Approaching the November Election in Your Middle School: 5 Decisions to Make Now

The 2016 and 2020 elections unveiled stark contrasts in beliefs and values that continue to shape our communities.  Even though eight years have passed since the 2016 election, many educators vividly remember their community’s pain and deep feelings. The election left in its wake divided schools and a legacy of increased bullying, heightened political tensions in the classroom, and a general sense of uncertainty.  I worked closely with schools after the 2016 election in preparation for the 2020 election and now the 2024 election. The good news is that although there are nuances specific to your school, most schools share the same challenges.

The consistency is staggering. Reviewing hundreds of pages of my notes reveals several common challenges that schools can mitigate with proactive planning. These challenges include:

  • A lack of or inconsistent engagement with Intentional Agreements,
  • Reactive messaging (such as responding to a controversial event without a clear plan or strategy),
  • Uncertain responses to events (such as not knowing how to address a student’s political comment in class),
  • Different understandings by the Board, parents/caregivers, teachers, and students,
  • Disconnect from the mission,
  • Inconsistent or vague communication with parents and unclear guidelines or discussion parameters.

Supporting meaningful conversations, especially on challenging topics, is a passion of mine.  This article is the first in a series where I will attempt to equip school leaders with strategies and resources to proactively support your community during and after the election. We’ll start in this article with five practical tips for schools to consider now to help navigate these challenging times:

  1. Aligning Messaging

Align messages with the school’s mission statement to explain why and how you’ll be focusing on talking across differences. For example, I am the counselor at Oneness Family High School. Our mission is “to ignite the spark in a new generation of courageous and capable leaders through a student-centered community of diversity, academic excellence, and innovation in the Montessori tradition.”  To prepare for the fall, our end-of-school-year letter might include:

“Consistent with our mission (hyperlink) and recognizing the polarization of our society, the theme for the 2024-25 school year is ‘Listening to learn.’  Over the summer, our teachers will build on our ongoing work by exploring best practices and strategies to support students directly in talking across differences and listening to learning.  In our midsummer letter, we will provide resources for you to further partner with us by focusing on these skills with your family.”

  1. Identify Intentional Agreements and Set a Timeline

Identify a timeline for creating intentional agreements for the fall.  Intentional agreements, often called norms, create a frame where we interact, fostering collaborative community discussions. The timeline should include agreements for the classroom and all spaces associated with the school, including hallways, locker rooms, cafeteria, and busses. Agreements need to be revisited regularly. Building agreement revisits into your advisory or school calendar provides specific times to ensure revising happens amid the year’s fast pace.

Most of all, answer ‘How will we respond when this agreement is breached or tested?’  Be sure to reference the Intentional Agreements Lesson Plan (for students and adults) for further support.

  1. Rethink Summer Reading

This year, rethink summer reading.  Schools spend valuable time and money finding the right book.  Too often, these same schools find the summer reading reflections challenging, with a range of responses from deeply connecting to the reading to not reading it or arguing syntax.  In recent years, I have focused not on a summer reading book but a summer reading menu, allowing colleagues to choose their learning path while remaining within the stated topic.  These menus include books, blogs, videos, and podcasts and are accompanied by the expectation of engagement.

For example, the administration and I created an end-of-year message: “The summer reading topic is ‘Talking Across Differences’ rather than a book. You have a menu of resources to support your learning.  Please choose as many as needed to return to school prepared to share your thoughts and plans for building the skills to talk across differences, disagree with dignity, and avoid dissection of others.’”  Here is a sample menu for reference.

  1. Establish Clear Guidelines

Establish clear guidelines for election-related materials, such as deciding whether students and faculty/staff can display election-related attire or symbols (stickers or shirts) on campus and identifying when the guidelines will be communicated with parents, caregivers, students, and colleagues. Rather than listing the dos and don’ts, these guidelines provide an opportunity to connect with the mission and the goal of collaboration.

  1. Consider Parallel Education

Consider parallel education for parents, caregivers, and board members. Parallel education is my term for providing micro lessons at the same pace as students and colleagues.  Parallel education is brief and includes a link to the mission (answering why), a sentence describing what (advisory, assembly, lesson plan), a resource for deeper consideration, and a question to ask.

For example, a middle school will share, ‘Consistent with our mission (hyperlink) and best practices, our opening advisory lesson is on creating intentional agreements (the guidelines framing our discussions). A resource for you to consider intentional agreements at home is this parenting strategies article, and two questions you might ask your child are ‘What are intentional agreements?’ and ‘What is the difference between a value and a habit?’

I hope these five strategies help you to proactively plan for the coming months, empowering you to shape your school year. Look for the next two articles in this series in the fall with additional detailed tips and ideas for proactive planning to help your school move beyond these challenges.

Jen is a diversity practitioner, author, podcast host, school counselor, trustee, coach, speaker, consultant, and activist.  She has also served as a principal, school administrator, and elementary, middle, and high school counselor.  Jen works throughout the United States and in multiple countries.   She has keynoted and presented at national and international conferences and frequently contributes to publications. Her work is quoted in Racing Toward Diversity, Insights, Friends Journal, NAIS Independent Journal, Washington Post, Boston Globe, New York Times, and more. Jen hosts an internationally syndicated podcast, “Third Space With Jen Cort,” she is the author of the book ‘HUBs Help Us Begin Strategies When the Topic is Challenging.’