The results (and aftermath) of the presidential election have certainly prompted a good deal of discussion in schools across the nation. Students have led protests, walkouts, and peaceful gatherings in an effort to promote peace, understanding, and tolerance. At DFHS, emotions have been running high regardless of the candidate that students supported respectively.
Despite the differing political views that our students might possess, we continue to focus on building togetherness and unity within our school community. As an IB World School, our focus is always on the IB mission of creating a “better and more peaceful world” and we see recent events as an ideal opportunity to further promote that message. In doing so, the IB Learner Profile is embedded into all aspects of our school, including our curriculum, behavioral intervention strategies, school events, co-curricular clubs, and the course offerings that we have for our students.
A point of pride for us at DFHS is the increasing diversity that we continue to see in our community. This trend is one that we welcome as it adds to the richness of our student body while allowing us to further promote international mindedness within our school. In terms of instructional programs, our ELL program is led by our our IB DP coordinator. This helps to further promote unity and inclusion of all students into all aspects of our school. Furthermore, we have a vibrant International Club, a Friends of Rachel Club (anti-bullying), Model UN, GSA, Political Debate, Fundraising, Habitat for Humanity, and many other student co-curricular clubs that promote togetherness, a safe environment, and the importance of embracing multiple perspectives and points of view. We are also proud to have been named a “No Place for Hate” school by the Anti-Defamation League for the past three years.
The Role of the School Leader
Perhaps the most important role of school leaders during these highly emotional times is to create a school environment that is fully inclusive, respectful of all points of view, and most importantly safe and comfortable for all students. While this clearly needs to be the mindset for school leaders each day of each year, the events of the last week have certainly placed some school leaders in uncharted waters given the complexity and nature of what has been happening. Here are a few tips on how to create a balanced and safe environment that is respectful of all:
- Provide Leadership and Direction: While I will always trust the the professional judgement of the faculty and their ability to remain neutral and balanced despite their political views, it is important to provide a message to the staff that promotes unity and understanding. As the IB Head of School, I framed my message within the vision and mission of the IBO. A similar approach would work for any leader of a non-IB school as well. In addition, school leaders need to provide mentoring and guidance to teachers (particularly new teachers) about how to lead what can become volatile and emotional discussions so that no students feel ostracized or intimidated. This might also be a worthwhile professional development for the staff either immediately or at any time during the school year.
- Avoid Politically Charged Narratives: While it’s important to spread a message that promotes peace, unity, and togetherness, it’s equally important to be mindful of politically charged statements that can be construed as coming from the “left” or the “right.” At our school, we have student- generated signs and quotes that are posted throughout the building that reinforce community and tolerance without identifying with particular political issues, groups of people, and/or causes. This non-divisive approach helps to unify all students around the core beliefs that we all hold as caring human beings as opposed to creating an “us vs. them” feeling throughout the school.
- Capitalize on the Teachable Moment: Our students discussed the election results and their perspectives in their classes the very next day. Some teachers are still engaging their classes in these discussions. I had the opportunity to sit in on several of these classes and was proud of how respectful our students were toward one another. The most important reminder (and challenge) for teachers is to lead balanced and curriculum-based discussions around a topic that continues to generate a great deal of passion and emotion. This election is one of the best “teachable moments” that we have had in many years. Schools need to embrace the moment and not shy away.
- Organize Events that Build Community: Earlier today, I had a conversation with several of our sophomores who are interested in finding ways to further promote unity and togetherness so that all students, regardless of political perspective, feel connected and welcome in our school community. We identified a number of potential ideas, including an assembly, a dignity board, school-based events, and positive messages to display in our hallways. Our International Club is also encouraging all students to wear safety pins as a symbol of solidarity and unity. One thing that we know is that students always rise above and find positive ways to channel their energy and passion. Schools not only need to encourage this, but must also provide positive and tangible outlets for students to rally around.
- Address Negative Behavior: As always, any type of negative behavior by students needs to be addressed immediately so that it doesn’t fester and/or grow into something bigger. This is a basic tenet of behavioral intervention and student discipline. In the event that students do promote divisive rhetoric (whether it’s hate fueled or not), school leaders need to tackle these incidents right away and capitalize on them as teachable moments. The counseling department certainly needs to be included in these discussions as well as classroom teachers where applicable. What’s most important in this regard is that a safe environment is created with zero tolerance for hurtful words or behavior that is designed to instill a divided culture.
A school leader’s genuine attempt to unify, or to solidify, the culture within his or her school community during a challenging time will undoubtedly have a positive, long-lasting, impact on the organization as a whole. Times like these require reassurance and acknowledgment of what makes a school great; the faculty, the staff, and most importantly our students.
What are some to the things that have been happening at your school to promote understanding and unity? Please share!