As a parent, I am aware that the example parents set — the language they use, their actions, their values — profoundly influence their young children. This is the top-down effect. Children are keen observers and followers.
As a retired teacher, I am so aware of how tone is set in schools. Beginning at the top, there is the superintendent who oversees all the schools in a system. Then there is the principal of each school and the teacher in every classroom, followed by all the students. There is a trickle-down effect in the education system that I believe also applies to businesses and government.
It’s up to those at the top, as leaders, to set the tone for all. One superintendent I worked for had an attitude of “me against my teachers.” She acted like a dictator. I was appalled to hear her speak to a group at the school system headquarters, including the press, about how her teachers had better obey her. She waved a ruler threateningly as she spoke. She obviously did not view her teachers as professionals and, believe me, her tone trickled down to the teachers in her schools and was reflected in their demoralized feelings.
I’ve been fortunate to have worked under some very good principals who showed understanding of the many layers in an educational institution.
When I started teaching in 1967, my first two years were extremely rough with a challenging Brooklyn/Curtis Bay/Westport/Fairfield/Cherry Hill student population in Baltimore City. During the first two weeks of my teaching career, I went home in tears every day, questioning my desire and ability to be a teacher. I was trying my best to survive with a group of students who lived in a world foreign to my background.
At that time, the school system required new teachers in their first two years to attend classes once a month at headquarters in Baltimore City. So, after struggling all day with five classes of 150 students total, at the end of the day, I got in my car and drove to my first class. I was a novice but even I could see that the people instructing my “new teacher” classes had no idea what they were doing. Had they ever stood in front of a classroom and taught? After an hour and a half of after-school class, I went home, prepared lesson plans, graded papers, maybe ate dinner, and collapsed into bed.
The next month, I dragged myself to the next required meeting. At the end of an unproductive class, we were given a “homework” assignment. Something snapped in me then. Homework?! I was diligently doing my homework every night and every weekend…which was preparing lessons for my students, grading papers, communicating with parents and a thousand other things. I did not attend the third meeting or the fourth one and was prepared to be fired for not doing so. My main responsibility was to my students and not to bureaucrats who had no clue.
Eventually word was sent to my principal that one of his teachers was not fulfilling her obligation to attend classes for new teachers. He questioned me about my absence and I explained to him that my students came first, that I was doing the best I could as their teacher and that the meetings were a waste of time which I could better spend for my students. Furthermore, I told him that I refused to attend any more meetings. He listened and nodded. I waited for a few days for notice that I had been fired. It never came. There was no more mention of the meetings. I survived my two-year tenure and continued to teach and receive good reviews. If he had not shown some wisdom in this matter, I probably would have left teaching before I finished the first year. This was a principal who set a tone of listening to his teachers and supporting action that was reasonable…a good role model for teachers who also need to listen to their students and to be reasonable.
At another school, a student was bullied by his peers and his math teacher. There was harassment of a student who appeared to be gay. He ran out of class in tears and sat outside in the rain where I found him and learned his story. I talked with him and convinced him to come inside and spend some time in the guidance office. Because running out of a classroom was an offense that would get a student suspended, I then went to the vice principal to explain the situation and ask him not to suspend the student. I closed the door and lowered my voice. The vice principal, hearing about the underlying gay issues, raised his voice so all the students sitting outside his office would hear him react. He even mentioned the student’s name. I left in disgust. Here is an example of an administrator who would encourage bullying because of his lack of empathy.
Teachers set a tone in their classrooms and, hopefully, this trickles down to their students. When I was teaching I discouraged certain language, tried to give everyone a chance, encouraged students and introduced empathy training in my lessons. I was not always successful but the goal was always the same.
Now that Donald Trump is our President-elect, I recall what kind of example he set while campaigning: he denigrated the “other”—Muslims, the GLBT community, the disabled and women. That’s why I’m so upset. I know how things can come from the top and affect the atmosphere below. I cannot tolerate someone who disrespects women, mocks the disabled and wants to keep out those who are different from him. We have seen how his example has encouraged certain behavior in his followers, especially at his rallies.
After the election results, some of my Facebook friends wrote of incidents in school right after the election:
- A girl in Virginia was taunted by her classmates, “Trump, Trump, Trump, hope you’re ready to be deported.” A Latina-American girl cried at school when she no longer felt welcome.
- A classmate told my friend’s little girl that Hillary kills babies. This upset her. The child is also fearful that her grandparents will be deported. They are Iranian-Americans.
- A middle school video has made the rounds. It was taken in the school cafeteria and shows students chanting, “Build the wall.”
These students who taunt and bully have parental examples and now a President-elect example that helps shape their behavior. The top influences the bottom and poisons all.
My hope is that Donald Trump will be capable of changing, that he can evolve into a human being more worthy of his new position. He will have lots of power, including the power to set a tone in our country where people will not feel intimidated, where they will not exist in a culture of “them versus us,” where adults do not teach children how to bully by example. If the tone of his acceptance speech carries into his office—the importance of working together— there might be hope because it is our leaders who set the tone of the culture we live in.
If he doesn’t, then it will certainly be up to us at the bottom to set the tone and send it upward. It will be up to us to continue to love and to love better. It will be up to us to make America love again.