Wednesday, November 30, 2016

Schools are Counter-Cultural!

Years ago my mentor and former superintendent Dr. Anthony Bent remarked:  “Schools are counter-cultural.”  Today, as we prepare students to participate as active and engaged learners and citizens in a vibrant democracy, particularly in the wake of a noisy and acrimonious national election, his observation is especially meaningful.

Public schools are a microcosm of the larger community, representing the various socioeconomic, racial, political, ethnic, and religious differences that exist in our diverse and complex society.  Each day, children with wide-ranging abilities from a variety of family structures, backgrounds, faith communities, and neighborhoods stream into the public school to learn and grow together.  Public schools model, however imperfectly, the highest aspirations and ethos of a democratic society by promoting diverse viewpoints, valuing differences, and establishing collaborative and cooperative relationships among students.

For public educators it’s an incredible challenge—and an important responsibility—to respect both the local community's culture and to support a school culture that values the uniqueness of each child within a safe, tolerant, and courteous learning environment for all students where empathy, patience, and civility are encouraged. 

Unlike the broader community where rancorous debates, unseemly tweets, and boorish behavior are often tolerated, the schoolhouse must be a safe haven for considerate discourse, openness, fairness, and respect.  In the schoolhouse, diverse viewpoints should be encouraged and celebrated in developmentally appropriate ways, even if one's viewpoint makes another uncomfortable.  But it should always be a conversation and not a rant.  The children under our charge are expected to model the behavior some adults often eschew.

In that sense, then, schools are counter-cultural.

Shortly after the terrorist attacks of 9/11 when I was the principal at Shrewsbury High School, a handful of Muslim students approached me and asked if they could start a Muslim Student Cultural Club.  Given the context and the timing of their request, I was at first surprised and hesitant but quickly got behind the idea and asked the students to find a faculty advisor.

Several weeks later some staff, students, and parents expressed concern about hearing students speaking Arabic to one another, carrying the Koran, and praying on mats after school.  Who are these kids and what are they up to?  Why are we allowing this behavior in school?  They should act like us.  (The “us”, by the way, included Christians, Jews, Hindus, and nonbelievers.) Some of the Muslim students were teased or bullied; one or two refused to come to school.  The national mood at the time was tense and charged; and public schools, being a reflection of society, often mirrored a similar climate of anxiety and fear. 

It took time, but through education, patient dialogue, and perspective-taking we worked through the concerns and mistrust of the many about the few.  The teacher advisor and students even pulled off a teach-in and celebration of Islam for the whole school to enjoy.  We eventually broadened efforts to acknowledge and understand a variety of other ethnicities, races, and backgrounds—much of it the direct result of a few brave Muslim students who, at a time of national fear and uncertainty, simply wanted to get together to form a school club to learn about and support one another. As a country we remained wary of the terrorist abroad; but as a school community we got to know on a human level the Muslim sophomore wearing a hijab, seated in biology class, and, much like her classmates, racing to complete a lab before the bell and a lunch period with friends.

Eventually the Muslim Student Cultural Club and other student-driven initiatives around race, religion, sexual orientation, and disability awareness became incorporated into the educational and social fabric of our large and comprehensive high school.  What appeared at first to be at odds with the prevailing mood and norms of the broader society became routine and part of the school’s community and culture.  We simply expected more of ourselves and our students within the schoolhouse; we aspired to be better and demonstrate more civility.  In this way we became counter-cultural and reflected back to the broader community how it just might be possible to learn from and respect one another if we take the time to ask questions, listen deeply, and acknowledge another’s personal story.

As we approach a winter season of hope and peace, I remain excited about the work we can do as educators and parents in the Needham community to assist young people on their journey of learning, growth, and self-discovery.   Let’s continue to provide a space for students to be curious, innovative, compassionate, and civil. Let’s accept they will make mistakes and take wrong turns.  

Let's also continue to model for them the qualities, behaviors, and traits we know our community values and that will promote their growth and development. Let's acknowledge we won't always get it right.  And that's OK.

For the sake of the community and our children, let’s celebrate the idea that our schools are counter-cultural.  And let's be darn proud of it.

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