Listening Through Conflict

In my twenty-three years as a teacher and administrator in independent schools, and in my twelve years of writing weekly newsletters, I have always kept my distance from the world of politics and encouraged teachers to do so as well. Of course, this becomes more challenging every four years, as presidential elections pit candidates with different values, views, and visions for America, and sometimes it gets acrimonious and personal.

I wrote these words four years ago, in the weeks leading up to the 2016 presidential election. A recent National Association of Independent Schools (NAIS) publication credited that election with creating “a climate of political polarization that few Americans had experienced before” and fueling a “divisive rhetoric and partisan combativeness that affected even the youngest students” in our schools.

Whether the 2016 election created, exacerbated, or simply displayed our nation’s deep rifts along racial, socioeconomic, geographic, and philosophical lines, most agree that the chasm between the two sides has only deepened since then.

To be sure, the upcoming election presents both opportunities and challenges. As just one example from TDS, our fourth graders have explored the process of running for president, dissected the difference between primaries and caucuses, investigated party platforms, and learned about the Electoral College.

Elections capture our attention, highlight our democracy in action, demand citizenship, make social studies texts relevant, and provide opportunities for healthy dialogue about important issues. All of that said, the intense, divisive rhetoric accompanying this hyper-polarized time often stands in the way of respectful conversation and debate.

As I mentioned at the start, for many years as a teacher, I was instructed to steer clear of opining about politics in the classroom. As a school leader, I don’t doubt the sagacity of this advice, but I find myself increasingly uncomfortable with the silence that results from it. Not all topics are political. At TDS, we don’t debate our core values. We strive daily to instill integrity, respect, compassion, responsibility, and resilience in our students, and we encourage them to hold one another, and everyone else, to these high standards. Furthermore, we stand firm in our commitment to respecting and protecting the worth and dignity of all persons. We understand that we all have much work to do on this front, and we aim to teach anti-racism and social justice as part of our commitment to “create awareness, develop cultural competence, and build a diverse and inclusive environment where all persons are valued for their unique qualities.”

Even as we delineate these non-negotiables, we also attempt to instill one trait that seems glaringly absent from the world of politics. Listening. And not just to our like-minded friends. Rather, as Margaret J. Wheatley expressed in her book, Turning to One Another:

“I believe we can change the world if we start listening to one another again… especially with those we call stranger or enemy… And I know with all my heart that the only way the world will change is if many more of us step forward, let go of our judgments, become curious about each other, and take the risk to begin a conversation.”

Visit the TDS playground at recess, and you’ll observe listening in action. When conflicts arise, teachers help the children to resolve them peacefully and productively. An important part of this involves understanding the other child’s thoughts and emotions. As kids get older, they learn to do this with less adult intervention. Raising a generation of empathetic citizens and leaders is our best hope for bridging the divides that currently exist in our nation.

Doug Norry
Head of School