School Climate & Safety Opinion

Now That The Election Is Over What Will We Teach?

By Jill Berkowicz & Ann Myers — November 17, 2016 7 min read
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The news reported students chanting, “Build the wall” in Michigan, and in California. It has now reported that students on a university campus have done the same adding graffiti including swastikas. And, the protests against Trump have spread from urban streets to high school walkouts across the country. The election may be over but the forces that were released during the campaign are certainly not.

Politicians Are Toning Down the Vitriol But...
Some of us wonder how they could have said what they did and now act like it doesn’t matter. But, to us non-politician commoners who try to say what we mean and be honest and truthful, the rhetoric can’t be washed away so easily. The ease with which the divisive and hateful words were uttered will not be the ease with which they will be forgotten. School leaders know that. Work will be required to bring the country together.

The children have been watching and learning about adult behaviors and democracy. And, this time, hateful speech, whether done for effect or a deeply held belief, has unleashed the worst even the children. Our national leaders may change their tunes on a dime or the election night’s results but the electorate will not. Leaders, we have a choice.

Classroom teachers are figuring out how to address the issues: the popular vote and the electoral college, the gap between behaviors accepted in school and those seen and heard in the campaign, winning and losing, democracy with its rights and responsibilities and unilateral rule with compliance, embracing differences or rejecting them, and fear and hope. There are so many deeply important lessons to derive from this moment. Leaders, meanwhile, struggle to protect the leadership of teachers on these issues and the students and their rights while carrying respect for parent perspectives that may be diametrically opposed. It is never as simple as saying stop the chanting. “Build the wall”, now morphing into a fence, represents the indignation of some who feel our nation has been violated by those who have come illegally. For others that same phrase means lives disrupted and torn apart and returned to places form which they have escaped. While the slogans were simple and chantable, our work is now complex and demands careful choices.

We wrote several times about the campaign spilling into schools. Children may be expressing something they have heard at home or watched on TV or espoused by our President-elect. We hold the POTUS in highest regard and we have taught the person in that role is president for all Americans. Now what?

The Shift We Have Been Advocating
It is time to dig in and do the difficult work and face facts. It is fact that, at this writing, 60,071,650 Americans voted for a man who gained their support by saying and writing things we wouldn’t accept from students. He touched hidden thoughts and silent feelings and inspired followership. Among them, most certainly, are teachers and school leaders. We try to write this with open minds and open hearts. Children are a captive audience in our classrooms and they will listen to us. Can we use this opportunity to create understanding of how others see the world and find truth in all views? Can we place the choices in the hands of our young people?

This is the basis of the education shift for which we have been advocating. Questions as curriculum units instead of titles, investigations and research instead of reading and answering questions, multiple perspectives instead of only one, critical thinking instead of memorization, creative solutions instead of the same old ones. It may require that we, as educators, come to a place where our capacity to have conversations about deeply held beliefs with others who disagree with us needs strengthening. We imagine leaders and teachers who believe that the porous border is a problem and that Mexican workers are gobbling up their tax dollars and taking their jobs. It is their truth. It is worth it to stop the clock and dig in and listen, as adults, to others who think differently. It is worth it to dig in and look into the faces of the people being spoken about and walk in their shoes. It will help if we can fit our feet into the small size shoes of the little ones.

It is time for us to listen to each other and learn how to help each other dig with intentionality past hateful words to the source of the hate. For most, it will be either sourced by ignorance, a lack of facts, and inherited family values or profound fear of some sort. But before we can teach children we, as a nation, and as educators especially, we must be clear about who we are, what we think, feel, and represent. Although schools may have required that no one display support for one candidate or another on their bumpers or on their bodies, beliefs spill into their work and the children know it.

All Are Engaged
Want children engaged? This is an engagement moment for the adults as well as the children. Here in the Hudson Valley at SUNY New Paltz, hate speech and pushing back against it has taken to the streets. As reported by the Times Herald Record newspaper

“Love trumps hate,” “We reject president-elect,” “Not my president” the students shouted in between exhortations from student leaders. The crowd of black, Latino and white students swelled until it spilled out of the esplanade in front of the Humanities Building, up nearby stairs and out onto the lawn. Later, the protesters made their way onto village streets.

It was not just Trump’s election that electrified the students. SUNY New Paltz President Don Christian said there was a hate incident on campus and that it is under investigation. Students referenced anti-Latino, anti-black and anti-Muslim graffiti scrawled in a bathroom in Bouton residence hall. A campus spokesperson later confirmed the grafitti and that it was found Thursday night.

“It is not just about Trump. It is about how his supporters feel empowered to spread hate,” Yayanny Raynoso, president of the campus’ Student Association, said as the rally got underway. “We will not stand for it.

That is where the crucial opportunity lies. No one can be encouraged to spread hate unless they feel it. Trump has unleashed a dormant flame that we don’t think can be contained. It is dangerous but it is out of the bottle and it gives us a chance to make a difference. It demands we do. We wrote Hate Speech Is On the Rise in April. In it we said,

Bias cannot be outlawed. Laws can change our behaviors, not our beliefs. Beliefs change by choice and usually over time. It is a deeply personal process. But, by sheer numbers, educators have an opportunity to promote the common good and reduce inequalities by changing the manner in which bias is recognized and confronted in schools. Each individual needs acceptance and a place to belong. This is especially important for children. Whether that becomes a small, isolated group or a school community will make all the difference for the child and his/her family.

In The End
If you believe that we need a wall on our southern border, why incite rage about it? Why must it be constructed from hate and fear of the “others”? Just as we have discovered that teaching the American Revolution from the perspective of both sides of the ocean is important, we can use that concept here. As a person, our boundaries are important to us. As a nation, they are also. They help define or identity. No matter your political views, we should be able to agree on that. Then comes the ticklish part of deciding how to enforce them when people yearn to come to this magnificent land. Not all can come. Who can and how and when and who will decide? These are policy issues, best solved by deep thinking and listening and discerning. If they are only emotional issues, then we never really find a wise answer. We are buffeted about by words and protests and rants and hostility. The words are out...the expressions are clear...we can be the lonely voices calling for understanding and solutions. We are calling to the next generation to discern between a fact and a feeling, to express one with confidence and the other without hate. We might find in these days the hope for our nation lies within those who are in our classrooms now. If we do well this year, maybe they will do better than we have and we will be proud of them and of our nation.

Ann Myers and Jill Berkowicz are the authors of The STEM Shift (2015, Corwin) a book about leading the shift into 21st century schools. Connect with Ann and Jill on Twitter or Email.

Photo courtesy of Pixabay

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.