Four Acts of Resistance for Every School Leader Leading in the Trump Era
During my time as principal, I led through "A Day without Immigrants", "A Day without Women", a statewide teacher rally, and the national student walkout in response to the school shooting in Parkland, Florida. My monthly staff meetings took place the first Wednesday of the month. It didn't occur to me when I set the staff meeting calendar that election day is the first Tuesday of Novemeber. So yes, the morning after #45 was elected I had a 7:30am staff meeting. Two months before the election, there was a police shooting less than 10 miles from my school and a black man was killed. There were days of protests, the mayor implemented a city-wide curfew, and the school bell was still going to ring at 8:45am the next morning.
Each of these events challenged some aspect of my identity. Even though I wanted to go numb to make it through the day, I learned very quickly that I couldn't as a leader of almost 1000 scholars and a staff of 100+. When bigotry has a national platform, ignorance gains confidence and a domino effect of unethical practices follows. My kids and staff were aware of what was happening in our country and the conversation was not exempt from entering the school building. I could either ignore it, choosing the side of the oppressor, or create a space where our community could process, heal together, affirm our identities, and foster advocacy. I chose the latter because my school culture depended on it, and if we can't discuss these types of issues in school then what's the real purpose of school? With each event, I adopted these four actions to maintain a school culture were staff and students felt safe in the midst of bigotry, affirm our power, and resist as a principal.
1. Be flexible and feel
You can never plan the national and local events that impact your school community. When they happen you must be flexible. My November staff meeting of 2016, was the morning after #45 was elected. I learned #45 was elected the next morning when I woke up. The road leading to the election was divisive and bigotry won. I needed time to process and I knew my staff would too. I plan my staff meetings weeks in advance and I knew my agenda of "Six Mindsets for Understanding Behavior" was NOT going to fly. I had 90 minutes to rethink my game plan. I googled community circles while brushing my teeth. Community circles are a restorative practice that allows participants to share their thoughts, feelings, and concerns without judgement in a safe space.
I mentally prepared the agenda while getting dressed and on the drive to school. As soon as I arrived, I threw together a PowerPoint slide with our protocol and our entire staff meeting was a community circle. There were a few tears, some anger, confusion, and lots of wonders. Our students would be walking through our doors in an hour and there were a lot of valid emotions in the room. To be the best for kids we had to name how we felt without judgement and support each other. I saw the emotional load within the room slowly lighten as our community circle went on. At that moment my staff and I didn't need "Six Mindsets for Understanding Behavior" and I had to be okay with throwing my plan out the window.
As a leader you must allow yourself to feel and respond when community issues occur, despite what is on your calendar.
2. Name it and draw a clear line in the sand
Almost 90% of our student population identified as black or latinx, and almost 90% of my staff identified as a person of color. There were national and local events occurring that reinforced a negative narrative about the identities of my school community. This wasn't about politics. The role of a principal stands on the pillars of morality. If something occurs and the majority of my school community is impacted by it, I had a moral obligation to say something and do something. The day after the police shooting, I made an announcement over the intercom right before morning arrival to acknowledge the tragedy in our backyard, affirm the inevitable emotions of staff, and reinforce the importance of self-care during the school day. Every morning we start the day with a morning song that plays over the intercom as our scholars entered the building. That morning, I changed our morning song to "Royalty" by Sounds of Blackness. #googlethelyrics
North Carolina has one of the worst teacher salary schedules. Teachers across the state organized and planned a rally in Raleigh last May on the first day the North Carolina General Assembly was back in session. The rally was scheduled on a school day which meant teachers would have to take the day off to participate. My teachers had my support even if it meant I had to create an alternative schedule for the day. I named it and drew my line in the sand by writing a blog post in support.
How you name it and draw your line is up to you, but you must do it because silence is agreeance.
3. Create a space for staff and students to process
When your identity is questioned, Maslow's hierarchy of needs kicks in and the feelings of safety and belongingness are compromised. Instruction cannot happen when you feel unsafe and as if you don't belong. I knew we needed a common practice as a school to create safe spaces to discuss these issues when they would arise. I arranged summer training on community circles for the entire staff. When national/local events would occur throughout the year that significantly impacted our school community, staff were positioned to lead community circles with their students and create a safe space to discuss complex topics. Our school counselors and social worker were also a HUGE resource in supporting our staff with student discussions.
Our role as educators isn't to tell students what to feel, but rather to create spaces letting our kids know it's okay to feel and share how they feel. Think through the process or protocol your staff and students will use to process complex issues. Whatever it is, model it, give training on it, and make it a common practice.
4. Create a school wide opportunity for students to have voice
Very frequently, community circles led to our students feeling empowered and generating ideas on how to advocate. With the support of our dedicated staff, student ideas came to life and my response as a principal was always yes. For almost every national/local event that directly impacted our school community, we ended up creating an optional school wide opportunity for students to lift their voice. Here are a few examples:
- The week following the police shooting, we had "Black Out for Peace Day". Staff and students wore black to advocate for peace. Students made signs during their advisory and after lunch they took a loop in front of our building to march for peace with their signs.
- On "A Day Without Women", we wore red to advocate for women's rights. I changed our morning arrival song to include a playlist of songs celebrating the power of women ("I'm Every Woman" by Whitney Houston, "Run the World (Girls)" - Beyonce, "This Girl is on Fire" - Alicia Keys)
- The week following "A Day Without Immigrants", we had "Rep Your Country Day". Scholars and staff were encouraged to wear clothing and accessories representing their country of origin or country of their choice.
- Leading up to the national student walkout, I met with our student council to support them in planning. They decided to provide materials during advisory for students to make signs of advocacy and purchase 17 balloons for each grade level. Members of student council led community circles in their homerooms prior to the walkout to set purpose. When the walkout occurred, students displayed the signs of advocacy they created, and the 17 balloons were released to acknowledge each victims of the school shooting in Parkland, Florida.