During 2016 Election Cycle, Schools Fight for Civility
The loss of civility on the campaign trail vacillates between being simply disappointing, to being disgusting, demeaning and frightening. The worse it gets, the more attention it is given and the larger the crowds watching become. Wasn't it just weeks ago that we heard "politically correct" discarded as a ridiculous constraint on expression and kindness take a back seat to the worst things that can be said as a way to enhance readiness for the presidency. And, all of this is inflamed by the speed and appeal of social media. The change in decorum and the rules of dialogue will undoubtedly have an impact on our students and their parents.
The Problem Schools Face
We watch candidates attack each other personally for what they say and how they look, make fun of and interrupt each other and those moderating the debates or interviewing them, engage in name calling to embarrass and belittle reminiscent of a school recess period from years ago. We listen while broad-brush accusations and descriptions are associated with groups by nationality, by religion or by race or height. All reinforce the very models for behavior of children that we have worked to eliminate. What will happen when, in the in-school elections for class officers, students engage in name-calling, mocking, and overall disrespect? What leverage will school leaders have over their culture of civility and respect, when the media has the lack of civility and disrespect playing on a 24-hour loop?
Schools have codes of conduct. Maybe it is time to revisit them. Let's be sure they are clear and identify the behaviors that are expected of all in the school community. But, beware that unless the community is involved in reaffirming them, we will stand on increasingly shaky ground when enforcing them. It will be the right place but it may also be a lonely place to find oneself. As presidential candidates elevate name-calling and rely heavily on rumor rather than fact as models of communication, our job as educators to lead civil, respectful, inclusive environments is being challenged and is ever more critical.
What is name-calling but the labeling of a person? Actually, we are more prone to it than one might realize. Students carry the label of "at risk" from early years. How can they outgrow it? Students who are continually late or who need discipline often are called "recidivists" or "frequent flyers". Students who face learning challenges are called "learning disabled" or "special education students". The "me" or "us" is always better than those upon whom the label is applied. Name-calling is a shortcut, sometimes not even meant to be derogatory, but to classify for communication purposes. We also identify students for their good acts with labels like "s/he's a good kid". But the slippery slope begins when that becomes the way we communicate. In our culture, you are a criminal if you are convicted of a crime, the label overtakes the whole person and redefines. We identify people by one act, or one difference, and make it the whole of who they are. With children, the label sticks. It serves as feedback to them about how they are seen and who they are. We inform the development of their identities. So what makes our name calling different from what we are seeing among candidates and their supporters?
This campaign highlights name-calling taken to a lower level because it serves no purpose other than to diminish and humiliate while making the perpetrator stronger. Long ago, we all learned about bullies, victims and by standers...well, we now see it playing out in our national politics. Some enjoy the spectacle; we find it ugly, a troubling reminder of how we, as human beings, can behave.
Leaders, Take Action
So we return to the role of leaders and teachers in this contentious time. If we are to accept the now common differential that exists between what is called hard skills and soft skills, then attention must be paid to soft skills. This is not an assembly program, hearing a speaker, or a unit on civility. It is time for applied learning; there are ways to embed the soft skills, including civility, when students are engaged in real world, authentic, collaborative problem solving. It is in school that most learn how to deal with differences.
Educating the 21st century student demands learning in experiences that require collaboration and communication as well as creativity and critical thinking. As districts, schools, and classrooms shift into designing their learning opportunities to optimize these characteristics, the teaching and valuing of civility and respect are naturally embedded. One cannot grow as a collaborator and communicator or work with a team on projects without being civil and respectful. If we do not step up and begin having conversations within our schools about the behaviors students are observing in the media and the different values we, within the schools hold, what will happen? The answer will appear when the students in the audience watching their classmates give speeches while running to be class officers, call out in support or boo and get called to the office? On what ground will we stand when the parents of those children are called in to discuss their children's behavior? We all risk becoming victims of the behaviors we are witnessing daily as they slip back into our lives.
The attention of our nation is focused on this election cycle. As educators we best use this opportunity to have communities question their values and reinforce the behaviors that have served them. Students at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville, in this one minute, forty second video can serve to open the door with leaders, teachers, students, parents and the whole school community.