Our babies are coming of age amidst acts of terror, global wars, political polarization, economic inequality, climate crisis, and a recent increase in various forms of hate. Our teachers, students, and communities have needs, hopes, and concerns that are—in part, at least—our job to address. But what do we do when members of our community have varying beliefs about how to best address these issues? One thing is for certain: we must find ways to lead through conflict and polarization to best serve our school communities. I plan on sharing lessons I’ve learned from my 30 year journey in education in a six-part series: The Six Ls of Inclusive Leadership. In this article I’m exploring the importance of “Leveraging Your Context.”
Explore the Historical Context
The current culture wars in public education are not a recent phenomenon. As education leaders we have all studied historic public education debates that have polarized the masses, and we are familiar with media headlines that reflect the broad range of ideological, cultural, and political differences within our society. Like many of you, I have lived through highly divisive communal debates about student discipline, accountability, school choice, testing, class size, school closures, vaccine policies, and arming teachers, just to name a few. While the specific issues and arguments may have changed over time, competing visions of what education should be, and how it should be delivered, have been the mainstay in public discourse.
It is imperative for us to remember that moments of polarization, while challenging, can also serve as catalysts for progress and change. They prompt us to engage in dialogue, find common ground, and seek solutions to pressing issues. Despite ideological and political differences, our nation has a history of coming together in bipartisan education efforts. No Child Left Behind (NCLB) and the Common Core State Standards are two examples of bipartisan efforts that sparked important conversations about the role of standards, assessment, and accountability in American education. While Common Core and NCLB are not without critiques and have generated contentious debates, they compelled us to the noble conversation of “what” should be taught in schools, “which” children are persistently experiencing shortfalls, and “how” we ought to respond.
While the current path forward may be uncertain, history reminds us that humanity has a remarkable ability to transcend its divisions and emerge stronger on the other side. Reminding myself of this historical context—that leaders before me have overcome challenges by bringing together disparate voices in service to a common goal —empowers me to contribute to that legacy of leading through conflict.
Leverage Your Local Context
Grounding yourself in historical context can serve as a powerful reminder that, despite whatever turmoil is brewing, it is possible to unite your school community around the shared goal of fostering an environment where students are safe, engaged, and prepared to participate in civic life. Understanding and leveraging your local context will give you the tools to make that possibility a reality. I've found I was able to do this in three ways:
- Attending as many community meetings as possible
- Intentionally engaging with stakeholders who were critical of the school system
- Staying positive and solution-oriented and spreading my optimism about the future
I built my career in Florida public schools, starting as a math teacher in Broward County and eventually becoming superintendent of Brevard County. As a superintendent, crisis management is a known part of the job. Furthermore, as a superintendent in a state that is particularly vulnerable to severe weather events, I learned very quickly that hurricane response would be a uniquely complex part of my job. I had to balance the need to safeguard lives with the importance of maintaining educational continuity. How far in advance of a known weather event would I close the schools? How long would the schools stay closed? And what were parents and teachers to do in the meantime?
I learned that my community had strong opinions about all of these questions, and that those opinions were vast and varied. The first time I made the decision to close school in anticipation of a hurricane, I initially had the support of the community. But it wasn’t long before that support turned to critique. Through the personal and professional anguish of feeling unappreciated, I soon learned from my constituents that it is nearly impossible for a community to function properly when schools are not in session. Schools are the lifeblood of a community. I was able to channel my community's discontent into constructive feedback that allowed me to better prepare for future weather events in a way that shortened the duration of school closures.
I learned about the importance of investing in relationships early and often. Identify spaces in your community where you can have a regular presence. When I transitioned from Broward to Brevard, I was intentional about learning and ingraining myself in the local community. Of course, I spent time having personal conversations with my staff, including instructional and non-instructional employees. I attended events hosted by community organizations, from the NAACP annual banquet to the quarterly chamber luncheon to the Kiwanis morning breakfast, and I hosted town halls of my own. It is important to note that I wasn’t only meeting with the people who were already engaged and supportive of the school district; I made a point to enter spaces where people were critical of the school system or perhaps had not expressed any interest in the school system at all. In making myself available to the full population of my community, I could ensure that I was aware of what people saw as pressing issues and I could take varying perspectives into consideration before making any decisions. Lastly, I was aggressively unapologetic about leveraging social media as a tool in supporting my desire to be connected with the people I served. Using every tool at your disposal for community engagement is critical for inclusive and supportive leadership.
Being accessible to your constituents will help you keep a finger on the pulse of your community so you can identify and address issues before they become full-blown crises. For example, if you are aware of parent concerns about the books being taught in your schools, you can anticipate that teachers might be struggling with text selection and provide teachers with resources that will help them navigate conversations with parents.
In short, studying the historical context of our field allows us to learn from the experiences of leaders who have come before us, and immersing ourselves in the local context gives us the tools to anticipate and meet the ever-changing needs of today's teachers and students.
Next month I’ll share part two of my series and discuss the importance of leaning into discomfort. Stay tuned!
About the Author: Desmond K. Blackburn, PhD is President and Chief Executive Officer at Facing History & Ourselves, a national nonprofit organization that works with school systems to use lessons of history to challenge teachers and their students to stand up to bigotry and hate. He has spent nearly 30 years as a career educator (teacher, principal, superintendent, adjunct professor, and author). To find out how Dr. Blackburn and the Facing History team can support you, contact him here.