Lessons from the Campaign Trail 2016: Our Children Are Watching [Thoughts from the Head of School]

Academy Seniors at the annual Signing Ceremony in which they register to vote.

Words by Mark Heller, Head of School

The greatest disappointment I have felt from the Presidential Campaign of 2016 is that it is a campaign our children are witnessing, experiencing, and processing. They are seeing what passes for “debates,” they are clearly perceiving the climate, and they are likely concluding that because this is the way we are electing our president in 2016 that it is okay, that it is the way elections should be. Even if they are not comprehending the detail, they are grasping the tone – the shouting, the name-calling, the harsh, intemperate language and wild ugliness.

We could debate about how we got here, but I prefer to propose a way out.

We must show our children that this is not the way – not only in politics or the public square, but also in all of their relationships. We need to teach our children that being negative and putting others down are not strategies that lead to success. We need to show them (and not just tell them) that disrespect is not acceptable. We need to prove to them that cooperation, collaboration, compromise, and understanding and respecting the presence and the importance of others, even (if not especially) those who are different from you, are necessary pieces for building a successful life. This is true in families, in schools, and in the workplace. It should also be true in the public square. And I believe it can be again.

The key lies in teaching our children to take care; to deliberate and consider before arriving at conclusions, opinions, and actions; to seek depth and embrace complexity; to respect but not always succumb to emotion, all in service of the higher goal and the greater good. School needs to instruct and inspire children to these ends every bit as much as it needs to help children learn to read, write, and calculate. (In fact, it is the goal of what one must do with one’s ability to read, write, and calculate – and that’s to use those skills to serve the world.)

The job of schools and the job of families are probably harder today than they have ever been, in large part because the values we seek to instill are not readily or consistently in evidence around us. This presents both a challenge and a guide, a prescription for building community in our schools – the place children spend most of their non-family time.

The prescription is that social/emotional and character competencies matter – in families and in schools. Children must be guided toward understanding their own feelings and their place in the systems they inhabit. To do this, they must gain awareness and sensitivity to others, to groups, to understanding that where anyone stands in some measure determines what they see. They need these skills to become good citizens, positive and productive teammates, and ethical leaders.   As their social/emotional competencies grow, so too will their ability to avoid both bullying and self-harm. They will learn how to withstand the negative influences of the media and the culture. They will learn the power of answering to the better angels of their nature.

Schools have a hard job to do. But it’s a job of the utmost importance. Let’s produce a better public square and a better world by making our schools be communities in which our most precious resource is nurtured and challenged to rise above the pettiness of the present to a higher set of ideals and skills. It will happen if we focus on the paramount importance of the cultures we bring to life each day in our schools.


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