There is little doubt that our political process has rarely faced the serious challenges we currently encounter. The level of divide, disrespect and downright hate is at its highest level in my lifetime.
While many lament the current political climate in America, I profess that it presents us with a golden opportunity to bring about civility, growth and change. Our recent campaign has caused people to either engage in vehement political debate or to avoid it completely. Neither is the answer.
It is imperative that we the people get involved at the grassroots level if we are to survive and replace angry partisan bickering with civil, respectful dialogue. We need to focus less on whether we like or dislike a politician or party and turn our attention to how policies affect us now and in the future. The skills necessary to achieve this can be learned, and if they can be learned they can be taught.
So the question that educators face is this: Should we teach civility in our schools? Perhaps the answer is not to ask whether we should, but to declare that we must. It has nothing to do with partisan politics but everything to do with our job as educators to create a safe and welcoming society with opportunity for all to live a rich full life. Education has always been on the leading edge of social change and change may be needed more now than at any time in our recent history.
This fall I campaigned on a college campus and before I talked about any issue or candidate, I informed the students that my mission was to promote civility in politics. I reminded students that their involvement or lack of involvement would greatly determine what America will look like ten or fifteen years from now and that their involvement needed to be civil to be effective. I asked a favor. “Would you young people please teach us older folks how to behave?”
The challenge for you administrators would be to provide training for your teachers and other staff members to teach and direct civility as a way of life in school. It is not meant to replace academic achievement but to enhance it.
Keeping in mind that we want to encourage courageous and open dialogue about challenges that face us, let’s take a look at a partial list of learnable skills to use as a guideline for doing so. You can use this with your own administrative team as you develop a focus on respect and civility that permeates the entire district.
At the top of the list is to find common ground. When I was working on campus I had a flyer that highlighted civility in politics. Few people would disagree with the need for that so we immediately found agreement, then moved on with further discussion that was pleasant and enjoyable.
Bruce Watkins was the Superintendent in St. Cloud when they were working to include LGBT language into the district’s safety policy, long before it was mandated to do so. It was a volatile issue and tensions were high, so at the beginning of each discussion he asked those present if they could agree that every student should be safe in school. Once they established common ground, he skillfully guided people to navigate some rough waters with courageous but civil conversation and the policy became a reality.
It is challenging but necessary to accept and respect everyone. That doesn’t mean that you have to agree with them, but that you honor their worth as a human being and respect their right to their opinions. This takes an advanced level of consciousness, but with awareness and practice it is achievable.
The art of questioning is one of the most persuasive tools available. Before you express your views, find out what is important to the other person, then listen. That’s hard to do because we seem to be vaccinated with phonograph needles, but effective listening is imperative to becoming a good communicator. Active listening means your motivation for listening is not to decide what you are going to say next, but to really understand more about the other person. Statements like “That’s interesting, tell me more,” or questions like, “How did you come to that conclusion?” or “Can I ask you a tough question?” can open channels of communications.
As difficult as it is, we all need to learn how to get out of attack mode. Giving each other the right to say, “We’re getting a little heated here, let’s try to calm down and stick with the issues,” can pave the way to redirecting the discussion back to the issue at hand.
When being interrupted, an effective technique may be to put your hand up and calmly say, “Please let me finish, then I will listen to what you have to say.” And you can always agree to disagree, then move on.
A short article merely scratches the surface as we explore ways to promote and teach civility in our society. It is impossible to even begin in just one writing, but if you are determined to move forward with a program in your district, it will happen and skill and technique will naturally evolve. Information is available in abundance — the major ingredient is your personal motivation to lead and make a difference. The same is true for each teacher. A little bit of knowledge coupled with a huge dose of commitment can make civility a reality in every classroom.
The major decision is not how to start or when to start. The major decision is to start. •
Denny Smith is a former teacher and coach, a motivational speaker, and author committed to making our schools and communities safe and welcoming for all people. More information is available at www.dennysmith.com or by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.