Moving Beyond Tolerance: Teaching Students to Stand Up and Act



In schools today, anti-bullying campaigns are widespread.  The messages they send are strong: don’t be unkind or mistreat others, include everyone, and treat others the way you would like to be treated.  These messages are definitely important.  These messages need to be taught.  These messages are not enough.

The issue with these anti-bullying campaigns and slogans that prioritize tolerance is that they stop woefully short of the education that students need to be a decent human being in our world.  The fact is that humans are different from one another, by accident of birth or by choice, and that beyond respecting these differences, students, and the adults they grow up to be, should feel a moral imperative to protect others who are different for the sheer fact that they are a fellow human being.  There will be bullies in life; it is not enough not to be one of the bullies.  Students must feel the need to unite against bullies, to take on oppression.  How do we as teachers encourage young minds to stand up in face of discrimination and hatred, to fight for the rights of someone who looks and sounds drastically different than them?

Learn from the Past

It is never too early to expose children to the examples of those who righteously fought for the rights of others who were different from them.  Show students examples of people who were allies, standing alongside groups fighting for equality and acting against violence and hatred.  Teach them about Rabbi Joshua Heschel, who marched alongside Dr. Martin Luther King Jr for Civil Rights in Selma.  Teach them about Japanese diplomat Chiune Sugihara, who saved close to 40,000 Jews from the Holocaust, risking his own life by issuing them visas.  Teach them about Asa Kent Jennings, an American who saved 250,000 during the Armenian Genocide.  Teach them about Frederick Douglass, who addition to being an outspoken abolitionist, attended the Seneca Falls Convention, and never wavered in his support of women’s rights.  Of course it is essential to celebrate all who are activists fighting against social oppression, but by additionally highlighting heroes who acted for those who were different sends a clear message to students: true heroes stand for all of mankind.

Look at the World Today and Act

When anti-bullying is taught, the scope is often quite narrow: students are told to look at their school and think about how to maintain a community of respect and tolerance.  A more active approach is necessary.  If students are exposed to real-world issues in our nation and world, and taught how to speak up, they will become compassionate and active adults.  

Teach students about the refugee crisis in Syria.  Teach them about the genocide in Darfur.  Teach them about racial, gender-based, and religious conflict present in the United States.  It is a given that students are already being exposed to these issues on social media.  Allow safe spaces for honest discussion and create assignments with real-world relevance.  Ask students to think of a group that is different than their own background, and to act on behalf of them.  An advocacy campaign is a great way to satisfy the common core standards on persuasion, and even a math assignment can look at statistical analysis of the refugee crisis.  Schools can, and should, become places that create our next generation of citizens. We, as teachers, need to ensure that this generation is tapped into the needs of our entire community and world, and prepared to stand up for them.

Build for the Future

What will our future look like?  Will it be one that perpetuates hatred and violence, or one that celebrates diversity and fosters a community of mutual support?  Look at your students.  They are our tomorrow.  Tolerance is not enough.  We must expect more than tolerance from them, and push them out of their comfort zones to act.  Students must tear down stereotypes, raise their voices alongside marginalized groups, and advocate for change on behalf of others.  And we, as teachers, must lead this charge. If we do so, I am confident we can build a better world and a stronger tomorrow.

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