Opinion
International Opinion

Advice to Teachers: Think Beyond ‘America First’

By Wendi Pillars — June 05, 2018 5 min read

Editor’s Note: We need to be aware of our privilege, develop a global perspective, and take responsibility beyond ourselves, writes Wendi Pillars, EAL teacher at Jordan-Matthews High School in Siler City, NC.

Developing a global perspective doesn’t mean simply looking at what is happening overseas. It includes the ability to, as Peter Senge puts it, “turn the mirror inward” by “learning to unearth our internal pictures of the world ... to hold them rigorously to scrutiny.” Pluralistic perspectives are part and parcel of a shrinking world.

As Americans, many of us need to rethink our meaning of privilege, simply by virtue of living in a country in which women have the right to vote, to drive unescorted, and to wear the clothes we choose. Of living in a country where clean water is more typical than not, and available to most of us by simply turning on a faucet. Where most are comfortable enough that it’s an outrage when power is lost for hours. A country in which medical care and purchases are usually available even when our money isn’t, and climate control for nearly every temperature fluctuation, making us the first indoor species in the world. A country where the promise of free, quality education is seen as a given for all of our children.

Our country is far from perfect, yet our default is to focus on ourselves and take our privilege for granted. But we’re such a tiny piece of the whole story. If we zoom out from ourselves, our communities, our states, our endless other boundaries, we see one planet. How can we not embrace more perspectives in the world? Above all, how can we highlight the fact that we are part of “the global"; that our communities, our students, our environment and its resources, are part of this world?

The more we learn about others, the more we realize we can never walk in everyone else’s shoes. Empathizing with and deepening our understanding of others, however, is within reach of everyone. Our role as educators is to facilitate tough conversations to help others do this. If each of us took more individual and collective responsibility for what we do, even the smallest actions, or inactions, could have untold ripple effects.

What can we do?

1. Teach real-world problems with the UN Sustainable Development Goals (UN SDGs).

Multiple perspectives are imperative, and sometimes that includes voices of people in a completely different place. Poverty? Gender inequality? Intolerance? Absolutely.

These issues exist everywhere, so let’s explore how they impact others along with solutions used to try to address them. As much as teenagers may hate to hear it, they’re not the only ones enduring struggle, no matter their political leanings, ethnicity, or race. Try thinking through the UN SDGs for real-world problem-solving that relates in some way to every content area. They’re agreed upon by 193 nations, so they come with a built-in global mindset, and the deadline is 2030, so urgent solutions await.

If we want students to solve real-world problems, teaching the SDGs is a great place to begin. Apps such as SDGs in Action to increase engagement, or Mapting to share and browse positive actions toward the SDGs, provide ideas to ramp up individual contributions. Channel responsibility with interconnectivity and building understanding early for priceless levels of action. It doesn’t get more “real world” than that.

2. Reframe how students are using their knowledge.

The Center for Global Education at Asia Society has a framework for global competence that exhorts taking action after investigating various perspectives, researching them, and communicating ideas. We have a responsibility to step out of our shoes, step out of our privileges, and step into another’s perspective. Self-segregating powers of social media make this difficult, but it’s necessary to expand our bubbles.

Privilege, or lack thereof, in the United States can look very different in another’s shoes. Personal vehicles, flushing toilets, and warm running water are praiseworthy every single day I have them. A roof that keeps me dry and a home that is warm when the temperatures aren’t are privileges, not rights. How often are we grateful for what we do have? Shifting perspectives to consider basic human needs and how our own actions impact those who don’t have them is paramount to a global mindset.

3. Foster an explorer mindset.

The National Geographic Framework outlines an instructional consideration for attitudes, skills, and knowledge of learners with explorer mindsets. If we encourage students to take the role of an explorer who seeks to understand other places, people, and ideas, might they see themselves differently and in the context of others?

For example, if they understand the influence of geography in the evolution of historic events, they will be far more equipped to predict, mitigate, and solve current problems; and to plan, take action, and then evaluate the results of their actions. Even a single descriptor of the Framework holds countless opportunities to extend thinking and learning beyond traditional learning paradigms. Align it with international documents such as the Earth Charter, with activities for youth to learn and connect to help build a more just, sustainable, and peaceful global society.

In America, there are many privileges we share that we take for granted, even among racial, ethnic, and socio-economic divides. More than ever, our responsibilities extend beyond our own selves. The global population is predicted to surpass 9.8 billion by 2050, amid shrinking land areas, declining ecosystems, rising seas, and decreasing access to food and clean water. The need to grow together with our learners, to become problem-solvers ourselves, is non-negotiable. Let’s ensure that youth understand how patterns of global power and influence are determined by the distribution of natural resources and population on Earth. It is no longer optionalto amplify what we know about our relationship with the world around us, our mutual impacts upon each other, and our many interconnections from the local to the global.

We have only one planet, and it needs our help; our rights won’t matter if we don’t take responsibility for it and all of its diverse life. As astronaut Donald Williams said, “The things that we share in our world are far more valuable than those that divide us.” There’s no time to waste. Best to develop a world perspective now.

Connect with Wendi, Heather, and the Center for Global Education on Twitter.

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The opinions expressed in Global Learning 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.

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