Denny Smith
Leadership and Development Trainer

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 seems to be at an all-time high.

While many lament the current political climate in America, it presents a golden opportunity to restore civility, growth, and change. Our recent campaign has caused people to either engage in vehement political rhetoric 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. It is imperative that we 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. 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 we needn’t ponder whether or not we should, but declare that we must. It has nothing to do with partisan politics and 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 is needed now more than at any time in our recent history.

We must impress upon our students that civility, or lack thereof, will greatly determine what America will look like ten or fifteen years from now. We need to teach them, by example, to replace blistering rhetoric with thoughtful, well-informed, and meaningful dialogue. When speaking to young people I ask this favor of them. “Will you young people please teach us older folks how to behave?”

The challenge for administrators is to provide training for teachers and other staff members to teach and direct civility as a way of life in school. It is not meant to replace academic performance, but to enhance it.

We want to encourage courageous and open dialogue about challenges that face us, so let’s look at a partial list of learnable skills to use as a guideline for doing so. You can start with your administrative team, then develop a focus on respect and civility that permeates the entire district.

At the top of the list is to find common ground. Few people would disagree that it is the first step to calm and civil discourse.

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 with staff, parents, and community members he asked if they could agree on one thing – that every student has the right to be safe in school. Once they established common ground, he skillfully guided people to navigate some rough waters with pointed but civil dialogue and safety for LGBT students became reality.

It is difficult 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 opinion. This takes an advanced level of consciousness that is achievable with awareness and practice.

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 and teach our students to do the same. Saying, “We’re getting heated here, let’s settle down and stick with the issues,” can pave the way to calmly redirecting the discussion to the issue at hand.

When being interrupted, putting a hand up, and quietly saying, “Please let me finish, then I will listen to what you have to say,” can be highly effective. You can agree to disagree and move on in a calm and controlled manner.

A short article merely scratches the surface as we explore ways to promote and teach civility in our society. If you are determined to move forward with a program in your district, it will happen, and skill and technique will naturally evolve. Information and educational opportunities are available in abundance. The major ingredient is your personal commitment to lead and to make a difference. The same is true for each teacher. 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 that we do start.

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