I am the dean of advising at a small Jewish high school in Palo Alto California. When I say small, we have 155 students. I love the fact that I know all of the students in my building, but having that level of access does not make a great community automatic. At times it seems like the students who know each other well are all too willing to treat each other poorly.
The issues we deal with at the school may seem mild compared to other schools, but they are felt deeply. Students are mean to each other both face to face and online. There are rumors, and people spread them. Too often when a student could make a choice to improve a situation, they don’t.
I recently asked the advisers to lead a discussion on isolation, and I shared the prompt with them. In the hall afterwards several students referred to this prompt and discussion as a bullying talk. I think bullying gets a great deal of press, but the issue is bigger than that. The problem we have is that too often our students are not choosing to treat each other with compassion.
We are on a mission to help our students become compassionate and connected learners, and some of our students reject this goal out of hand.
In the discussion I lead about isolation 2 of the 8 students said “the world is tough and people just need a thicker skin.” There was a great deal of defensiveness in these comments, and I did my best to ignore the tone and focus on allowing each student to share their point of view.
In a related activity we showed the movie “I Am”. I had never seen this film before and I was unprepared for how deeply it touched me. I had a transformational experience, and so did many of the kids. Interestingly enough some of the students viciously went after the film and attacked it as pseudo-science. As these students shared their experience of the film, I could hardly believe we had seen the same movie. I was prepared to believe and they were not.
We are working on developing ways to get the kids talking to each other and to get the staff engaged in this conversation. to this end we are going to have a community unconference during our 1 hour assembly time next week. We are going to work with student government and develop sessions before hand and ask students to go to the session that interests them the most.
Our goal is to create and support a conversation that is about more than bullying, it needs to be about what students need from the school and each other to feel safe. What do students need to be able to learn and to be their best selves. How do students know that they matter? While we havn’t yet brought her voice into the conversation, I think Angela Maiers has a great deal to say to us about the teacher’s role in creating and awesome community.
Working with teens to develop a more kind school culture is difficult. While so much of the public discussion seems to focus on bullying, the issues are bigger than that. I don’t remember bullies in my childhood, I remember isolation. I know that many people feel isolated for a variety of reasons. My isolation was linked to the fact that I had an older brother with Down’s Syndrome. I say linked to because I don’t even know that many, or possibly any of the people at school knew this. I remember being called ‘retard’s brother’ but I also remember that being mainly in the neighborhood. For much of my schooling I felt less than and invisible. I can now say that it gets better, but I feel we need to protect my students from the isolation I felt. I do that by working everyday to connect with each of them in a way they feel as real.
How do you support a positive community on your school campus?