Guest post by Holly Ripley
As school leaders, we are often expected to provide answers and guidance in times of uncertainty and transition. But what happens when we do not know the answers? I learned recently that sometimes the best response is to ask your students and encourage the community to share knowledge. Our job is not to have all of the answers but to help facilitate a collective search for greater understanding and help students leverage their own voices.
Three female Muslim students walked into the office and asked to talk to someone, and I was that “someone” available. I invited them into my office and listened as all three of them shared their recent interactions with other students and teachers at our school. The first reported that a white student told her, “Go back to your country.” Another had a debate in a classroom with a student who didn’t think the president’s recent executive order affected those in our community at all. The last explained that a picture of President Trump had been taped to her locker.
These incidents raised a number of issues from an administrative perspective—intolerance, verbal aggression, and student safety are usually the first things that come to mind.
Each of these young women had reason to be upset by these separate, but clearly related, actions toward them. External events had apparently triggered some of their fellow students to act cruelly. But instead of asking me to discipline the offending students, these fine young women instead asked me to help them find ways to educate their peers. They gracefully expressed how this is their school community as well, that they love it, and that they want it to be better for all. What they sought from me was advice on how they could help change the culture and foster an environment that treasures each as an individual.
As I listened to these young ladies, I felt their hurt, fear, and frustration, and I shared their sadness for our school community. I also felt a tremendous amount of pride and respect for the strength and courage it took them to come to me and share their experience. I knew I needed to help, but I didn’t have the answers. This was uncharted territory. I had a recurring meeting scheduled among the counselors and administrators the following morning. I asked the young ladies if they would be willing to share their stories with this larger group. They agreed. I cleared the meeting’s agenda.
The next day the students showed up 15 minutes early with written statements prepared in case they got nervous in front of so many adults. They had met the night before to make sure their message was clear. After introductions, I set the stage by saying that these students had shared something so compelling to me that I invited them to share their stories with the larger group.
Each student in turn shared her story of when and how she came to America. They spoke of the change in perception other students seem to now have of them because of recent political statements. The tears flowed … from every adult in the room, tears of compassion and humility and pride in our students. I encouraged everyone to ask questions—questions about their dream for our school and how to achieve them.
The group brainstormed avenues we could provide these students to share their feelings in a constructive way. Through further discussion, we agreed the next step would be to form a larger group of students who share the same passions for community. This group would formulate the plans of activities, events, and recommendations for our school to build a more inclusive culture of respect and appreciation for diversity.
As I closed out the meeting, I had each individual share a word or short phrase of how they were feeling after this encounter. A theme emerged. Every comment resonated around one word: hope.
These incidents reminded me that while administrators are often required to act decisively, sometimes our best role as leaders can be to listen and help others to raise their voices.
Think of situation in which you have provided a forum for listening and sharing among student voices, and identify a project in your school community to increase constructive dialogue about the importance of tolerance, diversity, and inclusion.
Holly Ripley is the assistant principal of West Fargo High School in North Dakota and the 2016 National Assistant Principal of the Year.