Schools and Society as Mirror Images: Can We Change Our Reflection?

Schools and Society as Mirror Images: Can We Change Our Reflection?

post by Dana Onayemi, 2018-19 Associate of The Educator Collaborative

Schools and Society as Mirror Images: Can We Change Our Reflection?

I’ve spent the last eight years teaching 10 and 11 year-olds, and while I absolutely love this stage of a child’s life, I also know that at this age it becomes tricky to help students navigate their social relationships. Our students are trying to find their way in a complicated world—and the adults are not doing such a hot job modeling how to do that. 

 I wholeheartedly believe that our future is dependent upon a society of citizens who can view issues from multiple perspectives in order to develop a deeper understanding of the myriad of factors that contribute to each and every conflict. I also believe that we have all the knowledge and tools we need as people to solve some of society’s most troubling challenges. Yet, it seems more like we are all just hamsters running on that spinning wheel. . . 



And just like these hamsters. . . it seems like progress is always at the expense of someone or something. Systems of oppression remain unchecked in schools, and therefore remain unchecked in society. These days, it is not too challenging to see that divide. I mean, Donald Trump’s presidency is reflective of everything that is wrong with our society. Yet, we as a people created these circumstances. 

 From people who praise Trump’s leadership style, I hear that he is a man who speaks his mind and “tells it how it is.” His followers like the fact that he is not afraid to put other people “in their place.” Yet, this rhetoric is meant to further marginalize our most fragile citizens. Who gives a leader like this their power? We all do. 

 What I notice with my students EVERY single year, is that they begin to form a hierarchy of “in groups,” or relationships based on social status. More often than not, the leader of the “popular” group is a someone who has been most successful at putting other people down in order to rise to the top of the pack. Consider a HS social ranking such as the one below: 

 (image from


Students at the top of the hierarchy think they should tell everyone who they can and cannot be friends with, they spread rumors, and they do what they need to do to keep their social status. All the other kids want to be like these kids, and they engage in questionable choices to figure out where they fit in this hierarchy. This is nothing new of course, we all went to school and we all know this happens. Whether you were a part of the in- group or the out-group, this social structure is a mirror image of society. In order to be a part of the in-group, it is essential that there is an out group. Success as leader of an in-group is dependent upon having a group of people who are “beneath” you. A leader who operates with this mindset works actively to keep groups of people at the margins. 

 Yet, instead of structuring our school day and human resources to consider these social dynamics and model something different, we continue to forge ahead with academics and hierarchies. We prioritize our pacing-guides and our unit plans. Teacher professional development and staff meetings continue to be about the “what” of our school day—the curriculum, the standards, the grades. Schools are still structured using hierarchies, where the Superintendent is viewed as more important and powerful than the classroom teacher. Teachers complain about administrators and administrators complain about teachers—and the kids are watching. 

 In schools, we need to teach kids that their happiness is not dependent on the sadness of the other kids. You don’t need to have anyone “beneath” you in order to be well liked, successful, and taken seriously. Teachers, principals, and superintendents should all have the same power and value in the organization. We need to put these social and leadership hierarchies in check, otherwise we show the students that we value this way of being. I’m thinking we can model something different. Schools should be reflecting the values we hope to see in the world—the values that embrace all members of our society.