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.


Cathy Puett Miller said...


Help me share a way to connect all those "less than engaged" students in a worthwhile project. Visit and learn how an art professor at the University of AL in Huntsville is celebrating dreams and getting educators and students all over the world involved in a dream of her own - wrapping the Saturn V model on display at the Space and Rocket Center with cloth creations representing the creators' dreams.

Katie Brotherton said...


You have managed, yet again, to put into words something that has been on my mind lately. I am constantly having conversations with my students (not to mention some of the adults in my life) about acceptance and tolerance, and I feel like I am becoming a broken record and that my words and actions are not having an impact. It's refreshing to be reminded that I'm not the only teacher having these conversations with my students. Thanks for sharing this post!

Katie B. :)

Madeline said...

What did you say to Kristin about switching groups? Did you make her work with Jacob? If so, what was your explanation to her?
By the way, I love reading your blog! I just graduated with my degree in Elem. Ed. I hope to have your great wisdom when teaching someday!

Cindi Rigsbee said...


Kristin did work in Jacob's group that day. I spoke to her briefly and asked her to decide for herself what was the "right" thing to do. And she did. But the environment in my classroom, which is one that is based on tolerance and acceptance, set the tone for that decision. And it's an atmosphere of "family" that I work on from the first day of school.

Congratulations on your degree. I hope you have as much fun teaching as I have for the past...hmmmm...several years! :)

Alicia said...

Cindi -

I was "Jenny" in school - especially in middle school - ugly clothes, white old people shoes, high waters - the works. (I'm from Hillsborough, NC) Anyways im in school to become an Elementary teacher currently, but I wanted to give you kudos for teaching middle school - it still scares me, I need to let some more years pass. But I'm interested in reading more of your thoughts and soak up as much advise as possible. i may end up teaching in Durham, but I live in Raleigh, so probably Johnston county.

Raymond C Blanchett said...

Tolerance should be a core value of all schools, college and universities not just for teachers to promote. The school I have taught at and I promote tolerance towards others from the wider school community, around the school and in the community. Year groups working on mini and extended projects, active learning through after school clubs and class work help promote tolerance and respect for others that are no so fast, quick at learning or adapting to new experiences.

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