How Schools Can Build Unity in Divided Times

It is both a fascinating and a daunting time to be educating young people. While many of us in the field of education believe that unity is foundational to a school’s mission every day, I believe we need to rethink the way we understand and teach this seemingly timeless concept. For unity carries special weight and resonance in our current political climate. We are educating students in a moment characterized not by unity but by division, a moment that has seen an increase in bias-related incidents, the inability of our two major political parties to find common ground, and the widening gap in perspective based on economics and identity politics.
 
As we have seen, for some of our students and teachers, the events leading up to and following this year’s presidential election have been a wake-up call and a call to action. Teachers across the country are reporting that their students are asking new and different questions in class — questions about equity and social justice, questions about the reverberation of history in the current cultural and political moment, and questions about how they can get more involved and make a difference.
 
A good number of our students have become more actively engaged citizens and are busy writing to senators, participating in marches, and attending town hall gatherings and rallies. This generation’s newfound interest in the political landscape has changed the nature of the conversations we are having in our classrooms and in our hallways — and, by extension, changed the nature of our jobs as educators.
 
Regardless of students’ level of commitment to active citizenship or a political stance, whenever I speak with students, what I hear consistently is a yearning for human connection and solidarity. With so much division around us, it is imperative for schools and educators to model for students what it looks like to do the hard work of finding common ground and uniting around similarities while also carefully and civilly considering, confronting, and discussing our differences.
 
But how, exactly, are educators to navigate this tricky tightrope in their classrooms? And where does this kind of classroom activity rank in the seemingly endless and ever-growing checklist of competing priorities at our schools?

Like many other schools, The Hewitt School (NY) embraces students, faculty, staff, families, and alumni who represent a wide range of socioeconomic, racial, religious, personal and political identities and who are responding to the current political climate in a variety of ways.
 
As I sat down to write a few words to my school community, I came across a photo of a woman holding a handwritten sign above her head that read: “You Can’t Unify With Hate.” Immediately, I found myself agreeing with the sentiment. Then I asked myself, “If you can’t unify with hate, with what can you unify?” While the opposite of hate — love — might have been the obvious answer, somehow I didn’t find the concept of love specific enough to be helpful.
 
Instead, I have centered my thinking around three ways that schools and educators can build unity in these divided times.
 
Hope

The first thing we can do is hope and know that hoping is a commitment to finding new and better directions. It has been said that “hope is not a strategy.” But hope is a mindset and a critical part of achieving a strategy based on what is possible. The late historian Howard Zinn writes:

To be hopeful in bad times is not just foolishly romantic. It is based on the fact that human history is a history not only of cruelty, but also of compassion, courage, kindness…. If we see only the worst, it destroys our capacity to do something. If we remember those times and places … where people have behaved magnificently, this gives us the energy to act….
 
Engage
 
The second thing we can do is engage with those whose views differ from ours and know that meaningful engagement requires slowing down and listening. To engage with those who have different points of view, we must spend time with them. Deep engagement and inclusivity are enduring human values, but they have shone especially brightly in these times. In Change Leadership: A Practical Guide to Transforming Our Schools, Tony Wagner and Robert Kegan write:
 
Engagement … means creating a culture where working together to address problems becomes the norm…. Engagement requires leaders to model learning and actively express differences in views, drawing on those differences as resources for learning. It … requires the presence of social norms that create the psychological safety for people to make suggestions, offer challenges, and try on new ideas.
 
Challenge
 
The third thing we can do is care enough to challenge one another and know that challenging is a way to practice the values we profess. With hope in our hearts and a commitment to engaging with differing points of view, we are then prepared to challenge ideas and actions that confound, trouble, or upset us. This requires holding others and ourselves accountable for the integrity of our words and deeds, as I see the members of my school community do so often when they respectfully and civilly discuss and debate their differences. Nigerian novelist Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie writes:

Now is the time to talk about what we are actually talking about…. Now is the time to discard that carefulness that too closely resembles a lack of conviction…. Now is the time to elevate the art of questioning…. Now is the time to frame the questions differently…. Now is the time to counter lies with facts, repeatedly and unflaggingly, while also proclaiming the greater truths: of our equal humanity, of decency, of compassion.  
 
As we move toward the final months of a school year we will not soon forget, let us reflect on the unique and critical role of schools and educators at this moment in our country’s history. Let us see this great challenge as a great opportunity. Let us hope in order to identify better directions. Let us engage with others whose views differ from ours. And let us care enough to challenge words and deeds so we can live our values. In doing so, we will demonstrate that we are far more united in our similarities than we are divided in our differences. If we teach our students nothing else, let us teach them this.
 

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