I can't believe that anybody would vote for him. What a moron!"
"How can people vote that way? Don't they have a conscience?"
Welcome to an incredibly rancorous and divisive U.S. election season. "Beliefs, value systems, political identity. Call it what you will, but Americans are more divided over politics … now than at any point for the last quarter-century," says journalist Nicole Debevec.1
She may be understating the case.
What's the tenor in your school's faculty room during this election year? My guess is that there are discussions about too much paperwork, too much testing, and too little time. Maybe the dialogue is about the local football team doing worse than expected, or perhaps teachers are sharing strategies for how best to train the principal. And hopefully the principal is doing better than the football team!
But it is a presidential election year, and if your school is like mine, there is a lot of conversation about the candidates, some of it quite heated. Many of my staff members are avidly following the state, federal, and local elections; and some are working to support a candidate or two. The political bumper stickers in the staff parking lot are many and varied. So, too, is the conversation in my faculty lounge.
This is as it should be. Democracy relies on citizens—including educators—becoming involved. And educators often become very involved. Whether working for the passage of a tax levy or supporting candidates who value education, teachers and principals are often integral parts of the election process.
That's sure the case for me. As a principal, I've welcomed voters who used my school as their polling place. Our district had a bond issue on the ballot, and we figured that offering coffee and donuts to voters wouldn't hurt our chances. Today, I support candidates, attend their rallies, and avidly discuss politics with anyone who will listen.
Sometimes this political passion can present a problem. That's because when we are talking politics, we can forget to apply the same principles of respect that are so important in other interactions.
We know that all people warrant respect simply because, well, they are people. Yet appreciating people who are different from us isn't always easy. We are comfortable with folks whose appearance and behavior reflect our own identities. We fall in concert with those people who root for the same teams, favor the same television shows and movies, and even dress similarly to us. After all, their actions support who we are, so of course we are predisposed to favor them!
But it's different when people are different. Try as we might to avoid it, we often feel wariness, suspicion, maybe even fear of someone unlike us. Fortunately, when we become aware of our biases, most of us work to get beyond this feeling, and we often succeed.
Sometimes, however, we fall short when it comes to politics. The respect and thought that we give diversity go out the window when it comes to Democrats, Republicans, tax plans, and tea parties. We wouldn't think of making a racist statement, yet we make incendiary comments about political movements, put down the integrity and motives of candidates, and question the intelligence of people who vote differently than we do. We forget—really, we ignore—the fact that this behavior is an affront to others as well as to the political process. And in schools, comments that demean others reverberate through the halls and can have a pernicious impact on a staff's morale and on the ability to communicate and collaborate.
Appreciating political diversity begins with looking inward. Might this be an issue for you? Have you been careless in your political comments? What about your staff? Has political diversity been discussed at a faculty meeting or by your school's diversity committee?
Progress always begins with identifying the problem, so ask others how they feel about the political discourse at your school. Consider bringing the issue up a faculty meeting. My hunch is that your faculty will agree that respect for political diversity is an issue that needs some attention, just as my faculty did. These conversations began at my school after a teacher correctly noted that we were not valuing diversity of political thought. Her comment caught everyone off-guard, including me, but the more we talked, the more we saw that she was right. Subsequently, we've discussed respecting political diversity at faculty meetings, and I've mentioned it in both staff bulletins and letters to parents.
If you make political discussions a topic for a faculty meeting, divide the group by counting off so that those who generally sit together—and who perhaps already agree—won't automatically be part of the same discussion. Then, have teachers talk among themselves in these smaller groups and see what results. Ask them to reflect on and share their thoughts about whether this is an issue at your school and, if so, what they might do to help create a climate of respect. A meeting like this gives the faculty an opportunity to practice the kind of dialogue that we want our students to learn. Such practice will no doubt come in handy when students start repeating the rhetoric they hear on TV.
The value of political diversity is too important an issue to ignore, particularly now. So when you hear heated talk in the faculty room, how will you respond?