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While driving today, we listened to Tapestry on CBC and the discussion about the difficulty in seeing someone else’s point of view. The discussion included psychologist Jonathan Haidt who has studied why our brain needs to believe that there are two conflicting sides to issues – ours and theirs. Haidt specifically focussed on politics and religion in his recent book, The Righteous Mind.

There are a multitude of ways in which what is going on in the world is about people and governments and various nations believing so firmly in the concept of us-versus-them. Modern day conflicts – religious, political and otherwise – are built on that foundation.

As I listened to this broadcast, though, I thought on a much smaller scale. I was focussed on the level of us-versus-them that can arise every day in schools. There are so many levels to the system that it seems ripe for the outbreak of conflict at every turn. At present, the entire educational system in the province of Ontario is in a negotiating year. The lines have been drawn and the fight is definitely on.

The fiscal responsibility of the board butts up against the realities and the needs of the people it is meant to serve – the students. Administrators have to balance what the board expects and what the school community needs. Additionally, the administration may lead with philosophies that staff view as not a good fit for their teaching style. It goes without saying that there are many situations, daily situations, where students feel like it is “us-versus-them” with one or more adults in the building.

Another very significant aspect of this has to be the parents and the staff. As an educator, you have roles and responsibilities, legal and otherwise, that define the expectations of your job. These expectations are clear but the simple fact is that every single student comes to the school environment with a completely different set of “roots”. These “roots” are what make it difficult to make a “one size fits all” system of expectations fit every child. The “roots” are what the child comes to school with in the way of values and experiences that create their reality. For example, if parents have instilled in their children that school is a place to learn and the adults in the building are there to help and guide them on that journey, those are the roots of cooperation and success. If the parents have sent their child to school with the belief that the adults in the building might not have their best interests in mind, well, then the roots are in place for a much more adversarial experience for everyone.

The tangling of the roots with the expectations of the school environment ripples out and creates positive and negative effects on the relationship of families with schools. It is wrong to assume that these relationships are all “us-versus-them” yet it does happen. And although the government and the board can lose sight of the purpose of educational systems, it is critical that the school community works together to ensure we stay focussed.

Every so often, my principal reminds me of that focus – it’s not about what’s best for the parent, or the system, it’s what’s best for the child.

In that scenario, “us-versus-them” should never exist.

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