by Sandy Jiménez
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As a consequence of the 2016 presidential election, nonstop combative communications emanating from the White House and widening immigration raids that threaten to separate families, students are experiencing a variety of feelings ranging from anxiety and fear to powerlessness and vulnerability. Recognizing that even adults can feel overwhelmed and destabilized, educators advise that the best paths to create a positive school climate are at the individual school level.
These were among the points raised on a tele-town hall his month in which educators from across the nation heard strategies on how to address school climate issues, build community trust and empower students though the use of restorative justice, a process that empowers students to resolve conflicts on their own and in small groups.
In her remarks to the group, Lily Eskelsen García, a Utah elementary school teacher and president of the National Education Association, said:
We do not need to wait for a governor, state legislature, or president to make the change we need. At our buildings and our school districts, we have the most agency to make change. We are the powerful voices. Together, through our dialogue with colleagues and students, and our communities, we can make a wave of change.
Eskelsen García was joined by Fakhra Shah, a San Francisco high school social studies teacher, and Ali Michael, director of the Center for the Study of Race and Equity in Education at the University of Pennsylvania. Michael sparked a national dialogue last November with her viral postelection blog post titled “What should we tell the children?”
In her post, Michael wrote: “Tell them, first, that we will protect them. Tell them that we have democratic processes in the U.S. which make it impossible for one mean person to do too much damage. Tell them that we will protect those democratic processes . . . Tell them, second, that you will honor the outcome of the election, but that you will fight bigotry. Tell them bigotry is not a democratic value, and that it will not be tolerated at your school. Tell them you stand by your Muslim families. Your same sex parent families. Your gay students. Your Black families. Your female students. Your Mexican families. Your disabled students. Your immigrant families. Your trans students. Your Native students.”
Shah and Michael shared a number of ways to assess school climate and foster respectful dialogue. Michael defined a positive school climate this way: “A positive school climate is a place where students can show up to schools and be their full selves and not feel afraid or anxious when sharing their political views . . . feel the safety necessary to learn.” She explained, “When we disagree with other people, let’s support the person and the intention, but confront the impact of what they are saying.”
The most effective steps to establish a positive school climate, said Shah, “require building trust and building community” mainly by giving teachers, staff and students an opportunity to channel their opinions in a safe and respectful manner. Michael sees school climate as a launching point, a way to encourage people to talk to someone with whom they disagree and listen without needing to speak. “With young kids, we need to teach them to learn how to love each other. With older kids, we need to teach them how to discuss their political opinions, and not shout them. And with our colleagues, we need to learn how to call them in, not call them out.”
When building a positive school climate, agreed Shah and Michael, it is important to remember that there is no magic formula, but rather a simple process fueled by listening and creating inclusiveness. You don’t have to be a professional or expert on the topic of social justice, but rather target these issues one step at a time and facilitate trust-building relationships between students and school staff. Creating an inclusive and supportive school space will foster a welcoming and embracing environment.
Some of the strategies educators are using:
Create a Team
- Find out about the unique skills of each member.
- Identify any important voices missing from the conversation.
- Develop a plan for how the team will stay connected.
Understand the Challenges Ahead
- Deepen your understanding of how difficult issues play out in your school and community.
- Write down who these issues effect and the impact on your school and community.
Make a Plan for Action
- Identify the causes of the issues your students, school and community are facing.
- Set specific and measurable goals (changes to school policy or district policy)
- Develop a visual map of who holds influence in your school community.
- Develop a plan for action.
Editorial Note: For resources to build your school climate team and reach out to your community, visit https://neaedjustice.org/school-climate/.