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Live Love, Teach Peace
Molly McCloskey
Monday May 01, 2017
by: Molly McCloskey

Section: Inside Insight

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Our children and youth learn not just the content of mathematics, social studies, science and language arts but the skills of relationships, the values of our communities and the beliefs of the adults around them by watching and listening every day. They learn how we feel about them and how we feel about each other by observing our body language, our tone of voice and our word choices. They learn what we believe by how we treat people, particularly those who look, act or think differently than us.
They know when we are authentic in our words and actions, and they sniff out hypocrisy faster than we can roll our eyes.

So, what now? What now, when the nightly news, regardless of what channel you watch, is filled with adults behaving badly? What now when social media use by adults has become a forum for name calling, slurs, personal attacks and hatred? What now, when lies and cruelty are celebrated as entertainment and worthy of admiration?

Live Love
Belonging and safety at school are non-negotiable. Whatever the politics, whatever the concerns, whatever the challenges of the external environment, schools must be places of development and learning in which each student can thrive. As school counselors, we know better than most that relationships matter.

“We are responsible for every young person who comes through our doors,” said Erin O’Malley, dean of student services at Bishop O’Connell High School in Arlington, Va. “They have to be able to trust us whether they are in the school counseling office, the classroom or on the playing field.”

In these times of high stress outside of school, the everyday stuff becomes even more important. At J.W. Alvey Elementary School, Haymarket, Va., the morning announcements about the character pillar of the month are an opportunity to be intentionally inclusive, school counselor Anne Henry said. “All the things we do that involve character and acceptance have become more real to even our youngest students, so those brief moments of face time for me with the entire school are an opportunity to ensure children know they are valued and safe here.” During February’s focus on kindness, for instance, she customized each day’s message to reflect relationships with and behavior toward those who are different from ourself.

Although we’ve all heard the negative phrase, “Death by a thousand cuts,” Henry and O’Malley believe children and youth feel belonging through a thousand experiences. Making conscious choices within school counseling services provides opportunities for the students they serve to know they don’t have to fit in at school because they already belong. Henry does this by sharing a personal goal to learn Arabic during a school counseling core curriculum lesson on goal setting and O’Malley does it by shifting what used to be called the school anti-bullying assembly to the broader and more inclusive practice of respect assemblies.

This also means making sure all students in the building know exactly how to reach their school counselor and that the school counseling office is a completely safe place. Henry has seen increased anxiety under the new administration, particularly among immigrant students or those with immigrant parents. In many cases the students themselves don’t necessarily realize what is causing their anxiety; in others, it can look like a change in classroom behavior, but the trust relationship with the school counselor makes all the difference in identifying the real issue.

Teach Peace
Last fall, Teaching Tolerance released a Civility Contract for speaking about the 2016 presidential election. With versions for both the school community at large and the classroom, the contacts asked signers to, among other things, “disagree with ideas, but don’t criticize each other for what we think,” “analyze TV and social media content for facts and seek to learn more about the content,” and “ask ‘why’ when someone expresses an opinion rather than saying they are wrong.”

That framing is useful in the current context because as much as schools need to be places of complete belonging, they do not exist in a vacuum. Creating a school culture that ignores current events does a disservice to students’ academic and social/emotional learning.

“Our students are making connections to current events they hear about, so we have to be ready to let them lead the conversations,” Henry said. “Our goal cannot be to teach the ASCA Mindsets & Behaviors in isolation. It is harder and messier to engage children in real critical thinking, but we must.”

Le’Ann Solmonson, a professor at Stephen F. Austin State University in Texas, agrees. As a former high school counselor now school counselor educator, she says she would take examples of both civil disagreement and far less civil behavior right to the students for open dialogue. “Adolescents are passionate about their beliefs, so learning what works and what doesn’t in getting their ideas across is timely for them.”

Programs such as Operation Respect’s social/emotional learning curriculum, Don’t Laugh at Me, help too, especially as students make the kinds of connections Henry mentions. Working through lessons in expressing feelings, building community, resolving conflict creatively and celebrating diversity helps children and youth understand perspective beyond their own experiences, develop empathy and practice the skills they need for civil disagreement. Download the curriculum.

