Acceptance and respect are best taught through example. As a teacher, I set the mood, tone, and pace of the classroom. If I mistreat any student in my classroom, it will give students permission to do the same. That old adage “Do as I say, not as I do” must have been coined by someone who didn’t understand human nature. If we want our children/students to accept those with different beliefs, cultures, etc., then we need to show them how it’s done. The number of teachers who have admitted to rolling their eyes, smirking, and/or belittling students in the classroom that they found weird or culturally different amazes me; then, those same teachers will complain about how nasty other students are to them or to other students. It’s easy to make the connection between the two situations, yet some teachers would rather blame children for the negativity rather than themselves. I know it’s hard to change children’s behavior in all aspects of their lives if their parents are modeling negative behavior, but teachers can impact students’ behaviors within their classrooms.
Not only do I model kindness and understanding in my classroom, but I also share with my students how every child/teenager/adult I have met and worked with helps me to grow. Every person that comes into our lives has something important to teach us. I’m always learning something new because of the diverse people in my life. While being exposed to a beautiful array of cultural differences improves my knowledge, it also improves my empathy—a necessary emotion that allows us to become healthy and connected human beings. Without empathy, we become selfish and in extreme cases, narcissistic and/or sociopathic. When we can look beyond skin color, clothing brand, religious symbols, and chosen paths, and care to hear the stories and see the similarities within each of us, we will realize that we have more in common than we think. Whether we know someone’s story or not, it’s safe to assume that everyone is struggling with something. Wouldn’t it be horrible to add pain to someone’s already difficult life?
The other important thing to teach children/students is the difference between opinions and facts. We are living in a society that believes in the validity of its own opinions. Although everyone is free to have an opinion, it doesn’t mean that every opinion carries equal weight, especially those opinions that have no basis in factual evidence. This is part of critical thinking skills, but it must be taught from the position of compassion rather than pure logic. Some opinions come from inductive and deductive reasoning, and others come from fear and prejudice. Regardless, all opinions are worn like a badge of honor. It is only through patience and informed discussions that we can help our children/students open their eyes to the biases that have formed those weightless, negative opinions. Through these critical thinking discussions, students will remember those role models and begin to practice empathy, learning to accept and work well with people who are different from them.