School Climate & Safety Opinion

We Need Leaders Who Are Peacemakers

By Jill Berkowicz & Ann Myers — March 08, 2016 4 min read
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Like the Sharks and the Jets in West Side Story, gangs (groups) form, biases prevail, the differences grow as do fear and anger and violence. As a matter of fact, there is a lot happening in the world and in our profession that sound alarms about these divisions. Terrorism, democracy, capitalism, socialism, Democrats, Republicans, and yes, high-stakes testing, common-core, tenure, all provoke heated oppositional debates. Within our field, the list continues, homogeneous grouping vs. heterogeneous grouping, single period schedule vs block schedule, early start times vs. later start times, 10 month school year vs. year round school, sports vs. academics; the list is endless.

Similarities from within our field and our world exist because people choose to align with the group that most feels and thinks similarly. Social media has offered a vehicle for exposing the unspoken thought and sharing ideas in a fast and public way. The challenge lies in the absence of an invitation to build common ground. Without that, the divisions will only grow...faster, larger, more publically and more explosively.

The Peacemakers
Certainly, there are some among us who are prepared to facilitate those larger conversations in which opposing views can come together with the intention of finding a fundamental value or truth upon which to agree. But, why would they want to? Because a school, an organization, a community or a country cannot, as Lincoln said, survive if divided against itself. This doesn’t mean disagreements are bad; in fact they can be good and they can promote forward movement but only if the common good is held in highest regard. There are educators who have developed a public voice and, simultaneously, treasure and demand the capacity for listening deeply and finding and revealing the places where all share a common bond and begin to step forward toward one another. We count on those who can and are able to do that as they reach out to build the bridges and help us heal.

Local Control is Empowering
The energy of the Sharks and the Jets can exist in schools as well. It may be on a smaller scale, like between department members, or departments, between sports and academics, between buildings, or between faculty and school leaders. It also plays out within school communities over policy issues, for example, when it comes to things like high stakes testing of students, implementation of the common-core, teacher and principal evaluation. But the solution is the same; someone or some group leads the way. Someone finds large enough arms to hold it together: faculty, parents/ guardians, and the community to find those or build places for coming together about serving the ‘the best interest of the children.’

Once the “issue” is opened for discussion the boundaries of ‘what we can control’ and ‘what is currently out of our control’ become key factors in clearing the way to ensure that action can be taken. New rapport is only built when trust and credibility grow so we chose to work within the parameters of ‘what is on our control.’ An example can be found in the common-core implementation and the high-stakes testing debates.

In Frederick Hess’ book Cage-Busting Leadership he describes the value of buy-in.

Cage-busters approach stakeholder buy-in as a tactic, not a credo. Cage-busters recognize the value of buy-in, but don’t think elaborate efforts to pursue it are always worth the time and energy. The key is to strike a healthy balance, earning trust and commitment without being held hostage by naysayers or ungainly strategic plans (p.185)

We agree that buy-in, agreement, understanding, are all essential and that a healthy balance must be struck by earning trust and commitment on common ground is essential.

Using standardized testing as an example: Is the use of standardized testing good for students? If doing no harm is the common ground, then next can come clarifying understanding about what tests must be given and what do not, how extraneous tests can be eliminated or reduced, what attitude will be brought forth by faculty and the leadership, and the assurances that to whatever level possible the leadership will maintain a low stakes environment in which stress and worry are overwhelmed by confidence. This is all under the control of the local peacemakers, leaders and teachers alike.

No good comes from a fractured environment. Fighting over points of view, misunderstandings and resentment cannot contribute to a healthy school environment for children. If we can master this, and model how to deal with different views, mandates, policies, beliefs, we may be able to affect the next generation of professionals and politicians who will be leading our schools and our countries. It will not be the decision about a particular issue that will make the difference; it will be how we handled each moment in time.

Hess, F.M. (2013). Cage-Busting Leadership. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard Education Press

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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.