Dear Fellow Community Members,
The last few months have been unmistakably hard for our country, and particularly, for our schools. An election cycle that has surrounded and saturated all of us for an entire year has featured people treating each other in the worst ways I’ve ever seen. I am saddened to observe the aggression and negative dialogue, the modeling of disrespect and insensitivity, the acceptance—or tolerance—of intimidation and inappropriate language.
Everyone has been affected by these forms of behavior—it’s in our media and conversations. It has, unfortunately, become part of the norm in our current culture. I am concerned that the climate of our country has been affecting the culture of our schools, too.
By no means have we openly accepted it. We’ve condemned it, we’ve laughed about it with Saturday Night Live, we’ve shared our concerns with our friends and families. However, could it be that we haven’t realized that we, in fact, have started to let some of the negative emotion and energy seep into us too? Have we done enough to counteract negative patterns in our own lives and in our families and schools?
The students are watching.
As the director of a middle school, I am keenly aware of the words and actions of teachers and students in my building. I know that students observe everything about and around us. They watch our body language and make note of every comment we make. They read the same articles that we read, they view the same videos we post, and they even surf the same memes to retweet. Diane Levin, PhD and author of Remote Control Childhood, underscores this reality: “The media influences how they treat each other and what they talk about.”
John Dewey, an American philosopher, psychologist, and educator, felt that the ideal learning environment promotes the skills needed to be a contributing participant in a community. He said, "Education is not preparation for life; education is life itself." As educators and parents, we have a lot of responsibility on our shoulders. Not only must we understand ourselves, we must also understand our children and students, as well as our communities in order to be good mentors and guides.
So what do we do?
1. I suggest we recognize the importance of pausing.
We need to take time for reflection—to think before we speak, act, or share. I am reminded of a question our school counselor had suggested for the students to use a few years ago, “Before you speak, think: Is it Kind? Is it True? Is it Necessary?” When we hold our students accountable to these questions, do we, in fact, do the same for ourselves?
2. I suggest we invest in compassion, flexibility, and intelligent reasoning when we face conflict.
Take a moment to process the situation. What have you not considered thus far? Have you identified the other person’s point of view? Is there an opportunity to be flexible or show resilience? What will the outcomes be if you respond with threats or aggression?
It is in our evolutionary DNA to be stimulated by aggression. Elizabeth Cashdan, professor of anthropology at the University of Utah, says, “…understanding of the evolutionary roots of human aggression could help institutions make better policy decisions. Evolution didn't just shape us to be violent, or peaceful, it shaped us to respond flexibly, adapt to different circumstances, and to risk violence when it made adaptive sense to do so. We need to understand what those circumstances are if we want to change things.”
3. I suggest we listen to each other—deeply listen.
We ask our students to be active listeners in class to promote an environment of connection. Good listening skills are critical in all relationships—from families to schools and communities. We practice these positive skills to avoid “negative listening”– listening that undermines or simply terminates communication.
What are negative listening and responding techniques?
- You’re not truly listening. You’re thinking about your rebuttal while waiting for the other person to stop speaking.
- You provide an answer without knowing the question.
- You finish the other person’s sentences.
- You make more statements with “I” rather than asking questions with “you.”
Positive listening, on the other hand, provides a bridge between the speaker and listener. It expands and invites the listener.
What are positive listening and responding techniques?
- You ask questions to discern another’s wants and concerns.
- You accept (and welcome!) different perspectives without forming assessments.
- You take an active role in the communication process by taking responsibility for really hearing the other person.
- You ask a lot of questions (including clarifying questions) to display an interest and other-centeredness.
- You make sure you are hearing what is being said. You say, “What I am hearing is…” or “It sounds like you’re saying…is that right?”
We’re on the same team. We all want what’s best for our country, our schools, and our children.
“It leaves room for not just a fair fight, but for civil disagreement. After all, there's nothing wrong with conflict. Conflict can provide fodder for deeper understanding. Healthy, generative anger can push us to make positive change. Things go sideways when we stop disagreeing about ideas and start disagreeing about our shared humanity. But the assumption of positive intent brings us to a place of connection, not division.”—Laura Thomas, author of Facilitating Authentic Learning.
“Meaningful conversations can change your world.”
Margaret Wheatley, poet and author of the book Turning to One Another, advocates for the role conversations can play in restoring hope. In the book’s title poem, she gives this advice:
Remember, you don’t fear people whose story you know.
Real listening always brings people closer together.
Trust that meaningful conversations can change your world.
Rely on human goodness. Stay together.
Words cannot express how much I value and believe in all of the people who work at schools. I believe that all teachers can model compassion and respect. I believe that all students can develop intelligent reasoning skills to make a difference in society. I believe in the goodness and resilience of all people. Let’s give each other another chance, it’s too important not to do so.
Kavan Yee is Director of Middle School at Lowell School. He earned his BS in biology from North Park College and his MEd in educational leadership from the National College of Education at National-Louis University. Before coming to Lowell in 2010, he taught at the Carleton W. Washburne School in Winnetka, IL, and the John G. Shedd Aquarium, in Chicago. In 2013, he was selected by the University of Pennsylvania’s School of Education to blog about his observations of the Finnish school system. Kavan is an active member of the Progressive Educators Network and is on the planning committee for its biennial national conference.