On Civility Five Rules for Engagement 
Education leaders should not avoid weighing in on the hard issues of the day, but who wants to be caught between polar extremes?
BY JASON E. GLASS/School Administrator, September 2020

Jason Glass, who has served the past three years as superintendent in Jefferson County, Colo., believes difficult conversations lead to better decisions on difficult matters.PHOTO COURTESY OF JEFFERSON COUNTY PUBLIC SCHOOLS IN GOLDEN, COLO.
As education leaders, we are navigating through a triple threat of arguably the most challenging set of disruptions in our professional lifetimes. We are attempting to restore school in the midst of a global pandemic, to manage catastrophic budget reductions and to lead our communities through difficult and emotional conversations about race and equity.

Any one of these challenges alone would be enough to put a strain on a school system leader, but the combination creates an unprecedented mixture for which there is no established answer or set of best practices. More often than not, we must choose be-tween wicked choices involving excruciating tradeoffs. And getting good counsel is not easy — often the messages we hear are a cacophony driven by fear, self-interest and polarized political agendas.

Genuine community engagement has become increasingly difficult in the current era. The causal forces are complex and inter-connected, and they include such elements as the dynamics of social media interactions, the proliferation of fake news designed to ignite political extremism and both foreign and domestic political actors who seek to propagate dysfunction and make consensus difficult.

Taken together, winner-take-all and “damn the opposition” political attitudes have put down deep roots and most school leaders could not be blamed for thinking twice about opening themselves and their organizations up for feedback and critique.

Emotional Feedback

When it comes to school plans in response to COVID-19, looming budget cuts, and racial violence and inequity, all of these issues are bound to elicit deeply passionate feedback. We hear most often (and most loudly) from those on the polar extremes or those who have a personal connection to the issue.

When we asked how our schools should reopen this fall, we heard a great deal from community members concerned about the economic, academic and social-emotional impacts of long school closures or disruptive remote learning models. They demanded schools be reopened fully and with few or no restrictions.

We also heard from community members with genuine concerns about our schools being a vector for the virus and questions about how we keep staff members with comorbidities or older community members safe. It is difficult to argue that any of these perspectives are wrong.

In discussing budget reductions, we heard from staff members who are concerned about their wages being cut or being saddled with unmanageable workloads. And we also heard from parents and students who do not want their services and valued programs reduced. Of course, as education leaders we wish we could ensure all of these — but we also made tough decisions (with our school boards) to get our budgets in line with new revenue realities.

And then there are the deeply emotional conversations happening about race and equity in the wake of this summer’s murder of George Floyd and the subsequent civil unrest that took place across the country. We heard from those calling for real disruptions to systems in our society, which they believe perpetuated inequities and racial violence. We also heard from those who value law and order and who wanted a “get tough” response to civil unrest. Each of these perspectives wants a better future for our country, but they have very different views on what that means and how to get there.

Confronting Issues

All of these issues are extraordinarily difficult. But meeting them is what leaders must do and our communities are counting on us to navigate them through these challenging times. The probability of making the best possible decisions is increased through hearing from multiple perspectives and viewpoints. Because of this, we are compelled to ask our public the important questions that must be answered and, most importantly, to hear what they have to say.

Education leaders should take on these difficult conversations in our community, but they should not enter this arena without a plan. I offer these five rules of engagement in hopes they will lead to better conversations and better decisions. These rules could be applied in formal political settings, in online discussions and in conversations between neighbors or families.

»Take up issues of real substance and importance, with a genuine commitment to understanding others.

While politics and religion are sometimes taboo subjects at many functions, it is the most difficult and substantive issues affecting our community that we really need to be talking about. We can take on sensitive and complicated issues if we begin by committing to sharing the airtime (giving sides equal opportunities to talk) and listening to each other without interruption. Consider establishing ground rules and norms in these conversations so airtime can be shared and all voices are heard.

»Work toward a shared view of truth.

The facts are going to matter if our issue is of real importance and those facts should be open to critique for bias and subject to validation. Logic matters as well, and conclusions that do not follow from the evidence should be identified. The work here should be toward uncovering truth and not diminishing or attacking a person.

»Recognize the mutually positive but also opposing values.

Some of the most important matters we need to wrestle with are matters of positive but competing values. Take the immigration question as an example. On the conservative side, the values center around such things as security, concerns over drug trade and human trafficking, and the preservation of opportunities for people in the country legally. On the liberal side, there are values around inclusion, the humane treatment of all people and the economic and workforce value that immigrants provide. Both of these perspectives raise valid points for consideration and all of these values come from a positive place, though they can be in conflict.
Jason Glass (center) solicits feedback from employees in Jefferson County, Colo., where he spent the last three years as superintendent before becoming state education commissioner in Kentucky. PHOTO COURTESY OF JEFFERSON COUNTY PUBLIC SCHOOLS IN GOLDEN, COLO.

»Look for the third way.

Good and sustainable public policy balances those mutually positive yet competing values in a way that reflects our communities. One regrettable aspect of human nature is that we tend to see things in dichotomies: good/bad, wrong/right, left/right, us/them. In reality, the world has a lot more shades of gray, and we can often find creative and mutually beneficial outcomes if we take ideas from all sides. Good decisions for local communities transcend the partisan dichotomy and unilaterally imposed ideas rarely stand the test of time.

»Don’t feed the “trolls.”

In my experience, most people value and appreciate treating each other with dignity and respect. However, there are certainly those who thrive on “flaming” others and who serve as never-ending fountains of criticism, which often is mean-spirited and personal in nature. We less-than-affectionately call these individuals “trolls,” and perhaps the most effective thing you can do when you encounter them is to deprive them of the attention they seek. Consider instead how you can find and engage with those critics who will push thinking forward to better outcomes and who ultimately thrive on building up rather than tearing down.

Mutual Respect

One of the founding ideals of our democratic republic is that we are better able to create and sustain that “more perfect union” through the free exchange of ideas. Genuine civil discourse means that we cannot avoid discussing the tough and important issues — but it does mean that we should strive to meet those issues with a deep and mutual appreciation for each other as human beings.

More often than not, the decisions that come to us as superintendents don’t have easy answers. If they did, someone would have solved them long before us. Often, finding the “right” answer doesn’t necessarily mean the correct one. Instead, it means the right one for your community and context, and the only way we can know that is to wade into what the community is talking about when it comes to the most difficult issues.

For a final note, when we engage with our communities on the toughest issues, all superintendents need to have thick skin. We have to remember that all the verbal and written arrows hurled our way aren’t personal. They are positional … and they are incoming because the superintendent has the authority to make meaningful and important decisions that affect the lives of students, staff and those in the community. The insults and pressure can wear down anyone, but reconnecting with your students and your family support system are great ways to recharge, re-center and re-focus on what really matters.

JASON GLASS is moving in September from the superintendency of the Jefferson County Public Schools in Golden, Colo., to Kentucky commissioner of education in Frankfort, Ky. Twitter: @KYCommishGlass