Purposefully Teaching Respect in the Classroom

What originally seems frightening isn’t always as scary as it’s made out to be.

The following is an opinion piece about why I find it vital to deliberately teach my students to respect others. In this piece I recount two incidents of ignorance and racism that occurred while I was a middle school international school student and, many years later, an international school teacher.

It is largely the combination of these experiences that have caused me to incorporate what I like to call, “talking lessons” into all of my lesson plans. They help teach my students the importance of respecting our differences, learning how to disagree with dignity and using our own differences as a positive force.

I had the immense pleasure of attending an international school as a student for both my elementary and middle school years. The International School of Kuala Lumpur was a magical place where I was given an excellent education and the opportunity to be friends with and learn from students and teachers from all corners of the world.

The school was incredible because we were put in an environment where my peers and I were all equal. Rarely did we even directly ask each other where we were from. We just sort of figured it out by listening to the languages that people spoke, their accents and by observing people’s customs. While there were Asian, African, Hispanic and European Americans in my close group of American friends, I also had Australian, Malaysian, Indian, Swedish, Chilean, Norwegian, Japanese, German, Chinese, Danish, English, Irish and Dutch friends. But that’s not even the whole list.

In all of my time there I only remember one disrespectful occurrence when it came to race. Only one. But it has stuck with me since the day that it happened.

Incident One:
I was at the country club with my best friend who happened to be an American of African descent. On that particular day we were in the video shop looking for a movie to rent when I noticed that the older brother of one of our Danish-American friends was also in the shop.

Upon catching sight of us, he coughed out the most insulting word that you could call an African American, the “n” word. In doing so, he was deliberately targeting my friend, for she was the only Black person in the room.

He did it once, then twice and after that I was in such shock that my head felt like it was underwater. I couldn’t hear anything anymore and I didn’t want to hear because all I wanted to do was run out of there with my dear friend in tow.

After we left we rushed to the nearest restroom, where my best friend allowed herself to break down and cry. I don’t remember saying anything in that restroom. I just remember feeling so powerless and also feeling that words, any words, in any form, would never be good enough to take away her pain.

For years I had been living in an international school bubble that was glorious and seemingly unbreakable. Sure there were fights, but they were typical of children who were constantly trying to fit in and find themselves, all in the same breath. Things like nationality and race were never controversial. You just came from a place and looked a certain way, period. It never occurred to me that this kind of cruelty was so close to me.

Incident Two:
Years later, after obtaining my degree in Elementary Education and living and teaching in the U.S. and abroad, I eventually moved to France where I sent in my CV to an international school. I cannot begin to tell you how happy I was to be back in that international school bubble. The different faces, the languages, the accents, the “getting lost in translation”, all of it. I was glad to be back in all of it..

One day I was asked to cover a colleague’s middle school class. I was happy to do so, albeit a little nervous to be teaching older students and wondering if I’d be able to keep them interested. The substitute teacher plans that I had been given laid out a clear lesson: We as a country (in France) had just had the terrible experience of the Charlie Hebdo assassinations and my job was to ask the students to write about how they would handle the aftermath of the situation if they had been elected President and not Macron.

Sensitive but straightforward, I thought. We first had a group discussion about what had happened and then we brainstormed what we could do after the fact. I initially thought that the students would examine the ways to get people from different religious backgrounds to work and live together in harmony. I thought that they would come up with interventions in schools or community projects. I was in no way prepared for the results that I got.

Some students thought of ways of bringing the community together, that is true. But there were a few others whose only contribution was the idea to put all Muslims in jail. I was shocked. Was this the kind of solution that one could expect from international school students? The conversation that ensued left me trembling and well aware of the fact that we had a huge problem on our hands.

I realized that I would now have to deliberately teach my younger students to work together and to honor everyone’s right to be heard and possibly even understood, while always being respectful. I would have to deliberately teach them not to hate.

For the second time in my life I was taught the lesson that international schools do not automatically make for individuals that respect all people. That is never a given. Respect is never a given. It must be taught to be learned.

And so, I decided to structure my English Second Language (ESL) and English Language Arts (ELA) lessons in a deliberate way. Not a day or a class goes by that I do not think about how my students view themselves or each other. And not a day goes by where we don’t talk about it.

We cannot continue to pretend to live in a world where we do not see or hear differences. These differences exist and they were meant to be seen and heard. So regardless if I am in an international school classroom (where the world is basically listening to our every word) or in a homogenous classroom, I will continue to focus on intentionally teaching respect through the listening of people’s stories during our “talking lessons”.

So what are “talking lessons”? Talking Lessons are my way of teaching my students an important lesson without them being entirely aware of the fact that they are actually being taught- at least not at the very beginning of the lesson. Through group discussions, about topics that pertain to their everyday lives, my puppet and I are able to get my students to open up and share stories of their friendships, race, social status, feelings, the ups and downs of being a kid, and everything else in between. It is not until the very end of the “talking lesson” that my students and I come up with a summary of how we could act in certain situations instead of just going with the first action or oral response that comes to mind.

By intentionally incorporating these “talking lessons” into our regular lessons, my students not only become more accustomed to hearing and contributing to personal stories, but they also learn how other people react to these situations too. All of a sudden the world is not so one-sided anymore.

Our world is full of stories. In part, that is all that we are, a combination of stories and everyone has their own. What better way to learn about each other than to hear our stories come out of the mouth of one of our peers?

And so I will continue to teach my students to share their personal stories and to listen to the stories that are gifted to them. Because in the end, all that we are is an accumulation of very personal stories. And these stories, I believe, are the bridge to guiding our students towards greater empathy.

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