5 School Responses to #Charlottesville

Like many of you, I have watched with a great deal of sadness as this weekend’s events have unfolded in Charlottesville, Virginia. The brazen hatred, smugness, and pride emblazoned on the faces of marchers bearing torches is stomach turning. However difficult it may be, I would encourage you not to turn away from the images and the stories. Allow them to serve as a reminder of the fallibility of our world and that gross hatred and prejudice still exist.

While these overt examples of racism are easy to condemn, as a society we are far too dismissive of subtle actions of prejudice that erode the fabric of our society. Unfortunately, these behaviors happen far more frequently and are perhaps more damaging.

As a public educator at a very diverse school, I have experienced both extremes. I have had a parent tell me they were withdrawing their child because our school is “a little too brown” for them. With all the politeness I could muster, I assured them this was a good decision for their family. While most people won’t come right out and make a statement like that, I know that many potential parents see our diversity as deficit — not a strength. I have also witnessed how public schools that serve high minority and low socioeconomic populations are at a financial and resource disadvantage and are often unable to provide their students with the same classes, opportunities, resources and sports equipment as schools in more affluent neighborhoods.

This issue of racial justice is a real challenge for me. I am a white male from the middle class serving as the principal at a diverse urban school. I have not personally experienced racism or discrimination.  I live with the advantage of privilege that, if I am not cautious, can lead me to be dismissive of the very real challenges and discrimination faced by minorities and those marginalized in our society.

This weekend’s events have me thinking about how we, as educators, should respond. By no means is this meant to be an exhaustive list (nor do I claim any expertise on this subject), but here are a few of my ideas:

  1. Talk about what happened in Charlottesville this weekend, and what has happened in our history. As adults (especially adults with privilege) we often want to “shield” our children from images and events that are disturbing, or that we struggle to explain. Don’t “gloss over” or ignore issues of hate and racism (current or historical). Our kids need to have the opportunity to talk about their feelings about events of this nature. This doesn’t need to be a political discussion. It does need to be a discussion about justice, respect, dignity, safety and value.
  2. Openly discuss and celebrate the diversity in our schools. Recognize that diversity is not only about race. Ethnicity, economics, academic strengths, interests, and experiences all contribute to a wealth of diversity in our schools. Help students understand that this is a strength — lending a variety of perspectives to the learning process. Create a school culture where diversity is truly valued and celebrated.
  3. Acknowledge the need for diversity in hiring practices. As I previously mentioned, I have never been the victim of racism, nor do I claim to have any particular expertise in dealing with it. However we have worked hard to develop a diverse school culture and I am fortunate to have many staff members who are able to lend me perspective, share their experiences, and help me have a better understanding of the nature of prejudice and how we confront it in our schools. They push back when needed, encourage the use of culturally relevant resources, and they are outstanding role models for our students. Diversity in our staff helps keep all of us accountable for a maintaining a culture that values all members of our community.
  4. Advocate for students who are in the minority, come from poverty, or are marginalized by society. I am in my ninth year as an administrator at my current school. I’ll be honest, I have a pretty big chip on my shoulder when it comes to my students (and my school). I bristle when I hear someone say “those kids” or when others make generalizations about our school based upon its location, or our student population. I am easily frustrated and pretty vocal about the inequities I witness. I know our kids aren’t perfect — they make their fair share of mistakes — but it has nothing to do with their race. It is because they are kids. Unfortunately, we have an education system that often funnels resources away from areas of need and we are backsliding into a system that is segregated and unequal (see this article: Separate and Still Unequal).
  5. Take responsibility. We ALL have a role to play in creating a world where everyone feels safe and valued.

 

If we have no peace, it is because we have forgotten we belong to one another. – Mother Teresa

 

As educators, and citizens, we must look out for one another. We need to take time to reflect on our attitudes, our practices, and our policies to ensure that we are not contributing to a climate of discrimination, stereo-typing, or hatred.

I have no doubt that the overwhelming response to this weekend’s incidents in Charlottesville will be condemnation. There will also be attempts to explain, and rhetoric that attempts to minimize the gravity of these actions. But, there is no excuse. To paraphrase Ralph Waldo Emerson, our daily actions will speak more loudly than our words. Let’s make sure we take steps to ensure that our schools are places of peace that recognize the immeasurable value of every student and member of our community.

