Leading Public Schools as a School Principal in Polarized Times

Never has the job of an educator been more scrutinized than now: it seems like everyone has an opinion about what teachers, principals and school staff should or shouldn’t do. From forms of punishment to school curricula, diverging opinions from politicians, parents and medical authorities alike highly influence the school environment. Principals, in particular, are in the spotlight as societal conversations go beyond newspaper headlines and seep into classrooms.

Polarized political climates have added a new layer of challenges to the 2022 role of the principal, who must now reflect on issues such as racism, LGBTQ-phobia, immigration and social inequality, among other topics. Of course, these conversations are necessary to have as student populations diversify. However, it’s not an easy task for a principal to both educate themselves and advocate for change in the school.

Chris Orlando from Edutopia points out that “wading into these politically charged waters can benefit our students by helping them learn how to listen to one another and by creating a common civic culture. Sadly, though, this rarely occurs in our schools. This is due to fears of parental pushback and losing control of the classroom.” Despite this, the author concludes that “if we want to help students explore the complexities of their world and consider how they might reshape it, it’s essential that teachers guide students through today’s political climate.”

Facilitating Discussions

There are several ways in which principals can positively impact their students by taking a stand when these topics come up. First, though, it’s important to note that taking a stand doesn’t mean endorsing a certain political candidate or brainwashing children to share political opinions. Taking a stand means speaking out in the face of injustice and being firm about not tolerating prejudice or discrimination. This becomes even more urgent when teaching a diverse classroom with kids with a variety of backgrounds.

When interviewed by the National Education Association (NEA) about this subject, teacher Christine Nold said: “We can’t deny the experiences so many of our students are having in their lives. […] This idea of avoiding what is political means that there is nothing to be done in a classroom. It’s on us to provide the space to discuss these issues.”

Of course, providing this space for discussion can also be perceived as a bold move, one that may be heavily criticized by parents. But, as many educational professionals point out in the NEA article, the positive outcomes of this action supersede the negative criticism. As youth increasingly get their news through social media, there is the danger that they will fall into a wormhole of misinformation — where the line between facts and deceptions becomes distorted. As Chris Orlando points out, “the challenge that teachers face is to provide multiple perspectives on an issue, as there’s always a danger in just considering a single story, but also to encourage students to operate in a reality in which facts matter.”

Encouraging Critical-Thinking in the Classroom

Teaching students how to fact-check, question their sources and even question what narratives media push is a path toward teaching them to think for themselves.

At the same time, it’s important to reinforce that not all stories have two sides: when it comes to violent and blatant discrimination, it’s often clear which side is in the right. Regardless of what parents or politicians might think, the principal must act as a role model and show that condonement of violence, bigotry and discrimination threatens our democracy and will not be tolerated.

Some may perceive prinicpals’ encouragement of tough discussions as polarizing, but studies show that these conversations encourage students to be critical thinkers and engaged citizens. Learning to respect each other and consider more than one perspective is one of the most valuable lessons any student can learn.

Learn more about Southern Illinois University Edwardsville’s online Master of Science in Education in Educational Administration with a Specialization in Principal Preparation program.

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