In the wake of the recent election many highly charged emotional reactions have emerged. Protesters are lining the streets while others are eager for “change.” Regardless of your beliefs with the election results, I hope we can all agree that our focus and energy need to be directed toward unity – bringing everyone together. As a school leader I have heard of, and experienced, an increase in just the past month of incidences of singling out those individuals who are different. As educational professionals we must not turn a blind eye to these behaviors. We owe it to all our students to address their concerns and ensure they know that they matter and that we want them in our school family. Easier said than done, right? What are some ideas we as educators implement to promote unity and acceptance?
Recently our school held a student panel on implicit bias during one of our breakout sessions on a professional development day for teachers. Six students from various grades with different backgrounds, experiences and identities were asked to join the panel. The insight these students shared was powerful and took immense courage. Many of these same students participated in a video answering questions regarding their observations and experiences in and out of school regarding students who look, act, think and feel different than the majority. Below are some of the takeaways of what they shared, as well as some of my personal insight.
Do not ignore the action. I have observed this far too many times during my educational tenure, both as a student and as an adult. If a student says or does something questionable to another student based solely on the way the student looks, how the student identifies, or because of their beliefs, as an educator we need to speak up for these students. Silence is a synonym for acceptance of the negative behavior. I want to be associated with an institution that embraces diversity, even if a student or adult believes in something differently than what I do. This is how we grow and learn as a community.
Provide learning opportunities about cultures, customs, people and experiences. We have an immense opportunity in our field to highlight differences and learn from these variances. Based on my experiences, ignorance is the driving factor of inappropriate comments, actions and exclusion. Educating students and adults provide us with an opportunity to find commonalities and bridge gaps. Through these opportunities we soon realize we have a lot more in common as humans than we have differences.
Teach tolerance, patience and forgiveness. This is a valuable life lesson that I have grown to realize is not as common as I would hope to see in the world. These lessons are threads that run throughout the fabric of our life. While some would argue that schools cannot teach students everything, these do not always need to be formal lessons in class. Students and adults pay attention to the actions and words of those to whom they look up to.
Listen to students – avoid dismissal, invalidation or defensive responses. It takes a lot of courage for students to share their feelings regarding actions that make them feel excluded. Students need to know that as an adult you are there to listen, and willing to work to make the situation better. It is important that educators realize that they do not always need to respond immediately. It is OK to simply listen and not immediately provide the response you feel should occur. Ask the student what ideas they have to improve the situation. Regardless, it is most important that the adult or educator does not react in a dismissive or defensive way.
Do unto others as you would have them do unto you. I will never forget these words on the banner that hung above the chalkboard in my third-grade classroom. Such simple words with so much power and meaning – no explanation needed here.
As a building we are going to continue learning and teaching what our students and parents share about implicit bias and building unity. We must acknowledge the issues and address the concerns each and every day if we truly hope to build a community that is inclusive, caring and tolerant. Unity should not be an initiative, but a mindset and expectation for our community both globally and locally.