Teachers across the country are taking unique approaches to bring students together
Calming students' fears after an increase in hateful incidents is a top priority, educators say
Eric Witherspoon is superintendent of Evanston Township High School outside Chicago and when he arrived on campus the morning after the election, he knew he needed to do something.
“I was encountering students and I was realizing, ‘Oh my goodness. They’re dealing with their own personal emotions and trying to sort this out just as I, as an adult, am trying to do,’ ” said Witherspoon, now in his 11th year in his position.
So, with about 20 minutes spare between meetings, he jotted down some lines that he would deliver over the school’s PA system during the morning announcements.
“Once in a while it’s important that we pause and reflect on who we are and reaffirm our appreciation for one another,” he told the school’s roughly 3000 students. “You attend a school where we not only respect differences, we embrace our diversity.”
After mentioning diversity including race and ethnicity, religion, sexual orientation and special needs, he went on to urge students to be kind and caring to one another.
“Redouble your support to one another,” he said. “And even though we cannot always control what is going on in the larger world around us, we can define our own school, our own community.”
After his comments, students applauded and soon started coming to his office asking for a copy of his remarks, said Witherspoon. Staff members and parents emailed asking for copies too. He then began hearing from teachers within the community and eventually from educators across the state and the country, who either wanted copies or told him they were using his words with their own students.
“Within a day or two, we realized, ‘Oh my, this has gone viral,’ ” said Witherspoon, a lifelong educator who has served as superintendent for 28 years in four different districts in three different states.
Witherspoon realized how hungry people were to think about what had happened and put it all into perspective in terms of who they were and where they were in their lives. “That’s when I realized, ‘wow, this is just something that we all very much need … and on any end of the political spectrum’,” he said.
The number of hateful acts, including the posting of swastikas on school premises, has increased since Donald Trump was elected president, along with the occurrence of students across the country walking out of class in protest of Trump’s victory, leaving teachers and administrators on the front lines during a very divided time. They must try to calm students’ fears and bring school communities together.
Helping students find ways to get involved
At the Seattle Girls’ School, a grade 5-8 school where 35% of students identify themselves as non-white, eighth graders are already talking with faculty members about what they can do post-election.
Possible plans include producing a video that would offer a student-to-student message against hate crimes or hateful incidents that are happening in schools across the country, or partnering with organizations such as the Southern Poverty Law Center to help monitor hate crimes or hate incidents in schools.