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'We Must Accept Our Differences, Find Common Ground'

As a leader in our public school system, I regularly encounter my share of complex, polarizing issues. Unfortunately, but probably not surprising, public education is one of those issues. I listen to the chorus of opinions and work with a broad range of stakeholders in an effort to strengthen our schools and maximize the impact they have on our collective future. Whenever possible, it is my role in our very diverse community to seek common ground.

Each day, I pray for the things that you might expect a person in my position to pray. I pray for our students, for their families, for our teachers and support staff, for all of those responsible for ensuring safety and guiding learning. I also pray that God will grant me good judgement, patience and understanding.

Many of our schools have embraced the Leader in Me philosophy that was derived from Steven Covey’s “The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People.” One of those seven is “Seek first to understand, then to be understood.” Understanding does not mean agreement, but it creates an atmosphere for healthy dialog that can break down barriers and help us to move beyond our biases.

Some of the people I care most about see things very differently than I see them. It is much easier to build relationships with people who are like ourselves, but it is worth the effort to build bridges and cultivate relationships with those who are different. It would be overly optimistic to expect to change everyone’s beliefs and attitudes through your relationships and overly sensitive to fear that they might change yours. However, it is perfectly reasonable to understand each other.

Patience is a commodity that is in increasingly short supply. Our interest in listening to ideas not in line with our own is waning. There are plenty of scapegoats in our modern culture on which to assign blame, but social media, left or right leaning news channels and talk radio are merely symptoms. We gravitate toward the beliefs we already hold and get those beliefs reinforced daily. It is fine to have strong beliefs, and it is fine to espouse those beliefs. It is harmful, however, to discard and refuse to listen to other possibilities.

As I make decisions that affect thousands of people, I know that while many agree, others will be disappointed. Everyone finds themselves in that position to a lesser or greater degree as choices are continually made. My desire is to have the judgement to make the best decisions, free from bias, that meet the needs of our students, staff and the community. Certainly, the clearest and most recent example is the COVID-19 pandemic. I received advice from every constituency representing every imaginable view. Like so many leaders in our community, state and nation, I had to rely on my experience and judgement to make controversial calls almost every day.

Regardless of the level of agreement, I believe we all came through that crisis because we were all seeking the same end. There were a variety of ideas about the approach, but everyone wanted our students, their families and our staff to be healthy and safe. Often, those who most vigorously disagreed with me helped to ensure our plans were successful once the decision was made.

We are all different. We are of different races, genders, cultures and political ideologies. We look different. We talk differently. We have different ideas and philosophies. We are grounded in different cultural experiences. Different doesn’t mean better or worse. It just means different. All of us are created in God’s image. I do not take that lightly. That is my deeply held conviction that every human being has honor and worth and deserves respect and dignity. Too often, attempts are made to emphasize the qualities that divide us instead of those that would tend to bring us closer.

Our society may seem more sharply divided than ever before. We are going to disagree on many issues, but there is often common ground. Someone has to be willing to take that step into the common ground and accept the potential backlash that may follow. Of course, there are going to be times when common ground cannot be found. There are some convictions that are too deeply held to be compromised. That realization, however, should not cause us to hate each other. We should be able to recognize our divergent views on some issues and work for compromise on others.

Human relationships are complicated, difficult and sometimes very messy. They do not, however, need to be uncivil. We have the power to choose how we will engage. The solution is the acceptance of each other and our differences. The solution is tolerance for those differences and looking beyond them to find common ground – looking beyond them to find the image of God.