There has been a lot in the news this past year about race relations in America and around the world. Not that these issues just came up in the past year, but certainly more issues came to the forefront in American media and this has sparked more protests and reasons for change. The Black Lives Matter movement, the Supreme Court’s ruling in favor of gay marriage, and the upcoming presidential election are all leading toward great social change in America. Of course beyond our borders there are even more news stories of conflict between people, which often go overlooked by Americans. As I look at these things that are happening, I think about my role as a teacher in shaping the future generation and helping my students work toward more peaceful relations here at home as well as abroad.
I never expected to be part of this when I first thought about becoming a teacher. My time in my Master’s program changed my perception of a teacher’s job when I had an entire class dedicated to social justice. I grew up in a small town where I never thought about social justice or the inherent advantages that I have as a white male in America. It is these privileges that affect my interactions with students now as a teacher and something that I have to constantly remind myself of.
Now, when I think about the most important reason I teach I know it’s so my students learn empathy and understanding toward all people. I think that content knowledge and classroom skills fade, but becoming a good person is forever. It’s a teachers job every day to bring thirty vastly different growing adolescents together and help them appreciate one another as individuals. This is no easy task. When done right, a teacher can make a huge difference in creating a safe classroom environment where students feel they can be themselves and will grow to appreciate each of their classmates for their unique talents.
I want to suggest a few tips I’ve learned over the past five years that aid teachers in achieving this goal:
Spend time building a classroom culture. This is critical, but often overlooked because teachers are eager to start teaching right when the school year starts. Instead, I like to do a few get-to-know you games and one team builder activity to bridge the gap and lower students’ anxiety. This way students get to laugh and struggle together before they can start to worry about what someone else think of them.
With culture in place, mix the students up. Every grading period I change seating charts. Every group assignment, I make students have new partners. During daily activities, I ask students to talk with different people. The goal of education is to learn from differences so teachers must expose students to every walk of life. It’s not about racial differences, but rather all kinds of personality, cultural, and religious differences that students need to understand.
Celebrate differences. Every student has a strength and it’s teachers’ jobs to celebrate them. It empowers students who thought they weren’t “good” at school and shows the “smart” students that it’s not about grades. Teachers must even the playing field and highlight why each individual has something positive contribute. Teachers should also talk about their own strengths and even their weaknesses. Students need to understand that no one is perfect, it just depends on how you’re viewing them.
Connect students to the community. Sometimes the school population might not reflect society at large. In this case, it’s a teacher’s responsibility to bring the community to the students. This might be through local events that the teacher can encourage students to attend. For example, every year I tell my students about the local Festival of Nations and I get the most positive feedback when they come in on Monday to tell me about their experience. When there aren’t events around, then bring the community into your classroom. I have guest speakers come to talk to my students and I use classroom time to talk about the news or learn about holidays and traditions from around the world. Too many teachers think that they must stick to a lifeless textbook as their curriculum instead of engaging their students in the real world. That’s a huge mistake.
Every year I have gotten better at working toward creating a classroom of students who are empathetic learners. It’s no science, but I do believe that the steps I listed above are crucial parts of what I do in my job every day. In fact, they’re the most important part. Teachers are paving the way for the reform efforts of many to improve race relations in America.