School Climate & Safety Opinion

Schools, This Election, and Leading From Higher Ground

By Jill Berkowicz & Ann Myers — October 09, 2016 5 min read
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Ah, the 2016 presidential election is still in full force. Unless you have turned off the television, or stopped listening to the radio, or stopped reading the newspaper you share with us a stunned silence while your mouths drop open and your heads shake. If not, then you are watching a different election than we are. Yesterday morning we actually watched a debate among partisans about whether the president should set a moral standard and whether the language of a campaign is OK if it is language we’d never use at home or allow in our classrooms. Can it be excused as the language of the entertainment industry when we know how our children and our society is influenced by that world? Do you remember when we used to debate tax plans or foreign policy?

What a way to wake up on a Saturday morning. From where do we find those who are models of admirable behaviors? Is it an anachronistic wish for leaders to set a standard of acceptable social values and attitudes? And there are still weeks to go...or has this election really changed the nature of what is societally acceptable in ways that will last longer than an election cycle?

Shock and awe, disappointment, frustration, and too much “locker room” information have enveloped us. The past moral, ethical and, yes, sexual behavior of the candidates is questioned almost daily. Their supporters have used the word “hate” for the other candidate. Name-calling is utilized as the winning strategy to disable opponents and generate followership. The incredible and offensive language used about women sets us back decades. In short, there are behaviors and attitudes of the candidates and their surrogates that would absolutely not be accepted in schools nor in most families, we hope. Wishing for the election season to end will not erase the damage done. Educators have to be prepared.

Society And Schools Are Inextricably Linked
As societal values shift, schools absorb or resist those changes. School leaders receive the challenges released on the election stages and find it seeping into classrooms, hallways and high school locker rooms. Over the years, we have seen an erosion of respect for teachers and school leaders. And sadly, the capacity to monitor previously private actions has revealed some pretty bad actions. So as educators, we find ourselves attempting to create a value system that runs counter to the one in the larger world.The questioning of a leader’s actions and decisions has become part of a societal practice. It has resulted in the discovery of some pretty unscrupulous acts. We find people choosing candidates by feelings setting aside all else. Information is cast aside, facts are ignored, and perception prevails. How do we teach within this environment?

As we press forward into “21st century schools”, we have been teaching students how to ask questions, gather information, determine the validity of the source, have conversations with classmates, teachers, and sometime professionals, and come to a conclusion based on more than how they feel. We are trying to teach them how to solve problems. Thanks to this election cycle, our job is now harder than ever. But, clearly, it is now more important than ever.

The Leader
With a heightened awareness of the hidden attitudes in our society, the school leader works with more information. There are those decisions that do require a quick and single response, issues of safety for example. But, most decisions are up for debate and broad based inclusion of perspectives will surely include those whose perspectives are diametrically different from ours. If a smoke alarm goes off, there is no need for a committee to decide if the building should be vacated. There is a balanced leadership dance between being trusted and continuing to earn trust. The same is true for teachers. No one wants a school system where there are only there are only pockets of trust. None of us want hidden pockets where bullying is ignored, where children are abused nor campuses where rape is rampant. Our job is casting light into every dark corner and protecting children in each of them. Our job on so many days is the pursuit of truth amidst hotly contested sides and finding a fairness that serves all even if it pleases neither side fully.

The behaviors of the candidates and their surrogates must not dissuade the good work of educators and leaders who instill trust and treat all with respect. Regardless of the popular society and its norms and values, for a society to survive and thrive someone needs to stand on higher ground. It may no longer to be our nation’s president, but it can always be the community school leader. Even if it is an increasingly lonely place to stand, we need to be there. Even if it is increasingly countercultural, educators must help students prepare as citizens to distinguish between fact and fiction, right and wrong, and make choices among differing experiences and opinions. We will include more technology because, for better and for worse, it increases our information and our connections. While we question the value of specific curriculum, establish professional partnerships, wrestle the funding of schools as an issue of greater good, we will preserve a standard of respectful dialogue.

We lead a student body with a sense responsibility and purpose. We do not speak flippantly nor use words that cannot be printed. We encourage that student body to become engaged and become more active in their own learning. We teach how to work with others who are not like us and value the contributions of those who are less academically talented, athletically agile or socially engaging.

Recommitting to values and modeling them is the leader’s mandate. Listening and fairness reinforce moral leadership. And transparency, open and honest information sharing (when legally possible) builds trust and understanding. This plays out differently in different environments. Schools cannot afford to become environments similar to the one we are witnessing in this election cycle. We need a generation who will right this rolling ship and that generation is in our schools now. It is no small job to resist the attractiveness of the “entertainment world” but it becomes a distraction for those who want to lead on higher ground where children come first.

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.

Illustration by Fabiana Ponzi 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.