Tolerance is not enough: a letter to my former students

Dear former students,
There’s quite a lot I didn’t teach you.
You knew my rules about respect. You knew not to use the
word “gay” to indicate displeasure in my classroom. (You even knew not to use “gay”
as a synonym for happy because it’s culturally outdated and a loophole to
continue using the word derogatorily.) You knew not to laugh at homeless people
or use the term hobos around me. You
knew I don’t like misogynistic “jokes” or song lyrics that degrade women. You
knew that joking about rape would earn someone a referral to both the principal
and the counselor. You knew I would lose my cool on anyone who created more
work for our cleaning staff by intentionally making messes or littering around
school. You knew how fast I would stop class if I heard any kind of attack or
threat on another student, no matter how small.
But I never really taught you why those things were
important to me. It’s true that you could have guessed. Maybe occasionally I
offered a very brief explanation. You could have inferred what I believed based
on stories we read or the way I handled certain situations. But I never taught
it the way I did subordinating clauses or figurative language or sonnets.
That’s because until very recently I thought it was fine to simply
teach tolerance. Respect each other. Keep offensive remarks and behavior to
yourself. If you can’t, things will get ugly with me.
I taught you wrong.
In my defense, it’s easier to teach tolerance. It’s faster.
Issuing punishments and repeating mantras about respect takes far less time
than sitting down and examining linguistic, cultural, and historical factors or
talking about feelings. We have a lot of work to do with the curriculum alone, and
sometimes it’s just faster to say, “We don’t use that word in my classroom,” or “That’s
a lunch detention,” and move on.
But it can’t be the only way to teach. It makes my classroom
a safe space, but it suggests that the only time to behave safely towards each
other is inside that room. Coming down hard on insensitive behavior and remarks
might protect the feelings of victims, but also isolates and vilifies the student
who behaved in that way. Arguably, it probably also doesn’t change anything for
that person, except to know that their teacher will shame them.
When I read the stories about Orlando, my heart broke wide
open. I cried reading about the victims, thinking about the living nightmare
the survivors must now endure. I cried for the LGBT community, here and abroad.
I cried for the helpers, the first responders and the brave men and women who
risked their lives to protect others. I cried for the shooter, because even though
that amount of hatred is unthinkable, to reduce other humans to a value of
zero, I have to wonder if he had been taught by people in his life that he,
too, was worth nothing.
So this coming school year, I’m going to do something
different. Instead of teaching tolerance, I will teach insistence. I will
insist that everyone belongs—not just the people who think, look, or act like
you.
I will insist that everyone—and I mean everyone, even (and
maybe especially) that classmate you just can’t stand—has value and beauty and a
story that would make you cry if you knew it.
I will insist that we read books with diverse characters—LGBT,
Muslim, refugee, people with mental illness, etc. I will insist on class
discussions throughout the year where we talk about people groups who are
marginalized because of their race, sexuality, religion, or other factors
related to their identity, and I will insist that their stories matter.
I will address the students who break my rules about respect
firmly and swiftly, but more importantly, I will treat them with the same
kindness and compassion I’m asking from them.
I will insist that building walls is never a solution to
being afraid of those who are different from you.
I will insist that no matter how loudly the world might say
that it’s dangerous to be yourself, love is louder, and love will win in the
end, always.
Teaching insistence will take longer. It will require more
of me—more energy, more compassion, more patience. It will require more of my
students, too. But so much of what we’ve seen recently, and not just in
Orlando, tells me we need it.
Former students, I’m not your current teacher anymore, but I
have faith you’ll learn insistence from somewhere. In spite of everything, I
believe in the good forces that are at work, and I believe that good is
insistent, too.
I care about all of this so deeply because of you. Teaching has
fundamentally changed me, is changing me, and it has to, because I spend hours
every week interacting directly with kids who represent a vast array of
beliefs, values, and experiences. I love each of you so much that sometimes I
think I’m in actual danger of my heart exploding out of my chest, and more than
anything I just want all of you to live in a world where you feel safe and
strong and valued, because feeling safe and strong and valued makes it easier
to be brave and kind and inclusive. And in case you haven’t been paying
attention, we need more of that.
We need you.
Love,

Teach

59 Comments

  1. Hollie Ikner

    Thank you, Teach, for changing how I do my next school year. I thought tolerance was enough. I see though that it wasn't. It isn't. And it's not going to change. What a beautiful post. Thank you.

  2. tamdom

    This letter is beautiful, moving, and so important. I thank you for putting this into words. It is something that I also work on each year and I appreciate your outlook on this problem. It has helped me to make a more concrete decision of what I want to do this next school year.

  3. Sean Barker

    I do my best to teach this to my students. Teach them that there are real people behind the derogatory things they say. Real people who hurt, struggle, and cry, and the cross they bear becomes more real when they are vilified for being a real person.
    I don't know how successful I am in teaching them this, and I don't know how lasting the lesson is in any case, but God help me, I try.

