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Opportunity in Moments of Opposition

The Pandemic and its attendant political tensions have given a new twist to how school leaders manage all their constituencies. Who would have thought, three years ago, that controversy around vaccine mandates, masks, lengths of quarantines, and teaching about social and racial justice would keep us awake at night?

Understandably, Faculty on the front lines, trying to keep students safe and enlightened, face these stressors even more directly, and we, as leaders, naturally want to protect them. 

But these dilemmas pose more subtle challenges, too, that sometimes work against facile categorization of outliers. How do we consider parents who are strong advocates of  “medical freedom” (i.e. against vaccine mandates), who are willing to leave schools they love to emigrate to other states that support their values? Their young children are well adjusted and dynamic; the parents, also, are good coaches and doting guardians; they also strengthen their schools with their work as thoughtful cheerleaders. These families challenge the media image of strident zealots at school board meetings. All the adjectives that others might apply to community members on that side of the fence—misguided, irrational, selfish—don’t always fit. 

The Critical Race Theory mantra poses an equally challenging problem. Yet when I fish for definitions of “social justice teaching” or “CRT” from parents concerned about indoctrination, the definition often narrows to a manageable chunk for discussion that fosters connection. No, I reply, we are not in the business of indoctrinating or shaming children. 

When the racial justice reckoning exploded in the independent schools in New York, my hometown—in part due to alumni of color who through the unforgiving mirror of social media excoriated their alma maters— schools reacted quickly by redesigning and marketing curriculum in many cases without communicating carefully the rationale for such change. Stung by their own naïveté and insensitivity after decades of preaching diversity amidst widening income gaps, these schools reacted with an urgency borne of guilt, which opened the door to push back from privileged white families who saw what was meant to be a virtuous embrace of justice as mere distraction and betrayal of purpose. Thus the battle began. 

So now instead of listening to each other the lines are drawn, as they seem to be everywhere, and leaders like me can get caught in no man’s land, scrambling to cultivate a strong defense after the fact. A return to harmonious interaction may not be possible, but education was never about full agreement anyway— for what is any good education without some friction? A way back to respectful sanity, however, is possible. Here are some considerations: 

  1. We will need to spend more time listening and withholding judgment, and look for sensible accommodation where law and logic provide a Venn diagram of modest agreement. 

  2. We will need to communicate more clearly and more frequently the rationale for programmatic and health-based decisions. For instance, What does it mean to teach social justice? How does exploring that notion foster good citizenship? Is that the only lens, or one of several, in studying history or literature? To what extent are we trying, unapologetically, to have kids embrace certain mission-centric values (there is a degree of inculcation in all education, after all), and do we offer enough opportunities to express rugged and opposing points of view without anxiety? 

  3. We say we want to teach empathy. But empathy has to work in all directions, and is hardest when we find a point of view toxic. Empathy does not mean acquiescence or agreement, but it requires great imagination and even role playing, something we want all our constituents to practice and for which independent schools are better suited than most. 

  4. We must know our values. At Mead, my progressive Pre-K - Grade 8 school, we say we teach kids HOW to think, not WHAT to think. Such a value should open doors. In times of political polarity and strong feelings, it is easy to stray from the how to the what. On the other hand, if the mission lays out clearly an explicit racial literacy and social justice focus, then clarity about the school’s position offers families who cannot tolerate such a focus to find alternatives or make their peace. We define the wiggle room, but the room always allows for some wiggle. 

Leaders of schools will need to be more savvy and more strategic about how to invite radically different world views into dialogue in the years ahead. On the national stage we have become addicted to the cathartic anger of zero-sum thinking. In schools, we have an opportunity to strengthen critical thinking capacities so as to avoid this addiction. We can cultivate in kids a better voice—and maybe bring their parents along in the process of hearing those voices. 

Peter Herzberg, Interim Head of School

 


 

 Peter Herzberg, Interim Head of School

Peter Herzberg has had an extensive career as a K though post secondary educator in teaching, leadership, and partnership building, in independent, public, and charter schools as well as community college. In this partnership and consulting work, he specializes in the innovation and design of curriculum, the building of more robust teaching cultures, media literacy, and cultivating student engagement. Prior to becoming Interim Head at Mead, where he served on the Board for many years, he worked in 7 different schools—more recently as the founder of the first all boys charter Elementary School, Boys Prep, in the Bronx, and prior to that Associate Head of the Brearley School in NY and Academic Dean at Greens Farms Academy. He is on the board of the educational nonprofit Change for Kids, was on the National Advisory Board of the News Literacy Project, and works on collective impact projects with DegreesNYC, a college-career readiness project. Peter also taught composition and writing at LaGuardia Community College, part of the City University of NY, before moving to the Interim Head position at Mead. He has an M.A in literature from Middlebury College and an Ed.M from Columbia Teacher’s College as a Klingenstein Fellow.

"The Mead School has unique potential, in its intimate, lab-like structure, to model what PreK-8 progressive schools might do at their best. Mead has always led the way in this regard, but the current cultural climate makes its work once again urgently relevant. This potential, and its faculty’s thoughtful, loving approach to kids, is what makes this work special." - Peter Herzberg

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