The week’s Leadership Column is courtesy of Pam Flynn

On teaching tolerance and building community

How do we teach tolerance?  As we move closer to the end of the 2014-2015 school year and the last two school-wide GRIT (Goals, Responsibility, Integrity, and Tolerance) lessons, I keep reflecting on the very last one.  Goals and responsibility are a walk in the park to teach. Integrity and Tolerance are a bit more of a challenge. Indeed, many educator blogs and professionals in education question whether schools should be responsible for helping to impart these values. Shouldn’t these values be taught at home? Of course they should be taught at home. However, these values are also part of building community among our students. Thus, I believe each of us is charged with this helping to impart these values.

As aforementioned, my personal opinion is that not only is it a part of our job to teach Integrity and Tolerance, but also to model them each and every day. I am not alone in this thinking. Several colleagues and I have had numerous conversations about our responsibilities as professional educators and while some completely disagree, many feel the same as I. Further, research suggests that it is essential that tolerance and appreciation is essential for classroom success and that it begins with the teacher.

“Teachers can lead the way in making their classrooms work for a diverse population by first examining how their own culture affects the way they view students and learning. Additionally, teachers should learn more about their students’ cultures and their families’ expectations for learning. When teachers understand the values and learning styles of a student’s community, teachers are better able to ―design learning experiences that work with, not against, student cultures‖ (Trumbull & Rothstein-Fisch, 2008, p. 66).”

But it’s not just about making a classroom work for a diverse population. Certainly, knowing about cultural differences with regard to learning is essential when approaching how to teach a lesson and expect success from all. I believe it’s also everyone’s responsibility as a member of a community to model and yes help facilitate developing tolerance and appreciation for all people.

At the beginning of each of my freshmen seminar rotations, the first drill of the rotation is for the students to work in groups and quickly write down what GRIT stands for and offer an example of each. I’m pleased to share that most students can easily state what the acronym stands for. However, when they get to offering examples for tolerance, they most generally fall short.

Perhaps the reason students fall short when defining tolerance and that some of us feel challenged by the notion of teaching tolerance lies in the definition. The Merriam-Webster Dictionary defines tolerance as the willingness to accept the feeling, habits, or beliefs that are different from your own. Nowhere in this particular definition are the words embrace, or even appreciate.

In addition, it’s difficult to teach or to expect students to develop an appreciation and tolerance for diversity unless we all as a community take the time to get to know one another. As part of my beginning lesson for each freshmen seminar group, when we get to tolerance and examples that fall short of indicating any type of appreciation for diversity, I ask the class to look around at the people in the hallway and further ask what they see. The last session I did this garnered what I feel are tell all responses: “black people;” “Asians,” “white people;” “Mexicans!” When they said “Mexicans” I inwardly said “gotcha!!!” It was just what I hoped the students might say and a way to segue into a discussion about how little many of us truly know about other cultures and without true knowledge there is no tolerance.

I asked the students who spoke Spanish in class to raise their hands if they were Mexican. Only one hand was raised. After explaining that although we have a large population of Spanish speakers, we have very few Mexican students, an African American student in class said “well you know they and the Asians all look alike.” This was followed by my asking the students to look around the room at each other and asked did they think they all looked alike? “Only the twins!” was the response of the mostly African American students in class. I then pointed out that what the student said was not only a racist comment historically made by one ethnic group with regard to another, it was without a doubt a great barometer for detecting people who have spent little time knowing or getting to know those outside their own ethnic group.

After we reflected and students responded to my comment, we spent the remainder of the class introducing ourselves and answering personal questions that not only served to begin the getting to “know” one another process, but I hope the process of laying aside the “us and them” attitude and a foundation for developing true tolerance. Because at the end of the day, each of us is more alike than different, and without a sense of community we are weak. Thus, I embrace the challenge of teaching and modeling tolerance in all of my classes.

The highest result of education is tolerance. — Helen Keller

“He who is different from me does not impoverish me – he enriches me. Our unity is constituted in something higher than ourselves – in Man… For no man seeks to hear his own echo, or to find his reflection in the glass.” ― Antoine de Saint-Exupéry

If you try to make your circle closed and exclusively yours, it never grows very much. Only a circle that has lots of room for anybody who needs it has enough spare space to hold any real magic. — Zilpha Keatley Snyder, American Children’s Writer (1927- )

“Pit race against race, religion against religion, prejudice against prejudice. Divide and conquer! We must not let that happen here.” ― Eleanor Roosevelt

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