Monday, December 14, 2009

Teaching Tolerance

This sign, announcing that the weight tolerance for heavy trucks ends here, sits just down the road from my school. I have the urge to mark through it so that it reads "Tolerance Begins Here."

It's happening again. Kristin comes to me to ask if she can change groups. She can't work with Jacob. I ask her what the problem is even though I know: "Jacob stinks," she says.

And although I silently wish that Kristin is speaking metaphorically, I know it's true - Jacob literally smells bad. Despite referrals to the guidance office and the social worker, Jacob carries the distinct odor of poverty - old, hand-me-down clothes; mold and mildew from a house that is rotting where it stands; and second-hand smoke in his hair, which is in constant need of a cut and a bottle of shampoo.

I look to the other side of the room to see Hannah nodding toward Jenny. I can read her lips as she whispers to Caden across the aisle: "Look at her shoes," she says. I walk over and look at Jenny's shoes myself. They aren't a name brand, and Jenny, during what must surely be boredom from always sitting alone, has colored in her once-white shoes with red ink.

Unfortunately, these examples of student behaviors are all too commonplace in our schools. How can I, as a teacher, help my students understand how to be more accepting of others, especially of those who are different socially or academically?

First, we must model acceptance ourselves. When students see teachers, the role models they spend most of their days with, treating each student with the same unconditional understanding and attention, they recognize the importance of treating others equally, the importance of valuing others regardless of where they're from or what they wear.

Also, it is imperative that we have open conversations with our students about how to treat other people. I've noticed that students always pull for the underdog in movies and become angered at how others are treated across the world but will behave just as unfairly to classmates sitting four feet away. I don't hesitate to point this fact out to them, and we have emotional discussions about ways to change our own behaviors.

And last, I use every opportunity I have to point out the amazing talents of the "underdogs" in my classroom. Jacob's artwork, for example, has decorated many book projects and classroom displays. And Jenny's knowledge of books, in particular the Twilight series, is an example for all of my middle school readers.

I don't force students to work in ways that make them uncomfortable. However, I do require that they treat every other student with respect. I make it clear that I will tolerate nothing less. Maybe Jacob can draw me a sign for my classroom - Tolerance Begins Here.