Stand Your Common Ground: 7 Agreements for Schools in Polarized and Violent Times

We need to prevent the political polarization from getting worse — including in our schools. Whether you are a parent, educator, student, or neighbor — and no matter what side of a political issue you’re on — below are seven agreements that can help us find common ground in these polarized and troubled times.

#1. Every child should feel safe:

Sometimes a parent will tell their child that if another kid punches you first, you can punch them back. But even the parent who allows for self-defense, usually doesn’t want their kid to throw the first punch. None of us want schools to be places where violence happens. We can all agree on that. School communities should solve problems in non-violent ways, and weapons have no place inside schools. Weapons make serious harm more likely when normal tempers flare. (We’ll return to this discussion of weapons and schools below, including a note on the role of police.)

#2. No child should feel ashamed:

Children are born into this world without a choice in the matter. What we teach and how we teach it should not make kids feel ashamed of the homes they come from. That doesn’t mean that identity and upbringing are irrelevant. Far from it. If I was brought up in the Catholic church, or in a Jewish community, or as part of a Black Baptist tradition, that upbringing and identity will influence how I view the world. If I am from a Jewish family and my class is learning about the Holocaust, my Jewish identity will probably influence my learning experience. If I’m from a Black family and have ancestors who fought for their freedom, that knowledge and identity will influence how I experience US history lessons. Teachers should not ignore the importance of a student’s upbringing and identity, and they should be aware of their own identity and how it may shape how they teach.

#3. “Born in the USA” is a good song:

People across the political spectrum have loved this Springsteen song for decades. Ronald Reagan played it at his campaign rallies. And it expresses a sentiment that citizens on the political left and right can appreciate: that patriotism can include both love of country and critique. No matter our political party, there’s plenty that can unite us in cultural and political realms. Even matters that used to divide us don’t divide us as much anymore. For instance, recent data suggests that “six-in-ten Americans are worried climate change will harm them in their lifetimes.” That’s most of us. We may not agree about the causes, or how to stop it, but more and more people now acknowledge the problem. There will be floods that threaten our neighbors in the valleys. August heatwaves will take the lives of our elderly. Friends who work in fields and on road crews will labor under increasingly brutal sun. And then there are terrible fires and hurricanes. Common concerns like these can help us find common cause and guide what we teach in schools.

#4. Learning should be challenging:

Every parent wants their child to be challenged in school. This means kids should be presented with appropriately difficult tasks, be supported to try hard and learn from mistakes. It also means we should study topics that challenge us as critical thinkers. Schools needn’t shy away from contemporary concerns, including political topics. Families talk to kids about real world matters all the time. Schools should, too. Take the topic just mentioned above — from the elementary grades on up, young people need to be confronting the problem of climate change right now. And, educators, when you engage students in important topics like these, please do it with care. Some kids have parents who drive fuel trucks, delivering petroleum to make a living. Some kids have parents who drive electric cars that few other families can afford. Some kids have parents who are climate activists, others have parents working for the corporations the activists decry. As we agreed above, it’s important to understand the backgrounds and identities of our students. And educators should keep families in the loop about what’s being studied. “No more surprises,” a parent once told me when I was a school principal. He was right to ask for transparency about what was being taught.

#5. Be sincere:

Schools thrive on trust. Parents need to trust educators with the welfare of their children. Students need to trust each other in order to learn from each other. What builds trust? Sincerity, honesty, and transparency build trust. Lies, misinformation, and hidden meanings erode trust, and so they have no place in school.

For teachers, this means sharing information with families and the wider community about what is being studied. A good way to do this is to pull local knowledge and expertise into the school. “Inform through engagement,” I like to say. Assignments that ask kids to bring in information and artifacts from the home are a simple way to do this. If you’ve got a unit on global warming coming up, students could survey a family member about their views, or about what news sources they trust when it comes to climate. In this way, families get to share useful information with the teacher, and the teacher is simultaneously sharing information with families.

For students, of course being honest is important. This means doing your own work and citing your sources. It also means sincere communication with others. Sometimes jokes are fine, but not if they have a double meaning that puts down or dehumanizes others. Vulgar hidden meanings, dirty jokes, dehumanizing insults — regardless of what you intend — are not OK.

For family members and administrators, being sincere and transparent means a commitment to dialogue. We must talk, face to face, whenever possible. When we ask questions and share our thoughts and stories, we find commonalities. This helps us meet the needs of the children we are educating in partnership.

Speaking of adults in partnership, let’s return to our first agreement about keeping children safe. Ours is a polarized time. Imagine that the polarization, distrust and anxiety worsen. The impulse to carry arms and do violence is a phenomenon on the political right and left. It’s not hard to imagine that it gets more extreme.

If things do get worse, there will need there to be places for children to go that are free of imminent threat. Sometimes churches are seen as places where anyone can find sanctuary. But our church communities often mirror our political polarization. Public schools, however, are still places where people of different religious backgrounds and diverse racial and cultural identities co-exist every day. Thus our next agreement asserts that schools should be safe spaces for every child, even in times of political violence.

#6. Schools can be sanctuaries:

Just as some schools are municipal shelters where people can go during storms and other dangers, a school in a time of violent unrest could be a designated safety zone, where any child or family can go for sanctuary. It’s upsetting to imagine increased violence in our communities, but we must acknowledge that our nation is in a difficult place. We have a presidential election coming up that could further polarize our communities. Let’s pledge that no matter what happens, if there’s rising political violence, every child can find sanctuary in the public school. No weapons allowed at all, other than in the hands of fair and effective law enforcement officers, those sworn public servants whose job is to protect every child.

#7. We can learn from our mistakes:

Owning and learning from our mistakes is important for everyone, including those with positional authority in schools and the community. I’m sure I’ve made mistakes in writing these assertions. As I drafted this piece, I asked for feedback from community members who don’t always agree with me. They’ve helped me see mistakes in the past, and they were generous with their feedback — and pushback — this time. But there are still disagreements underneath these agreements, and there’s need for more dialogue. For instance, I know that the assertion I made about law enforcement needs deeper exploration. The links I shared take us to the work of Rachel Kleinfeld, an expert in violent democracies, someone I heard talk recently at an event hosted by Erik K. Ward. I’ve only just started to explore her work and I need to begin discussing it with others.

Ongoing dialogue

I can be reached through my website or at the Upper Valley Educators Institute where I work with educators on the path to becoming school principals. Let’s keep the dialogue going — and model the same for our kids.

Our schools should not be places that create dangerous divisions out of people’s differences. And we should beware of those who gain fame or win elections by making families and educators hostile with each other. A commitment to dialogue is the best interest of our kids. When is it ever good for children when the adults who care for them are fighting?

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T. Elijah Hawkes

T. Elijah Hawkes

www.ElijahHawkes.com Educator, author of WOKE IS NOT ENOUGH: School reform for leaders with justice in mind (2022) and SCHOOL FOR THE AGE OF UPHEAVAL (2020)