Opinion
School & District Management Opinion

Why Principals Need to Talk About the Israel-Hamas War With Our Teachers

We can’t leave teachers to handle difficult conversations in isolation
By S. Kambar Khoshaba — December 05, 2023 5 min read
Stylized photo illustration of a teacher feeling pressured as she is questioned by her students.
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This essay is not about my personal views of the Israel-Hamas war, nor will I be sharing those on this platform. That’s not what Education Week is about. Instead, I want to create a safe place to identify a great need in schools across our country: empowering teachers with tools for how to handle this topic when students bring it up in their classrooms. To fix most misunderstandings, we first need to talk.

I have a unique perspective. My family is Middle Eastern, and I have been so fortunate to be embraced by my school community, many of whom are of Middle Eastern descent.

To be honest, I don’t have all the answers for how to approach this very complex topic. If you try to bring clarity and understanding through discussion, it may cause some to think you are taking sides. I just know that leaving teachers alone to handle this in isolation is not the answer.

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So what can we do when a difficult topic is brought up by students in classrooms? Instead of leaving teachers to fend for themselves, school leaders should bring the faculty together and have the courage to share ideas for creating a safe place for students to feel that they belong and their feelings matter. This has been true during any geopolitical crisis in our nation’s history, such as the war in Vietnam or the attacks on 9/11.

It is important for all students to have this safe space, but it is especially important for students in minority and marginalized groups.

In 2020, another series of crises rocked our nation, making evident the need for more conversations about social justice. First the pandemic began, and then we watched the shocking news about George Floyd’s killing.

I knew my staff was hurting, and the hurt was happening at a time when, at the height of the pandemic, we were forced to stay home. After speaking with various members of the staff, I created two social-justice councils: one for students and another for staff.

In these groups, we established norms so everyone who volunteered to attend could have an emotional and intellectual safe place to voice their feelings, free from interruption or criticism. There was no lesson plan or guide to follow.

With the staff group, we used Beverly Daniel Tatum’s book Why Are All the Black Kids Sitting Together in the Cafeteria? as a starting point in our weekly meetings. Those discussions started with differences in ethnic experiences, but they also included differences between generations, religions, and socioeconomics. In the end, all members said they had a better understanding of those different experiences. The large majority even recommended requiring this session at a future staff development session.

In the end, I believe the 26 students and 28 adults who chose to attend benefited immensely from this experience. Their feelings were heard and validated, and opposing points of view were expressed without rushing to judge or diminishing someone else’s lived experience.

What can we do to create a similar safe space for faculty to discuss the Israel-Hamas war?

Every school is different, and certainly every person within each school is unique. I know that doing nothing is not an option. Words matter. Can we come together and discuss the difference between free speech and hate speech? Is it possible to work together to try to understand others’ views and experiences on these very sensitive topics?

I remember meeting with a student who was new to my school. He asked my name, and after I replied, he asked where my family was from. When I shared that my family was Iraqi, he replied, “Oh, you’re a terrorist.”

I told him I was not and that what he said was a microaggression. The boy sincerely apologized, and I accepted that. I could tell he was speaking more from ignorance than intentional harm.

One of our primary tasks at school is to teach students real-life lessons applicable in the real world. I believe I taught that student this lesson on that day.

I hope that, as school leaders, we can have similar dialogues with our staff members so that they can be better equipped to address student conversations when they inevitably occur.

Now is that time for us to grow. To do so will require a few things.

For starters, we need to be daring enough to have courageous conversations. This is not just a buzzword to be discussed in graduate classes across America. This is the time for us to walk the talk and lead our schools through hard times.

I remember a few years ago when I was establishing my faculty advisory council. One of my teachers shared that she felt we needed more diversity on the team. I responded that I was very intentional about doing exactly that. She expressed her appreciation but then clarified that she was referring to the fact that there were only teachers on the council.

She was correct. I quickly added our lead custodian, a secretary, a technology resource teacher, and a security member to the team.

The outcome? I heard so many more perspectives about issues that impacted students, including how we disseminated technology, hallway traffic issues, and new ways all staff could participate in schoolwide celebrations.

We also need to pull together as a staff, develop talking points for how we will collectively support our students, and be one community as this decadeslong conflict continues roughly 6,000 miles away.

I acknowledge this is an exceedingly challenging discussion to have with your staff; however, we can’t leave teachers alone and unequipped to direct these conversations. I encourage principals to collaborate with colleagues, talk with their supervisors, and get support around holding these types of meetings with interested staff.

Let’s not operate in silos but instead as a family. Yes, we may look different, speak different languages, and enjoy different food, but diversity is what makes our family strong. Including diverse perspectives fosters empathy and reduces bias and conflict.

Let’s teach each other about ways to support and not offend each another. We might not be able to have a direct impact on a war happening so far away from us, but we can have an impact on immediate school communities.

Can we talk?

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