It is year 32 for me. Year 32 of teaching, and learning, with children. Year 32 of watching how educational trends have waxed and waned only to return again. While many new ways of teaching have popped up over the years, one thing has remained constant: the teacher’s responsibility to open students’ minds and hearts. In these times, this one thing feels much harder to do.
As an equity and inclusion practitioner, my field and charge are transparent:
- Teach the children that we are all humans who must be treated with respect and dignity.
- Teach them that they need to be accepting of differences and learn from them.
- Teach them that they may have a different opinion or idea from another and that these hold value, too.
- Teach them to be upstanders, to question injustices, to use their privilege for good, to listen, and to be kind.
Teaching Sensitive Social Issues
I am known as the Kindness Teacher in our Pre-Primary and Primary Divisions, as I sit with our three-year-olds and hold “kindness conversations.” I share photos of humans that may not look like my students from places that may be unfamiliar. In Hats of Faith by Medeia Cohan, we recognize that many different faiths share the custom of head coverings. Some children may think some of the hats look funny or silly. That is the time to talk about language, feelings, and acceptance of differences. Then, the conversation circles back to treating all humans with respect.
Once, one of my four-year-old students ran up to me after our faith conversation. She said she had been to the library and saw a person with a head-covering. “I went right up to her, pulled on her skirt, and said that I know all about your head-covering. My Kindness teacher read us a book and taught us about it.”
With older children, I use Maddi’s Fridge by Lois Brandt to explore socioeconomic differences. During a conversation with fourth-graders about the book and about keeping a promise, the students expressed how painful it would be to know your friend could not afford food and that your friend asked you to not tell anyone. We talked about keeping your word and keeping others healthy. We wrestled with when you need to talk to an adult and when you need to keep the secret.
The conversation turned to homelessness, and we explored why people may be homeless. My students expressed fear of homeless people, and many shared that they felt homeless people were lazy, did not want to work, or were unemployed. As I unpacked these stereotypes with them, we engaged in open and honest conversations about what they heard, thought, and the truth. Finally, my students and I brainstormed ideas on how to help make a difference, even if that was limited to talking to other people about what they just learned.
After one conversation, I received a call from a parent who did not want her child learning about homelessness in school. I listened calmly; I validated her feelings. Then, I explained that discussing socioeconomics and homelessness in a safe, caring space would allow her child to share what she learned at school and continue the dialogue at home. It wasn’t my goal to change the parent’s mind. I only hoped I made her think and understand why I was teaching these difficult but necessary topics.
Coping With Overwhelm
Educated in the equity and inclusion field, I now live and breathe it every single day of my life. But my work — and I say work because I feel it is my work — is getting harder every single day. You cannot search any media without uncovering disrespect, intolerance, or hate from people who are supposed to be the world’s heroes or leaders. Our children see actors, politicians, and business people expressing disgust for anyone who is not their color, religion, sexual orientation, and more.
I am not ashamed to admit that there are many moments when I feel overwhelmed by the work I do — moments when I look around and try to conceptualize how the world will get better. I often feel this way when I’m sitting through symposiums, listening to speakers, and reading materials that refer to statistics and quotes, including:
- “The Year in Hate: Rage Against Change” (SLPC),
- “Gaps in Representation by Race and Gender Persist within the Independent School Workforce” (2018-2019 NAIS Trendbook), and
- “Researchers have documented how the unique challenges encountered by mixed people can, depending on the social context, negatively affect their mental health” (“Want to Be Less Racist? Move to Hawaii,” The New York Times Sunday Review, June 30, 2019).
How can we create more kind people? How can we spread kindness more quickly than hate? How can we educate our children to be changemakers, who will lead us to a more gentle, accepting world? I look for voices of people doing equity and inclusion work; I reach out to practitioners, educators, authors, and activists for support and guidance. I need others who are in the trenches to help steer me in the right direction.
Starting With Small Children
As educators, we have been given the charge, so where do we begin? And how do we sustain?
We have to start small — with our youngest learners. Open a dialogue with them on how human diversity takes many forms, whether it’s skin shade, family structure, employment, language, or religious celebration.
We must also teach children that humans are the same in many ways. All deserve clean water, healthy food, shelter, healthcare, and an education. We need to give children the language and tools to speak out when people don’t have these basic necessities. We need to teach children to be problem solvers for humanity — to use their voices and resources to help others who cannot help themselves.
Right about now, you may be asking: How can we teach these ideas to three and four-year-olds? I say, we have to. We must teach them about equity, equality, inclusion, and kindness as we teach them colors, letters, and numbers. We teach them using words they understand through discussions, books, and videos. We answer their tough questions, and if we don’t know the answers, we tell them that, too. They will ask tough questions. They are thinking; they are processing, and questions will naturally follow.
Yes, we will make mistakes. We will say the wrong thing, but we cannot be afraid to have these conversations. We must remember that children are regularly hearing and may be rapidly absorbing other conversations of hate and intolerance. We have to teach them to counter the impacts with love. There is no room for fear.
Where Do I Begin?
- For young children, start with a book like Shades of People by Shelley Rotner and Sheila M. Kelly. This will allow for discussions about skin shades, similarities, and differences in humans.
- For older children, We Came to America by Faith Ringgold presents all different groups of people who came to America, and why and how they came.
- For high schoolers, use current event topics for civil dialogue; TED Talks are an excellent resource. Asking students for topics is always an excellent way to gain their interest and investment.