  4. An American Teacher

    Okay, I have to put on my Black Hat. This is a beautifully written letter full of love. It fits in a Utopia. If you have noticed our world has been spinning a bit out of control lately. More "love" is going to fix this? I wish. I wish that this letter would have included that love alone will not bring on more tolerance. Teach, you are still very naive. This rhetoric still is not truthful. It holds back the ugly part because that's what teachers do. We don't want to scare our children to not wanting to take that next step out the door. We don't want to turn them all into introverts shading their eyes from the eye contact that they will come into contact with on a daily basis. We want them to be optimistic about their futures. So, we hold back. And when we do that, we fall into being guilty of teaching political correctness. I oppose political correctness. It is dangerous. It is untruthful. It creates fear. As a teacher, and this is my opinion, we need to teach fact and opinion so our students will know the difference. There is a lot of opinion distorting the facts these days. We need to teach caution. We need to be aware that there are bad people out there, for what ever reason, they are there. We need to teach our history, the good and the bad. But it cannot be taught by people with bias. Too many professors have an agenda to change the minds of young people today into clones of their political stances. We need to be mindful that when we teach history, there are two sides to the story…how people were different in the past compared to how they are today. I hear some teachers teaching that Christopher Columbus was a bad, mean, ruthless explorer…some just don't know how to teach the facts and be okay with them. But when you understand that these explores did what explorers did for survival purposes, we start to understand that was a way of life. Was Christopher Columbus bad? Or was he doing what most men did, right or wrong, to change history? It was a tough world back then. People were tough. There is so much we need to teach and understand in our own knowledge banks….our awesome responsibility to tell the truth with is never ending. There was cruelty, pain, and torment in our past…and now present. But for survival purposes, we have to teach the meaning of pride of country, what bravery really is, and how much are you willing to put on the line to protect your way of life. Teach patriotism. Teach truth. Teach self-esteem (learn failure and success, in that order). And do it all with love. Love is an additive….not a fix all.

    1. Anonymous

      An American Teacher,
      One problem with your argument is that facts and truth are not clear anymore. We know know that Christopher Columbus was not the first to discover the Americas. That truth came from someone who desired that to be so. History seems to change as we find out more about both the historians and the people thought to be important by the historians and people in power. Bias is not easily set aside, as we are humans and not computers. Because of our push to build "self-esteem" in our children, they have become to feel entitled and more easily disappointed and depressed that they cannot live up to the expectations of others. Love is not political correctness. I admit that maybe tolerance is too weak. Love and respect of all human beings as they grow into adulthood gives them a chance to flourish. Truth is messy. Love is the antidote to the cruelty, pain and torment of the past, present and future. Teach is more than a great teacher, but a great citizen helping to build the characters of hundreds, nee thousands in her lifetime!

  5. Lotus

    I like insistence to show inclusiveness as people we should be educating and preparing our children to fight for a world where our label is not a classification or hinderance. We all are humans, with limbs, organs and thoughts, no one above the other, none more resourceful than the other just differently. We should enourage each other to see our own beauty and usefulness and to share in its wonder. To learn from each other as we all have to overcome similar challenges, culture , parents, health issues in our own way but all follow a similar direction – to help us grow as a person – so why is someone's growth or wants a threat- not understanding should not be a justification for belittling. Not sharing similar values should just mean , you are not compatible for certain things, does not mean you are less or more. Someone loving another person of the same gender does not make your love for the person of the opposite gender any less valuable so why fight them? if your God is wrathful maybe you should examine its cultural roots rather than shame the other person's to validate its teachings. We all view the world in our own unique way, not one person will see things exactly like you do so why want the rest of the world to remain trapped or to change too fast so your own vision becomes more relevant. There is enough world and enough beauty to include everyone's wishes if we just stopped teaching our children that the bad things that happen are just the way things are and that the bad history is something we should just accept rather than stipulate as outdated thinking. Only when we see the world with innocent eyes will the world truly be innocent and people will no longer die senseless deaths due to someone's lack.

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  9. Lindsey Kuipers

    If you use specific resources to introduce this standard, will you share? I'm seeing such a deep need for this (and for a shift in how I teach it) in my classroom, as well. Thanks for your words!

  10. Lisa

    THANK YOU, THANK YOU, THANK YOU for this! I can only hope that more educators will also feel the conviction to move beyond the concepts of respect, tolerance and inclusivity.

  11. J McD

    Great writing. Love will conquer when enough people learn from teachers like you to respond to hatred and bigotry with love, learn that hatred and bigotry are not ok. Keep fighting the good fight.

  12. Amal Gamal

    I am an Egyptian teacher of English. I've been teaching English as a secong language in my country for more than 20 years. Right now,I am a team leader in a primary school. I lead more than 37 teachers. I would like to thank you for that awesome post. I haven't thought of teaching morals out of your own perspective, before. I thought it was fair enough to tell my students , do this and don't do that. Your post is worth reading. I will print your post, then photocopy it and distribute it among my team to discuss all the important points you mentioned. I will try to make them apply your way in guiding their students in class.Thanks a lot and I am glad I had the opportunity to participate in your blog and share your valuable posts with others.

  13. mona elghanam

    I agree with your point, but I find it difficult to implement this specially in limited time classes. They are valuable indeed.. but maybe sending a misbehaving child to be punished outside saves the session and help others learn better.. so, how can I apply insistence? I'm really interested

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  21. Jacob Perkins

    Thank you a lot for publishing this letter. It is so fair and at the same time, it is so sad. The thing is, at our time there are a lot of unfair and really cruel things. And what is the scariest – we can observe a lot of cruel things among children. People often don't care about what other people feel, people don't understand and don't even want to understand problems of other people. This is society. By the way, these topics – tolerance, empathy, etc. – became an important part of topics for an MBA capstone paper in some particular fields.

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