School & District Management Opinion

Trump Presents a New Challenge for School Leaders

By Jill Berkowicz & Ann Myers — July 30, 2017 5 min read
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It appears that more than in the past, current political happenings and the actions of the President find their way into our minds and our blog. As local school leaders, can you allow yourself to say what you don’t mean or something that is totally untrue? Can you be flippant and forgiven? Can you surround yourself with chaos and deem yourself successful? These privileges of the POTUS do not find their way into local leadership arenas. Nor should they. But, beware, they may be finding their way into the community we serve.

At the microcosm, which feels very big sometimes, school leaders pay careful attention to a myriad of incoming and outgoing issues and messages. The work within schools focuses on teaching and learning, on safety, on personnel, student achievements and behaviors and on budgets and policy. When legislation was passed to change curriculum, it seemed like a sudden hurricane entered buildings, setting off a scramble to implement and leading to misunderstanding, frustrations, and a crisis of morale. Being public servants, it is in our DNA to abide by the law and regulations that implement them.

Sometimes, we feel like boundary managers. It is part of our responsibility to create a “safe zone”, to ensure schools can be set apart from the craziness of the swirling outside world. For some students, that may mean insulation from their home or neighborhood, for others it may be safe harbor from social media or some other barrage of disruption.

What Happens Outside of Schools, Affects What Happens Inside of Schools

But, regardless of our efforts, we also know that what happens outside the school walls will enter our schools. Why? Because schools are part of society and what happens outside of schools cannot wholly stay outside of schools. In the middle of the last century, schools became the battleground about segregation. As society struggled forward to make peace with integration, schools were at the leading edge. As society made peace with women in the workforce and in leadership, traditional male high schools and predominately male courses and sports were opened to girls. As society now makes peace with those who are LGBT, schools are again at the forefront. But that makes us vulnerable to criticism and requires that we hold to a courageous sense of who we are and what it is we stand for.

We worry about other things that are clearly happening outside of schools. We were taught and we lead schools where the need to leaders to inspire was taught. Models were included from across fields and history and nations. We remember the words of those leaders who changed the world or at least how we saw it, words from Lincoln, Churchill, FDR, Gandhi, MLK, or JFK. They were all brilliant speakers. They captured the art of public speaking, the rhythm, vocabulary, and message. These must not be lost to 140 characters. Or are we finding ourselves becoming archaic, preservationists of a lost time? To lose such lessons is akin to never allowing young musicians to listen to and play a Mozart piece. Music teachers wouldn’t hold this back. It is how students discover what is possible. It is how they begin to learn where the goal is and what to reach for.

Now, we listen to speeches that we cannot hold up as models. Like reality TV, they appeal to the basest of instincts rather than raise us to our highest selves. We consider the delivery, the vocabulary and the message. All fall short. Even so, the content is very important. Sometimes, the substance appears to applaud law breaking. Recently, our President gave law enforcement officers the nod to rough up suspects with a total disregard for “innocent until proven guilty”.

The Washington Post printed the President’s speech on Long Island last week. It said, in part:

It’s essential that Congress fund another 10,000 ICE officers -- and we’re asking for that -- so that we can eliminate MS-13 and root out the criminal cartels from our country.

Now, we’re getting them out anyway, but we’d like to get them out a lot faster. And when you see these towns and when you see these thugs being thrown into the back of a paddy wagon -- you just see them thrown in, rough -- I said, please don’t be too nice. (Laughter.) Like when you guys put somebody in the car and you’re protecting their head, you know, the way you put their hand over? Like, don’t hit their head and they’ve just killed somebody -- don’t hit their head. I said, you can take the hand away, okay? (Laughter and applause.)

Our nation has endured years of controversy about police brutality and investigating police who appeared to break the law in the name of protecting others. We were on a path toward a new value system in law enforcement, but now, maybe not.

What Does This Have To Do With Schools And Their Leaders?

We have warned that student behavior may be changing in schools as students see other youngsters raise their middle fingers or shout ‘boo’s” about former Presidents or opposition candidates at political rallies. They may watch the news as our President instructs the public to accept roughing up those who are arrested. How will that change the mindset of the police? Or he delivers a message that transgender people may not enlist in the military, they cost too much and are a distraction. How has that effected the transgender already in the military and the rules for enlisting? What of those students who are LGBT or who have parents or family members who are transgender? What of those students who have parents who are in fear of being deported? What of those students who have a family member who was roughed up by authorities? Or of students who were roughed up themselves? Not only do schools need to be on the alert for the resulting aftermath of these experiences, schools have to be ready to stand up and say, “This is not how we behave here, at least not here in this school.”

Ann Myers and Jill Berkowicz are the authors of The STEM Shift (2015, Corwin) a book about leading the shift into 21st century schools. Ann and Jill welcome connecting through Twitter & Email.

Illustration by Valeriy Bochkarev 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.