It's a difficult concept to teach. I mean, there is the first thing that pops into our minds these days - racism. We hear about "tolerating" people of varying races all the time - or is it that we hear about not tolerating them? - but in our classroom world where that doesn't seem to be an issue, how does one go about teaching tolerance?
The fact is that tolerance is a much broader term than what we've made it out to be. While the media pushes the agenda that racial tensions are due to a lack of tolerance, we have to recognize that tolerance might just mean "getting along" with people who are different and might have different views and opinions. Sometimes Getting Along means tolerating that person at your table who is dealing with ADHD, or a crazy home life. Sometimes it means keeping the peace with that person in the group who wants to be in charge all the time.
And sometimes it means understanding that people's words and tone of voice don't always mean what you think they mean.
This past school year, some students came to me with the sorry idea that everyone was offensive to everyone else. They believed that people said things out of hatred for others. These students thought that everybody was out to get them. They passed judgment on other people (and on me) for what they perceived was meant by their tone, body language, facial expressions, and language. They failed to understand that sometimes a person is just trying to be funny, sometimes a person is just trying to participate and force words into the conversation, and sometimes a person is just teasing.
Now I realize that all of those things can go too far - that there is a line that can be crossed into a territory that may be offensive - but I also realize that many of today's students have become hypersensitive, as well. We often hear teachers and parents tell kids to Toughen up, Buttercup, but saying it and making it happen are two different things. When children are told to develop a thicker skin, do we ever tell them how to accomplish it? When, after a decade of conditioning in their lives that has resulted in their looking for ways to be victimized and seek attitudes of entitlement - when do we propose reconditioning people to adopt an attitude of tolerance on the backside? In other words, when do those who do not feel tolerated learn to tolerate the intolerant? Keep in mind that I'm not talking about serious issues of racism, bias against religion, or prejudices against genders; what I'm talking about is everyday sarcasm, everyday plays on words, and everyday teasing.
This was never as evident as it was during this last school year when students were vocally challenging each other and the teacher at every turn. We were constantly faced with a barrage of That's mean, That's offensive, and That's not nice. Students who understand what was happening found themselves defending other people from the accusations that they were just being unkind.
And I, the teacher, had to put a foot down. It happened one day when a student announced to the class that the teacher had said something that was not nice. At that point, I had enough. I had been teaching a lesson about something that happened in history and put something in the current vernacular so my fourth graders could understand it better, and this student said with malignancy, that it was not nice.
I had to stop everything.
I looked the student in the eyes.
And I informed the student that sometimes that student was also offensive.
The fact that you can perceive intolerant tendencies in others but can't identify them in yourself is something that we must all recognize. Even the Christian Bible recognizes this: in Matthew 7:1 (NASB), the apostle records, “Do not judge, or you too will be judged." That's very possibly the most freely quoted verse in the entire Bible these days, but it also may be the most misunderstood. Taken in context, the verse means to examine yourself before condemning someone else.
If it's wrong for someone else, it's wrong for me, too.
If you want to make a difference, start with the man in the mirror.
I had to get students to understand that humor, sarcasm, and even free-flowing conversation often comes from a place of comfort. We often say things to our own families that we would never say in public. Why? Because we are more comfortable with our families. We tease the people we are most attracted to. We are sarcastic and snarky because we want the people around us to notice us. It's not always the case, but hopefully you get the point.
Look, I've blown it with some people. I've crossed the line with comments I thought were witty and funny, but that were perceived at mean-spirited. I always meant for those comments to be taken with a light heart, and the result was one less friend on social media or a former friend talking about me behind my back. When we are our most human, our relationships are vulnerable.
That's why I had to get my class to understand that families quarrel and disagree, but that it's not the end of the world. If someone in the family wants to have a different opinion than I have, I can have a conversation about it with that family member, but the conversation does not have to take a turn toward hatred and intolerance. If someone says something that I think is offensive, it's acceptable for me to ask about the intention before slinging poison arrows in their direction.
And yes, sometimes I find out that I need to tread lighter around that person, that I cannot tease that person to the point that I can with others. Some educators would have us leave out sarcasm and silly comments all together, but in the real world our students must learn to tolerate perceptions for a little bit longer, at least until they can figure out the intention behind them. If done correctly, they might figure out that those things they thought were unkind were actually endearing phrases intended to express affection - just the opposite of what they thought.
This year, we saw students start at that low point of always looking for ways to be victimized by others, but we ended in a very different place. By a certain point in the year, pupils were identifying themselves as different. They recognized that everyone in the class was different, and they were even surprised that they were getting along (tolerating) everyone else. They were looking for the good in people instead of being offended by the bad things. They were accepting and helping even the most annoying among them, understanding that every improvement was something to be recognized, that every conquered mistake was something to be celebrated. It is something of which to take note.
It's also a point of learning for this teacher. After 28 years in the profession, I rejoice at having learned something myself, and I need to make an effort to understand it better. In my reflections on the year, this may be our biggest accomplishment - the thing students expressed most often in the Last Day of School speeches: that "we had each other's backs", that "we supported each other". Every year is different and brings its own challenges. I am so glad that we faced this one and overcame.