School Climate & Safety Opinion

Can We Teach Acceptance and Compassion or Only Mandate It?

By Jill Berkowicz & Ann Myers — February 06, 2018 4 min read
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A valued colleague used to debate with us whether we should focus discipline policies on changing student behaviors or changing how they thought. Law changes behaviors; it establishes expectations and consequences for violations. School policies do the same. By law and policy, we can control behavior. While these are sometimes the result of long and involved processes, they are much faster than changing minds and hearts. Those change, not in a sweeping social way, but one person at a time. And we wonder how successful schools can be when they attempt to build a culture counter to the one in the non-school world.

We advocate for schools with environments where the cultural bedrock is respect for differences, inclusion of varied ideas and opinions, group work and collaboration for students and adults alike are valued methods of learning and decision-making. We have embraced policies and programs to support the development of those environments and encouraged leaders to model them. Yet, environments aren’t formally tested and accountability for them is minimal at best. So, we rely on leadership and good will to create the culture in which we contend children learn and grow most fully.

As with many ideas that are outside of ‘traditional’ curriculum, behaviors to succeed in these environments are often approached as separate items: a mini-lesson in ‘getting along’, or a random assignment including team work, or a ‘talk’ about why it is important to understand others, or a visitor speaking with a class or an assembly. Worse, sometimes teachers are charged with teaching of these skills and abilities while the building and district are not embedding them in their practice with adults.

Dedicated professionals spend their careers working to teach youngsters everything from their ‘a-b-c’s’ to the complexities of scientific concepts and the history of the world, the wonders of the performing arts, writing, communicating, solving problems, athletics, literature, and technology. But, as we watch and listen to news and read tweets and blogs, we wonder how out of touch we are to seek an environment that is looking more and more countercultural in our schools. Have we made erroneous assumptions that adult educators and parents know how to teach the skills that are necessary in the environment we seek? Or worse, have we made an erroneous assumption that this is the environment all would choose for themselves and their children? Are we better at teaching subjects than at teaching deeply, acceptance, understanding, compassion and empathy?

Three historical events come to mind; the westward expansion (Manifest Destiny), slavery, and the Holocaust. These have been historically taught from the textbook and with media support. Sometimes survivors (and they are dwindling in numbers) or storytellers and researchers are invited to speak to a group of students. The common factor in these historical events is the subjugation of ‘others’. In order for the powerful to remain powerful, the removal of the ‘other’s’ humanity is necessary. One group deserves and the other does not. This is true whether speaking of the way Native American’s were (are) treated, African American’s were (are) treated, Jewish people were (are) treated, minorities were (are) treated yes, how immigrants were (are) treated.

It is a struggle for students to hold two competing truths about one experience and, yet, it is in these historical moments that today’s lessons get grounded. The managing of feelings that arise within the teaching faculty and the children are often avoided. It is the fear of one’s own feelings, or lack of them, that prevents the effective teaching of these difficult subjects and the processing emotions that go along with them. In her 2014 article in Teaching Tolerance, Michele Israel regarding the teaching of slavery, Israel writes:

Just as educators often feel uncomfortable talking about slavery, students may be hesitant to enter conversations or share their emotions about the topic. Developing a strong sense of trust allows for hard conversations and the asking of hard questions, says Spears*.

“Sometimes,” says Gilbert**, “we hide from the emotional content of this material. Sometimes we try to resolve it neatly, believing we will help students feel safer this way. But what we’re really doing is leaving them adrift to deal with whatever emotions come up, alone.”

It is the one-sided approach to curriculum that allows the avoidance of helping students understand the experience of ‘the other’. It is in these lessons that the power to effectively change the way people think and act toward each other exists.

Public education has yet another chance to change the manner in which people are treated in this country. In the Preface to the Southern Poverty Law Center’s publication “Teaching Hard History: American Slavery”, Hasan Kwame Jeffries writes:

Slavery is hard history. It is hard to comprehend the inhumanity that denied it. It is hard to discuss the violence that sustained it. It is hard to teach the ideology of white supremacy that justified it. And it is hard to learn about those who abided it.

We the people have a deep-seated aversion to hard history because we are uncomfortable with the implications it raises about the past as well as the present.

We the people would much rather have the Disney version of history, in which villains are easily spotted, suffering never lasts long, heroes invariably prevail and life always gets better.

We agree.


*Chauncey Spears, director of Advanced Learning and Gifted Programs in the Office of Curriculum and Instruction of the Mississippi Department of Education
**Lisa Gilbert is an education coordinator at the Missouri History Museum

Ann Myers and Jill Berkowicz are the authors of The STEM Shift (2015, Corwin) a book about leading the shift into 21st century schools. Ann and Jill welcome connecting through Twitter & Email.

Photo by geralt courtesy of Pixabay

The opinions expressed in Leadership 360 are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.