They teach in fear that the vitriolic and unpleasant tone they observe on the national stage might penetrate their classrooms (from students and/or parents), degrading lessons into shouting fests where insults and false accusations rule the roost or are misinterpreted as “politics as usual.” Neither side of the aisle is immune to these feelings. I have both conservative and liberal parents at my school wondering if or how their voices might be heard, feeling isolated by “the other side” and unsafe in expressing even their softest political preferences.
A recent article in the Review of Educational Research noted how important school climate is in improving academic outcomes. Positive school climates – or the feeling you get when you enter a school – create improved academic outcomes and shrink the “achievement gap” among students from a variety of socio-economic backgrounds. I would argue that our “national climate” is just as important. Positive or prosocial national climates improve discourse, lay foundations of respect and citizenship, and create more space for a variety of viewpoints instead of less. Like many educators, I worry that this election is narrowing our national mindset instead of expanding it, creating a sour climate instead of a refreshing one. This runs counter to the work my colleagues and I have done to establish, teach, and reteach the values of kindness, civility, inclusivity, and respect in our schools.
How, then, do we move forward? What can we do to honor our nearly 250-year experiment with democracy? Where do we find the curiosity and compassion to learn from and understand the complex issues facing our nation and our world? In times like these, I look to our students to take the lead…the younger the better.
This election year, BCD’s 3rd graders are stepping forward as champions of our school climate and culture by running a school-wide election. They are creating posters, t-shirts, promotional videos, voter registration booths, polling centers, and all kinds of other initiatives critical to the electoral process. They are visiting each grade to educate our students about the process as well as the candidates, encouraging questions and curiosities and advocating for participation regardless of age or viewpoints of the prospective voters. They are inclusive instead of exclusive, and they are serving as worthwhile mentors of adults in our community and beyond.
The candidates are remarkable. They hold strong opinions on issues such as health care, education, and service. They give freely of themselves, are kind to others, and have public personas that Jack Kennedy and Ronald Regan could only dream of. Rather than spinning up the electoral dialog into the frenzy that we seem to see daily in our local and national media outlets, the candidates have a calming influence, sharing their hearts and being present with their electorate. There is no animosity, no name-calling, no reputation smudging. Our students are exploring the electoral process through the candidacies of Elbert and Sherman, guinea pigs in Ms. Demler’s 3rd grade class.
Before you dismiss this exercise as silly, think of how much our students are learning. From creating an oval office complete with pictures of past guinea pig presidents to ensuring only registered voters get to place a vote, our students are experiencing electoral politics and campaigning at its best. And, they are doing so in an environment where positivity is the norm rather than the exception. Instead of separating themselves into camps behind walls of rhetoric, they are coming together as a team, creating a sense of purpose and belonging. Isn’t that the way we’d like all of our elections to be?
A week or so ago I shared with our faculty some links they could use throughout the election season. I’ve copied them below for those of you who are interested.
The Independent School Magazine’s blog also provides some good guidance:
In general, I invite you to join our faculty and me in framing the election in terms of our motto – Respect yourself. Respect others. Take responsibility for your actions. I hope that focusing on topics like civic engagement and the electoral process in democratic societies will help our school avoid some of the contentious rhetoric, fear, and anxiety that our fellow educators report spilling into their classrooms.
Difficult elections are part of our nation’s history (1800, 1860, 1912, and 2000 come to mind) and we are likely to have them again. In 2020, here’s hoping we’ve learned from 2016 and follow a process that celebrates civility and respectful discourse - more akin to the one our 3rd graders are leading.