Updated: Mar 10, 2020
Education is a Microcosm of Society
I have had peace on my mind lately. Not sure exactly why. Maybe because another Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. holiday has come and gone and we are still struggling mightily as a nation to live up to the spirit of democracy and citizenship as Dr. King envisioned it. Or, perhaps it's because there were 45 school shootings and at least 103 incidents of gunfire on school grounds in 2019. Or maybe because the youth suicide rate is the highest it’s been since the government began collecting such statistics in 1960. If the fact that American men between 15 and 19 killed themselves at a rate of 17.9 per 100,000 isn't alarming enough, suicide is now the 2nd leading cause of death in the U.S. for people between the ages of 10 and 34. Well over 100 Americans take their own lives every day. Men are three and half times more likely to commit suicide than women.
Too many people are not at peace...and many of them are children without the tools to cope with conflict.
Those dagger-like statistics put me squarely at odds with long-existing paradigms in education leadership that tend towards conflict denial or avoidance rather than peaceful resolution. After all, as scholar Edwin Bridges has opined from decades of research and reflection in the field, the emotional aspects of school leadership are hardly addressed, let alone examined as a contextual approach for developing leaders not only capable of managing real conflict and toxic environments but also capable of building the capacity among educational leaders to create the culture and organizational structure for peace-building strategies to flourish.
Arthur and Phyllis Blumberg eloquently described the impact of emotional toxicity when they stripped away the veneer of the superintendency in their seminal work, The School Superintendent: Living with Conflict (with apologies to critics of the Blumbergs’ work who believe the book could have benefitted from a discussion of how prepared superintendents were to deal with conflict).
It's never been more critical to make peace with the uncomfortable nature of feeling emotionally exposed, as Brené Brown has written extensively about in her practical playbook, Dare to Lead.
Among the conceptual frameworks my doctoral students and I will study leadership through this upcoming Spring semester is peace leadership. With a focus on curriculum, we will explore how education is by design a tool to deepen democracy through a hidden curriculum that is tasked with preparing students for citizenship in a pluralistic society. Today’s education leaders face a challenge that requires a fresh and nuanced approach. Mounting evidence suggests that only positive and collaborative cultures, fertile enough to grow a system (and systems within the system) capable of breeding equity, will likely succeed in the increasingly diverse education landscape. Why? Because equity remains an unrealized vision, sixty-six years after Brown, fifty-four years after Coleman, fifty-two years after King, and thirty years after Kozol published Savage Inequalities. It’s time for a new paradigm of change leadership. A new framework for understanding the deep societal barriers to change. It’s time for peace. Explore practical applications of the Integral Perspective of Peace Leadership in an excellent article by Dr. Whitney McIntyre Miller and Dr. Annmary S. Abdou here.
Had peace not occupied my consciousness of late, I would have asked the question, why not?
After all, the back and forth between warring political factions on Twitter alone is enough to suggest it's time to give peace leadership a chance. The alarming rise of far-right political terrorism in America is a disturbing trend that has skyrocketed over the past five years. The recent arrests of three members of a white nationalist group for conspiring to kill a couple in Georgia that they considered "race traitors" is an all too common occurrence that rarely even rises to the level of Lead Story on the evening news. Anger seems to be a contagion that's hard to stop. Blame it on a volatile world for breeding it or social media for perpetuating it, but anger and unhappiness are on display for all the world to see. In education, there are numerous reasons to consider peace leadership as a cornerstone in today's education marketplace.
The war of words and finger-pointing between California and Washington over a multitude of education issues including school choice, school vouchers and other alternatives to traditional public schools, and recently the $5 billion federal tax credit plan to fund scholarships to private and religious schools is is another example of public hostility as the warring factions square off daily on social media. As fiery as the national debate has been, it has taken a back seat to the raging in-state battles in California over charter schools, underfunding, and indisputable evidence that the promise of equity continues to prove to be elusive for the poorest of California's children who have been locked out of the state’s prosperity despite some outstanding reform efforts and scattered examples of schools that have beaten the odds.
Maybe I have peace on my mind because peace leadership has landed on American education's doorstep. It's not necessarily a new idea, but it is an idea whose time has come.
While its reach thus far has not extended beyond the lowest levels of conflict resolution, it's emerging as a leadership style among leaders promoting restorative practices, even making its way into Board rooms as top-level executives use restorative circles to problem solve. The "peacekeeping" strategies related to anti-disruption and anti-bullying have been part of a progressive movement to initiate peace leadership practices in schools for decades. The practices have not become institutionalized because they conflict with existing institutional patterns of structure and leadership, with its rigid parameters, adult-driven agendas, and reliance on old paradigms to solve new problems.
Regardless of why...I have peace on my mind. I don't think it's going away anytime soon.