Third Grade Lessons for an Election Year

Welcome to 2020 – a leap year, a summer Olympics year, and a presidential election year. Are you nervous about the elections? Friends and colleagues with divergent political perspectives have expressed anxiety about the polarization in our shared civic life, especially for 2020. I have read blogs describing exhaustion from feeling like we are swimming in a sea of political and cultural hatred, and watched public figures give advice about how to talk to your intolerant relatives about politics. The funny thing is, folks from all parts of the political spectrum are making these same observations about feeling silenced, marginalized, and being branded as the other. My advice is to try to be more like a third grader.

Last spring, I had the privilege of speaking to a class of third graders about leadership. We compared the characteristics of a good friend with the characteristics of a good leader, and found that there were many areas of overlap. The students shared openly about their ideas about good leaders, and then I asked what they thought made a bad leader. One student said, “Bad leaders lie. Donald Trump is a liar.” Immediately two other students said, “No he’s not. He never lies. He always tells the truth.” And then an energetic debate ensued as the class weighed in on the leadership qualities of the president.

I laugh now with that third-grade teacher, as in that moment, never having taught students younger than high school age, I had no idea what to do. So I listened, shared that we can sometimes disagree about whether the same person is a good or bad leader, and then we moved on. Let me say that again. We moved on. In that moment, that class of third graders recognized that their relationships with their friends mattered much more than their ideological leanings about our president.

As an Episcopalian in an Episcopal school, I have paid attention to how our community honors the Anglican Via Media or middle way. To me that’s not a “watering down” or “averaging” of the diversity of thought and experience, but rather a both/and philosophy that reminds us that our relationships with one another in community come first. I tell this story a lot, because those students beautifully demonstrated Via Media thinking, and taught me something about how I want to be in the world.

Folks have said “they were just parroting what they hear at home.” I think that reaction underestimates the ability of third graders to think for themselves, and also underestimates how often adults might be the ones who are “parroting.” I know that I have been guilty of going for the snarky sound-bite, rather than truly engaging what someone might be trying to say. So in 2020, I want to try to be more like a third grader. They knew and showed that we do not have to agree about everything in order to be friends. In fact, if we truly want to embrace and celebrate diversity, then those differences and disagreements are also fundamental to the growth and flourishing of our schools.

How will you be more like a third grader in 2020?

About the Author

Heidi J. Kim is Director of the Melrose Family Center for Servant Leadership at Breck School, in Minneapolis, MN. Before joining Breck, she served as the staff officer for racial reconciliation with The Episcopal Church where she worked on the Presiding Bishop’s staff, serving two million people in 109 dioceses across the U.S. and in 16 countries.

Heidi Kim

Heidi holds an A.B. in American Civilization from Brown University, an M.A. in Sociology from the University of California, Los Angeles, and has completed the coursework for an Ed.D. from Seattle University.