Authors note: as I have said several times in this post, I do not proclaim to be an expert on issues of race, justice, or discrimination. However, I do want to learn and I value the perspectives of others. I welcome your comments and respectful dialogue about this incredibly important issue.

School Climate is a Journey

cc photo by J. Delp

Success is not final, failure is not fatal: it is the courage to continue that counts. – Winston Churchill

The school I am honored to lead is dynamically diverse. We serve students with an extremely wide range of prior life experiences, cultural backgrounds, and academic needs. Our students come in a wide variety of colors and cultures. Some come from middle class homes, others from poverty. We serve kids from stable and functional families as well as those who have broken, dysfunctional, or non-existent family units. Many of our kids are polished, well-mannered, and “get” the norms of the school environment. Others are tough, a little jaded, and still learning the skills of effective communication and appropriate behavior. Many have experienced trauma that would bring the average adult to their knees. We serve academically gifted students, students who require a great deal of academic support, students with special needs, English language learners, immigrant and migrant kids, and those you might consider “average” junior high students. That is all to say, we are a true public school.

We view diversity as a strength of our school. We support a microcosm of the world on our campus. Our students have the awesome opportunity to learn with others who bring an extremely wide variety of experiences to the table. At least that is how we see it. Most people I speak with, will agree with the notion that diversity in school is a good thing — at least in theory. But many of those same people would never choose to send their children to our school. One unfortunate side effect of diversity, is the attribution of a set of assumptions, judgements, and even fear about students who may look, or act, differently than what is seen as the norm (“those kids”). It is not fair, but I am certain that many of my students are judged more harshly for their behavior than their peers at less diverse, more affluent schools.

It is for this reason, that we have worked extremely hard to establish a climate of acceptance, trust, and respect at our school. We focus on three core values, centered on the expectation that everyone on our campus must feel safe and valued. We talk openly about our diversity and creating a school where we can all be proud to work and learn. I am fortunate to have staff members who truly care about our kids–understanding their strengths and challenges. We have teachers, counselors, and para-educators who work extremely hard to meet the individual academic, behavioral, and emotional needs of the whole child. They are tireless advocates for EVERY student on our campus.

We have made huge strides in our efforts to create a positive school culture and climate. I truly believe we have earned the trust and respect of many of our parents, and I know from surveys, and talking to our students that an overwhelming majority of our kids are proud of our school.

While I am proud of this progress, I also understand that school climate is a journey, not a destination.

As is the case at any school, our staff (myself included) and students are far from perfect. We all suffer from mistakes, misjudgments, and missed opportunities. While I know these things happen at every school, I still lose sleep over every one. I feel responsible for the safety and happiness of everyone on our campus — in our school community. I worry that we will pay a particularly disproportional price for our missteps. I don’t worry because I am concerned about my reputation, but because I don’t want the response to inappropriate behavior, bad decisions, or honest mistakes to become how we are defined — how our kids are defined. They are just kids, learning to navigate life, sometimes with the constraints of extremely challenging circumstances.

When it comes to school culture, you don’t ever “arrive” — it takes constant commitment to maintain and promote the positive in a school community.

We will continue to do everything within our power to support the success of ALL students and to make our school a place where everyone feels safe and valued. As we strive to make this vision a reality, I simply ask our community, those at other schools within our district, and our state and local leaders, to be fair in your judgment, slow to condemn, show grace and empathy to our kids, and be a staunch advocate for public schools.

Thank you for considering…

Just Three Things

cc photo by J. Delp

Today I was searching for a document in Evernote and I stumbled across a list I created a few months ago. I took a few minutes and read the entire list. I smiled.

Every bullet point on the list identified something for which I am grateful. People, experiences, specific situations — a hodgepodge of happiness. It was created when I committed to recording three things for which I was grateful, for thirty days. I’m not sure why I stopped, because as I re-read the list, not only did I feel better, but I remembered how writing down those three things improved my daily outlook.

In his book, The Happiness Advantage (highly recommended), author Shawn Achor writes:

When you write down a list of “three good things” that happened that day, your brain will be forced to scan the last 24 hours for potential positives.

Cultivating the habit of searching for the positive in our lives can certainly improve our daily outlook. It won’t solve all of your problems, or make the struggles go away, but it will remind you that there are things in your life to be happy about.

I have decided to recommit to recording three items a day on my gratitude list. Join me. Give it a try and see if you aren’t a little happier. Just three things.

1. ______________

2. ______________

3. ______________