And, because students watch the behavior of the adults around them carefully, Bishop O’Connell High School made the commitment to work with coaches, parents and athletes through the Play Like a Champion program (playlikeachampion.org) for character development through sports. Her team of school counselors participates in meetings with athletes and coaches to continue the conversations begun in their training. With many of Bishop O’Connell’s students participating in interscholastic athletics, engaging the coaches and families in the development of mind, body and character just makes sense and ensures those students hear the same messages about respect, dignity and inclusion where they live, learn and play.

As reports of sexual assaults on college campuses have spiraled through the news cycle and verbally violent social media has become nearly a competitive sport, the Bishop O’Connell school counseling team has also developed a four-year series on healthy relationships. The focus at all grade levels is on communication and respect across romantic, social, family and professional relationships. They’ve extended the theme into their Students Against Destructive Decisions efforts as well through discussions about physical and emotional abuse.

With the rise of hate-based incidents on campuses, documented by the Southern Poverty Law Center and others, some schools have focused on punitive measures and squelched any mention of division. Such hate-based incidents have been universally condemned, but in some schools, the incidents have created crises with a flurry of often-disjointed efforts to respond; while at others, the incidents have resulted in a calmer reiteration of the community standards and a reminder of how differences of belief are handled.

Those are the kinds of situations in which school counselors can really lead. Rather than having adults alone determine what to do, school counselors can and should be the voice calling for engaging the students in the response to hate-based incidents. Bringing the school community together, as a full student body through advisory periods or some other interactive structure, provides an opportunity to teach about the power of upstanders rather than bystanders. It builds the sense of community and safety for all by calling out a violation of the school culture in a way that focuses on problem solving rather than blame.

Serve All
In her school counselor role, Henry consults frequently with fellow staff members on project-based learning. One of her current favorites is a project called Agents for Change, which has upper-elementary-age students researching social changes in history and then applying their learning to their own team-based projects. “If we truly want them to take what we’ve taught them and apply it to their lives, then we have to give them space to talk about how it relates,” she said.

The project, and other similar collaborations between school counselors and social studies teachers, keeps the focus on the learning of both content and skills and lets the students lead. While adults get locked in arguments about politics, students want to talk about issues and need school counselors to advocate on their behalf.

Henry and O’Malley both believe part of the school counselor’s role is to bring awareness to the adults of the school community who may not recognize hate-based incidents in the school or may not realize some students are experiencing trauma. When others are cautious about allowing students to discuss important current issues or hesitate to bring debate into the building, school counselors advocate for what students need not just currently in terms of their social/emotional development but long term for postsecondary, career and civic success.

Of course, the most challenging form of unfairness in school communities can be the bias of adults. Although it is often unconscious on adults’ part, the students, colleagues and other stakeholders often see it clearly, making it as damaging, if not more so, than the adults behaving badly in the news.

School counselors lead here, too. They lead when they question their colleagues who think, “That can’t happen here.” They lead when they insist on materials and experiences across all levels of our multicultural society. They lead when they reflect the perspectives of the minority populations in the school community be they cultural, economic or civic. And, they lead when they use their time with school teams and in professional development opportunities to engage their colleagues in activities that reveal assumptions that others will react the same way you do to ambiguous situations.

This work is challenging, particularly as we watch some divisions in our society appear to spread ever deeper and more painfully. It is tempting to try to create schools as islands of separation from conflict and unrest, where we ignore current events out of fear or some other kind of denial.

Yet to do so ignores the context in which our students live and learn and teaches them another lesson instead. It teaches them we don’t care, that what is happening in the world doesn’t matter to us even if it affects them and that the way to handle difficult issues is to pretend they don’t exist.

 “The more you take risks, the more amazing it is,” Henry said. “We owe our students the courage to take on the tough stuff even when it makes us uncomfortable.”

Live love. Teach peace. Serve all. Fight unfairness wherever it exists because the children are learning.

Molly McCloskey is CEO and president of Operation Respect. She can be reached at mmccloskey@operationrespect.org.