is important that understanding is collective and beliefs are developed. It is also unrealistic to expect students not to return with some partial understandings about these important issues. These are all opportunities that can serve as the foundation of some good, sound, authentic education.

How To Begin
A beginning can come from any leader within the building/system. Teacher leaders, administrators, even a leader in the staff can raise the issue...and it is the positional leader that best responds by making time and space for the discussions to begin. Surely there are adults in the system who have formed opinions about all the news of the summer. But teaching our beliefs is not our goal. Here a return to the foundational components of 21st century teaching and learning. We want to offer students an environment in which they can solve real-world problems, collaborate, communicate, be creative and use critical thinking in the process, just to name a few.

So how to begin? As with most things, relationships and open and honest conversations are key, questions are central, and agreement that revealing our own opinions and bias are off limits. This is an opportunity for the adults in the system to recommit to central values about teaching and learning and where you stand in the transition from adults as purveyors of knowledge to creators of the opportunities for students to become knowledge makers.

Skipping over the ‘charged’ issues and focusing on floods and earthquakes is skipping over important and dynamic opportunities for student learning. Waiting until an athlete on one of the school teams chooses to sit during the National Anthem and responding with a suspension or a ‘good talking to’ and then possibly facing backlash from the student body or the community places educators in a position of defensiveness; not a good position for educators. Talking about these issues in advance...as these opening days of school arrive or are already here, and coming to agreement on how to move ahead with the student body is a leadership responsibility that can predict situations and have responses prepared.

Courage is Needed
Courage to open and enter these discussions is not only needed by the leader, but by the teachers as well. Examining what each individual took from the summer of news, or what each individual experienced begins the process. Knowing what we believe and owning it helps to uncover potential unintended teaching of personal bias. This does offer another reason for shifting to a different teaching and learning model. Rather than telling students what you think about Kaepernick’s sitting during the National Anthem, facilitate a learning opportunity. Allow them to uncover all the possible meanings of sitting during the anthem, how that is taken as offensive to some, the meaning of the anthem, the sides being taken about time and place to protest, when and where, and to uncover the potential results on their own, or in groups, or both, to research, consider, process, and present their findings and conclusions. They will learn about facts and opinions, history, ethics, values, and come to conclusions about these important things under the guidance of learning facilitators who ignite knowledge building across the building and district. These are the learning opportunities many have already committed to offering students. And many have developed curricular shifts that have made classrooms laboratories of learning.

Beyond Curriculum
We are adding another thought here. Beyond the proscribed curriculum where the work may have already begun, there is the larger world environment in which we are all living, children and adults alike. Just as the advantage schools experience once their curriculum and teaching and learning have moved into a more student centered, exploratory, investigative, critical and creative environment...there is an advantage to grabbing the real world events and using them to provoke some powerful learning under the watchful eye of teachers as architects of learning.

It all begins with the adults coming together and agreeing on how these events will be handled, communicated about, offered in learning opportunities, and shared. If we are to be committed to changing the way teaching and learning takes place to better fit the century we are all living in, this fall offers a new opportunity for a shift in practice. We cannot afford to miss it. Think of this from Theodore R. and Nancy F. Sizer:

Our main fear should be that we will fail to provide the education necessary to create citizens who are in the habit of...using and trusting their minds (p. 112).

Sizer, T.R. & Sizer N.F. (1999). The Students Are Watching. Boston: Beacon Press

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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.