As school leaders, and as teachers in classrooms, we have committed ourselves to lead and teach on behalf of ALL students. Students for whom English is a second language, children with learning differences and children with learning disabilities, children living in poverty, children with an incarcerated parent or family member, children who are disengaged, lack family support, have mental health problems, have physical illnesses that prevent adequate attendance, and children who are gifted...are part of the ALL students in our charge. Teachers attend professional development to learn how to better engage students in each of these categories, and share strategies with each other. Leaders do the same in order to establish and maintain the environments in which teachers can successfully reach ALL children. They work to be sure the school can provide other services needed to help them along the way. While first and always, is imperative that ALL students feel welcome, unwitting factors may go unnoticed and have countering effects; and they are quite subtle.
Just the other day we wrote a blog about symbols and their affect upon students, parents, guardians, and the community. Here, we take it a step further. Recently, President Obama was speaking to a group in the White House. A heckler interrupted him during his talk. In his direct response, the POTUS said, “You’re in my house.” What message, intended or not, was sent to all of us witnessing this? What was the President of the United States saying about the White House? In that one little sentence, he sent a message that redefined his role and the White House all together. Other presidents might have seen themselves as tenants in our house.
How many times are we caught off guard and say something that we wish we could take back? In that wishing though, it is essential to note the impression we have left. Of course as teachers and leaders develop with experience these moments hopefully become less frequent. But, here was a now experienced President standing before an audience and televised to the nation, saying the White House was his, not ours.
The other moment that was subtle yet sent a loud message was when the White House was lighted up in colors to celebrate the Supreme Court Decision about gay marriage. We were caught up in the euphoria of the seismic social shift caused by the decision. Then, that moment of reflection comes.
The President, who years earlier held a different position about gay marriage, allowed the White House be covered in rainbow colors. While celebrating the Supreme Court Decision, the national symbol became instantly a great example of the divisiveness among us. Was this action a mistake and did it generate an unintended consequence or was it meant to further divide a fractured nation? No matter how it was intended, the now “fearless” leader spoke in symbols. Once in office, the President is America’s president. It is clear that not all whom he leads are celebrating.
The Lesson for Teachers and Leaders is Clear
The best of our leaders know how to maintain relationships and respect from both sides of the aisle even when strong differences exist. It is an imperative if you are a community leader. How does that look in a school? When decisions are made about whether to reduce class size, or cut an athletic activity, or terminate a popular teacher, or close a school, there are those who will be pleased and those who will not... always.
Consensus building is always important but not always appropriate. Sometimes actions must be taken; decisions must be made ...strongly and fast. But language and actions can undo all the good work. In our view, the POTUS misstepped twice here, right on the heels of a stunning amazing grace address in South Carolina. And so we reflect and try to be balanced in our judgment.
We advocate for all leaders to pause in moments to consider, reflectively, their language and actions. This is not an activity done well alone. Perhaps that is the isolation of the POTUS, no one close and trusted listens and offers the other perspective. This can also be the isolation of a superintendent or school leader if we do not seek those who see the world differently from us and ask open minded questions. This is also why it is important that when there is opportunity for planning, that a diverse group sits at the table. Those who are generally supportive and those holding other views can help inform not only the decisions but also warn us of the after effects that may occur in response to our decisions.
If we are to help ALL students succeed, we need to serve ALL of them. Whether in a classroom or in the school community, if there are those who feel marginalized and underserved, there will be little chance that they will join in support. In the community, that can mean a split budget vote. In the professional community within the school, that can mean a split faculty. In the classroom, that can mean the difference between an engaged student and a disengaged one. Success for all students depends, not only on the specialized practices that can be learned but from a continuing awareness of words and actions.
Social change comes hard. Cultural change comes hard. The view of the poet Adrienne Rich comes to mind as good advice. This is from her poem, Integrity.
Anger and tenderness: my selves
And now I believe they can breathe in me
as angels, not polarities.
She also wrote of the pain caused by simultaneously holding bitterness and hope. These tensions are all around us now. Leaders must hold them so all who chose to follow can find themselves at home and ALL the students can be served.
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.