School District Leaders - Say Something

Your school leaders need to hear your voice. The results of our presidential election have created tension in communities across the country. There are likely a variety of opinions among your school leaders, among your teachers, among your students, and among your families—even in places you would expect to be of like mind.

As a district leader, you are in a unique position to set the tone of the response to the election by setting strategies that bring school communities together through open, honest dialogue.  

1.      The first step is to name it—remind school leaders that schools are not immune to the issues playing out in the news and that without a proactive, non-judgmental stance, acts of division and fear will inevitably bleed into the fabric of their schools. As Dr. Rhoda Mhiripiri Reed, Associate Superintendent of Secondary Education in the Monterey Peninsula School District wrote to her school leaders the day after the election, “Whether your views and policies embrace cultural diversity or not, the students we serve cannot help the skin color they have, their language of origin, nor the complex gender dynamics they face. Because our students are Muslim, gay, Black, female, Mexican, disabled, immigrant, trans, Native, Asian, white, and more, a school leader's responsibility is daunting. It is your duty to help teachers ensure that students from all walks of life learn what being a responsible member of a civic society looks and sounds like.”

2.      Set and negotiate parameters and expectations with your school leaders. This does not mean prescribing a set of rules for them to follow, but rather engaging them in conversations about how they can best respond to the actions and emotions of their school community members. According to the Southern Poverty Law Center, there have been more than 700 hate incidents since the election, the majority of which have been anti-black, anti-immigrant, anti-Muslim, and anti-LGBT. What do you expect your school leaders to do or not do when incidents occur on campus? What is an acceptable response? What is not? What would you want a school leader to do if your child/family member was targeted? An entry point to negotiating parameters with your cadre of school leaders is to first set norms.  Glenn Singleton offers four agreements for Courageous Conversations, which can provide a starting point before venturing into a conversation about what you expect from your school leaders, what they expect from you as their supervisor, and what you expect from each other. When you communicate clear expectations, you are making the decision to protect your school leaders and give them permission to protect and respond to their school community in the same way.

3.       Encourage school leaders to create forums for students to express their opinions, feelings and concerns in safe spaces.  Students need an opportunity to talk about what the election results mean for their lives and their school communities.  Here it is important to remind school leaders that all of their stakeholders come with a different set of Mental Models. Their understanding of the world is based on life exposure and experiences. And mental models can become blind spots when they undermine the ability to see the world through others’ perspectives. This election season has created the opportunity to challenge our own mental models and marry 21st century skills with critical pedagogy, allowing students to express themselves through writing, fact finding, action research, analyzing the authenticity of text, communicating with elected officials, and engaging in debate from both their own and others’ perspectives. This type of dialogue allows students’ voices to be heard while raising consciousness about the relationship between education, democracy, and power.  It gives students the opportunity to make critical decisions about their role in dismantling acts of division and injustice.

4.      Be willing to practice courage. You are in a very critical position and your words will garner a response, regardless of whether you oversee 10 or 50 school leaders. Even the most strategic district leader will face both intended and unintended consequences for speaking up. And, if you personally represent any of the historically disenfranchised groups in our country, the stakes are especially high.

Your commitment to our students requires you to be proactive and not leave it up to your school leaders to figure out on their own. Go out on the limb that allows you to stay in the game and in the conversation.

Your school leaders need you.

About the Author — Nancy Gutierrez

Dr. Nancy Gutierrez is the Chief Strategy Officer for the NYC Leadership Academy.

Mental models can become blind spots when they undermine the ability to see the world through others’ perspectives.

Nancy Gutierrez