The results (and aftermath) of last year’s presidential election continue to prompt protest, division, and unrest throughout our nation and the world. Just yesterday, a number of players from the NFL refused to stand during the national anthem in a form of protest while other protests have sadly turned violent like the one in Charlottesville this past August. At DFHS, post-election emotions were also running high and our classroom discussions reflected that passion. Our students debated the various issues and, as true IB learners, remained open-minded and respectful of various perspectives and points of view. This is a regular occurrence at DFHS.
Soon after the election, several groups of students inquired about creating co-curricular clubs that espoused specific political agendas with allegiance to particular political parties. As the Head of an IB World School, I did not support the creation of these types of partisan clubs due to their exclusive and potentially divisive nature. As an IB World School, our focus is always on the IB mission of creating a “better and more peaceful world” and the events of this past year have provided us with an ideal opportunity to further promote that message. In doing so, the IB Learner Profile is deeply 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. When talk of the elimination of DACA heated up a few weeks back, we took the opportunity to further support ALL of our students regardless of background. In addition, we invite all of our students to join one of our many co-curricular clubs, including our vibrant International Club, Friends of Rachel (anti-bullying club), 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 four 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 past year 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.” This is specifically the reason why I did not support the creation of partisan-based political clubs that support a specific political party. Following last year’s election, our students generated signs and quotes that were posted throughout the building to reinforce community and tolerance without identifying with particular political parties, 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 and the discussions are ongoing based on events that happen daily. I had the opportunity to sit in on several of these post-election 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. Last year’s election was 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: As part of our upcoming annual school-based “MAC Field Day,” all of our students have joined together to raise money for the victims of Hurricanes Harvey and Irma through the non-partisan charity “One America Appeal” that is directly backed by our past five former Presidents. 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!