Ask an administrator about the state of politics in the classroom and, for the most part, you'll get the same answer: U.S. education — already inherently political at its core — is more charged now than at any other point in recent decades.
"Today there is far more politicization and polarization than in the past," said Mike Lubelfeld, superintendent of North Shore School District 112 in Illinois, during a Wednesday afternoon panel and fireside chat hosted by K-12 Dive. "Times of calm are several years behind us, and hopefully very soon in front of us."
Last year, nearly 50% of principals and 40% of teachers reported political issues were creeping into their jobs and becoming a source of stress, according to a nationally representative RAND survey. Researchers concluded that educators need more support to navigate politicized issues in their schools and classrooms, including clearer communication from leadership.
Over the course of the two sessions, K-12 Dive asked education leaders how they are leading through growing societal divisions to cultivate a sense of community among staff, students and other stakeholders. Here are four takeaways on their priorities.
Be accessible and visible
Quentin Lee, superintendent of Alabama's Talladega City Schools, said he makes it a point to be visible. For Lee, that can mean everything from reading to classrooms and picking up trash to helping in concession stands and riding buses to address student misbehavior.
"I have to be who I am 24/7, and my students see and they appreciate that," Lee said. "So then when you see them in the hallways and they say, 'Hey, Dr. Lee. What's going on, Dr. Lee?',that's the same conversation [as] when I'm at the Dollar General or the Walmart or the Target and I see my families."
Lee went viral in 2020 for a music video where he performed a parody of MC Hammer’s “Can't Touch This” to promote safe COVID-19 practices as students returned to school following pandemic closures.
For Henry Turner, principal of Newton North High School in Massachusetts, accessibility meant jumping on a 9 p.m. Zoom meeting with five teenagers, the mayor of Newton, and his district’s superintendent to negotiate terms of a school walkout that thousands of students had planned in protest after some peers had waved a Confederate flag on campus.
"Had I said, 'Well, I'm going to just wait until the morning to talk to these kids,' I would have been in a very different situation," Turner said.
Leaders should be accessible and visible even during times of broader community crisis, said Lubelfeld, whose community was affected by a July 4 mass shooting in Highland Park killing 7 people and injuring 48 others, including students.
"The first thing we did as a school district…is we said we're going to open up the school for counseling," said Lubelfield, whose district was out for summer vacation at the time. "Because we don't know what to do, we don't know what's going on, but we know schools are the center of the community."
Address fears head-on
Tackling misinformation and disagreements head on — with the ultimate goal of recentering the conversation — is another way district leaders are wading through the political turbulence.
"I think it's important for us to get underneath why the polarization exists and then for us to be committed to sitting in the discomfort," said Verletta White, superintendent of Roanoke City Public Schools in Virginia, "so that we can get out of the middle of these political arguments and that we can then be a catalyst for change."
Fears creating divides are often based on unknowns, said Turner. Adding to the fear is a shifting of the status quo, which can range from the changing expectations of high schoolers upon graduation to the changing demographics of student bodies.
"While it may be different from when Ruby Bridges stood through the door, I think that the fear that sometimes our students experience — feeling like they're the only one in the class — may be actually the same," Turner said. "And I think that fear in terms of pushback from some families may be the same as it was, even though they may not be throwing rocks now."
Authenticity and transparency build trust
While navigating through the politics, however, it's important to not lose yourself and make sure to stay true to who you are as a leader, the panelists agreed.
"You’ve got to let your ‘yesses’ be yesses and your ‘nos’ be nos," said Lee.
White said she follows an 80-20 rule: She meets 80% of the community's wants with flexibility, and the remaining 20% are her nonnegotiables as a leader. For White, the 20% includes having students graduate with a diploma and a resume.
"The trick is to know what's in your 20%," said White. "Because if not, you'll be pulled between the two."
Communicating those nonnegotiables, finding common ground, and acting on your plans with consistency are key to building trust and reducing pushback, everyone agreed.
"Foundational trust is really the essence and core of any success we're going to have in any initiative," said Lubelfeld. "Whatever it may be, does the community know what's going on in the school, and does the school know what the community wants?"
Know where and how to get out your message
Keeping those lines of communication open is crucial, the panelists said. However, what form that takes can vary from grabbing coffee with your staff or knocking on students' doors with pizza to hosting town halls and distributing surveys.
You should also know your audience, they added. This includes considering what languages, social media platforms, and other strategies will reach more parents.
Turner, for example, starts his emails to parents with a warning of how long it will take to read. "The more we are trying to communicate, the less people are taking in," he said.
He also provides his work cell phone number to his teachers for times of crisis so they can reach him almost anytime, anywhere. "Sometimes we have to break our norms to make sure that we're keeping our kids safe and keeping our schools safe.”