Confronting History in Real Time: A Principal’s Role

School leaders are instrumental to the endurance of our democracy. Here is how you can prepare and support teachers to lead ongoing discussions that reinforce our nation’s democratic values.
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1/12/21
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Michele Caracappa
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In the aftermath of the horrifying attack on Congress, I am reminded of how important school leaders are to the endurance of our democratic society. Your work to educate and prepare the next generation of leaders, and build a more just, equitable, and anti-racist future has never been more important.

As teachers grapple with how to process with their students what happened—as well as how it happened and how it was handled—the choices they make can leave a huge impact on students. And what is not discussed often speaks louder than what is.

School leaders also play a vital role in this. Leaders must work to ensure three key things as discussions take place throughout their school. First, that the conversations support students in making meaning and processing trauma. Second, that discussions confront the hard truths, past and present, of our American democracy. Third, that discussions occur within an inclusive environment such that students, particularly students of color, feel supported and safe.

With Wednesday’s terrible events still fresh in our minds, and the ongoing uncertainty about how the upcoming days, weeks, and months will play out, now is the time for school leaders to pause and reflect on the degree to which their leadership sets up their staff and students for success in navigating national crises. The actions you take either reinforce or undermine equity and inclusivity—and it’s up to you to hold true to your values when confronted with pushback.

To guide your reflection, I offer you three key questions about strategic leadership moves:

  • How have I created spaces for staff to have the opportunity to process trauma and engage in discussions that confront these issues with their colleagues?
  • How prepared is my staff to lead conversations that confront hard truths? And how can I support teachers who may not have the capacity or expertise to do so effectively?
  • How well does my school schedule allow for regular, dedicated time for both students and staff to process events in real time?

Creating Space and Models for Staff

If we expect teachers to successfully process and discuss events with their students, it’s critical that we first provide spaces for teachers and school staff to do the same in community with one another. Leaders within Boston Public Schools shared this resource last week, providing open-ended prompts for faculty discussion, similar to prompts teachers could use to begin conversations with their students. Prompts include:

  • What is one word that expresses how you are feeling today?
  • What were you thinking about/feeling when you were seeing/hearing about what happened?
  • Have you seen any impact on your family/community?

As the Boston Public Schools resource illustrates, these discussion prompts (bookended with an opening “mindfulness moment” and a structured “check out”) work best when they are done in the context of an existing structure like a community meeting or a learning circle with already established processes and norms.

As both school leaders and teachers know, in moments like these, not everyone needs the same thing. Having a structure that is consistent and reliable is just as important as having a structure that is flexible. Reliable structures offer comfort during crises, and flexible structures give faculty options in terms of how they choose to engage. When you model an approach that is both consistent and flexible, teachers apply these same practices to their classrooms.

Assessing Staff Preparedness and Leveraging Faculty Strength

In the wake of the events of January 6th, many asked, “What will we tell the children?” In a blog post on Thursday morning, esteemed educator Gloria Ladson-Billings expressed a clear-eyed response: “The truth, I hope!”

As unequivocal as that answer may be, in reality, teachers have differing levels of expertise when it comes to leading conversations that require confronting hard truths and discussing racism and white supremacy. Some may shy away from these topics, presenting a superficial or whitewashed narrative. Others may struggle to connect the events they see playing out in real time to the broader historical or sociological context. Still others may fear reprisal from parents if they discuss something “too political.”

School leaders have a responsibility to know their staff deeply—both personally and pedagogically—so that you can help guide decisions about who is best positioned to support students. Questions like the ones below can guide your thinking:

  • Who among my faculty can lead these conversations independently? Who can serve as a model for others and share resources with team members?
  • Who might benefit from being paired up with a colleague? Or modeling from a fellow teacher, counselor, coach, or administrator?
  • How might teachers come together and plan for student responses that are potentially challenging? How can they support students of color so their voices are heard and their perspectives cared for?

Dedicating Sacred Time in the School Schedule

To put it plainly, our school schedules reflect our priorities. Incorporating intentional time for staff and classroom discussions ensures that we prioritize not just our subject areas, but provide space for students and teachers to connect outside of their core academic subjects.

Something as simple as morning meetings in elementary school or an advisory block in middle or high school create a situation in which teachers do not feel like they have to “throw out the lesson plan” in order to discuss real-time historic events. The lesson plan within that designated time is to discuss and process as a group, inviting student observations, questions, concerns and whatever is on their minds.

Structures like this are supportive for both teachers and students. They are predictable and known. Without them built into the school schedule, conversations may only happen haphazardly in a handful of classrooms—or perhaps not at all. Imagine what is possible when the whole school is working together to address national crises with intentionality and care.

To be sure, one thing that begs repeating is that all leaders must convey that they stand with their faculty, especially teachers of color. Black and brown teachers often face disproportionate consequences and/or parental push-back for engaging in conversations seen as “political.” But open and honest discussions are necessary for students to make sense of what’s happening, and to connect present-day occurrences to their historical roots. You must demonstrate to your team (and to faculty of color specifically) that you have their back.

In times of crisis, school leaders rise to meet the moment. Now more than ever, you need to look forward and ready your teachers to lead ongoing discussions that reinforce the values that our democratic nation aspires to—and the role our future generation of leaders will play in preserving them.

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Michele Caracappa

Michele Caracappa

Michele Caracappa is the Chief Program Officer for New Leaders, where she oversees the design, development, and delivery of the organization’s leadership development programs. A founding member and former Chief Academic Officer for Success Academy Charter Schools, Michele drove instruction across 46 schools. Under her leadership, the network became the highest-achieving school system in the state of New York

Michele Caracappa

Michele Caracappa

Michele Caracappa

Michele Caracappa

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