UVEI Convenes Educators Committed to Healthy Communities


For UVEI teaching candidate Cecile Smith ‘22, her interest in the topic is tied to her hopes: “I am hoping to teach and learn from my students what it means to be part of a community. I view my work as crucial to raising our youth to be able to work together productively across differences—an ability I think our world desperately needs.”

A more veteran teacher joined the conversation because of her worries: “I have made a concerted effort to teach civil discourse, current events, and ethical dilemmas in my English classes in an effort to try to help students develop less reactionary patterns of thinking and communicating. While I’m proud of this work, it feels wildly insufficient in our current social and political environment.”

These two teachers were among fourteen educators from across the region who joined me in February to discuss the work of schools in a time of political polarization, one of several outreach and engagement events happening this year at UVEI. It was a diverse group of educators, representing different views on school culture and curriculum: one teaches journalism, one will soon be a “Flexible Pathways” coordinator, another is a dean of academics, and others are classroom teachers. All feel a sense of urgency, which compelled them to set aside time at the end of a busy school day for our conversation. 

In my invitation to the event, I asked participants to read a report from 2019 published by the Carnegie Endowment for Peace, “Should America Be Concerned about Political Violence? And What Can We Do to Prevent It?”  

The report summarizes “key takeaways” from a conference that brought together a wide array of scholars, practitioners and experts.  But, as I wrote in my invitation, as far as I can tell, none of the conference participants was a school-based practitioner. Indeed, ‘school’ is mentioned on only one page of the paper. So our discussion focused on the connections we could make between what the experts say about violence-prevention and our work as educators.

The important place of educators in this work is something understood by the Polarization and Extremism Research Innovation Lab (PERIL) at American University, where I’m an education advisor.  PERIL’s Co-Director, Dr. Cynthia Miller-Idriss, advocates for a “public health approach” to addressing the potential for violence and extremism, which includes social services, schools and community-based organizations.

The February UVEI event was just an hour and a half – but participants made strong connections to each other and to the topic. Lyndon Institute Dean of Academics and English teacher, Terha Steen, connected the report’s conclusions to her goals as a teacher of writing: 

“We typically encourage students to take a position, debate, and I wonder– do we need to change our approach to teaching writing? What happens when the goal is not to be right but to solve a problem, make a good decision? As we structure classes, how can we encourage students to think about nuance and rely on language and patterns of thinking that go beyond bad and good, right and wrong?” 

In addition to sharing teaching strategies, solidarity among educators poised for the challenging work ahead is a basic goal of such convenings.  The next US presidential election will happen during the 2024-2025 school year.  Planning backwards from what promises to be a tumultuous time, we are organizing future gatherings focused on sharing strategies – old and new – that can help strengthen our schools to be healthy, inclusive, democratic communities.  The next gathering will be in-person in Randolph, VT, where it will be hosted by two UVEI alumni, Co-Principals Caty Sutton and Lisa Floyd.  

Elijah Hawkes, MSEd, is the Director of School Leadership Programs and a faculty member in the Teacher, School Leadership, and Masters of Education Programs. You can read more about Elijah on our website or email him at ehawkes@uvei.org