School & District Management Opinion

Responding to Student Activism

By Jill Berkowicz & Ann Myers — March 24, 2018 3 min read
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Student activism is taking root again in the hearts and minds of our youth. We are proud that the ideals of democracy have grown in these students as they learn to become informed and engaged citizens. The voices of the students speaking out about school safety and more sensible gun legislation are articulate, are rational, and are passionate.

Some who were guided by adults and others were left to do their own organizing. For some, where they were suspended or otherwise disciplined for walking out of school a price is paid. Civil actions do come with a price and those who choose to participate seemed prepared to pay price. Superintendents and Boards of Education had decisions to make. Now, these are times to be both proud of the students and introspective about the responses educators will take.

It will not be a surprise to our regular readers that we believe these times, more than ever, call for leaders and teachers need to think about how to ‘be’. A recent blog post by Scott Mabry, (a former school teacher and experienced senior executive, whose work is helping others find meaning in their life and work) begins with a series of words Mabry believes are about how to ‘be’.

Courageous. Honest. Compassionate. Authentic. Creative. Resilient. Committed. Intentional. Mindful. Inclusive. Curious.

Educator or Enforcer?

While reflecting on the student activism that has taken place and preparing for the activism that may be coming, and while reviewing the rules and policies that exist, it is important to walk our talk. Is this the moment when we can be courageous, honest, compassionate, authentic, creative, resilient, committed, intentional, mindful, inclusive, and curious? Or will we resort to the words on the paper and be simply the enforcement arm of the system? A leader can feel as if there is little choice given existing policies but one can administer policies and still be a Mabry leader.

Our society is built upon law and rules. There is good reason to follow them. They provide order and assure that we all know the consequences of our choices and actions. Ideally, they are the same for all. Yet, educators also carry the responsibility to teach children about democracy and to do so with fidelity. What is right and what is wrong can be decided literally. But, we think it is important, as we hope to empower these next-gen voters who are our students today, that we approach these decisions and the discussions that surround them with the words Mabry so clearly stated.

We neither support nor oppose those who decided to suspend students. Decisions made locally have unique circumstances that influence decisions. Schools that were prepared for the walkouts may have had a better handle on how to address the students than schools that were unprepared. Decisions are influenced by local realities. We only hope that those disciplined were done so with a soft touch, with information, lessons and respect. Will leaders be enforcers of rules alone, or will they offer a combination praise, encouragement, discipline, and respect?

Teach About Following Rules AND Civil Disobedience

This is a moment of student engagement. Educators long for those and work ot create them. How to keep that spark growing with good information and lessons about consequences is the responsibility of all educators. It is also important that this is a system-wide effort. Students come in contact with adults throughout the buildings and buses and fields. Students will learn from the differing opinions of adults but they need to know who speaks for the system. Student activism and the fallout is an opportunity for schools and their leaders to examine the approach to educating children about our democracy. We encourage all to be “Courageous. Honest. Compassionate. Authentic. Creative. Resilient. Committed. Intentional. Mindful. Inclusive. Curious.”

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 by Lorie Shaull from Washington, United States [CC BY-SA 2.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons)

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.