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Teaching Tolerance in an Era of Power Politics

By Mary Opalenik
Teaching Tolerance in an Era of Power Politics

There’s a plethora of televised images of intolerance, pain and suffering caused by war. Whether as a result of war, poverty, or famine, the number of displaced people should give all of us who teach pause. We teach internationally, and as classroom teachers who seek to ethically nurture students who will soon be in the wider world, we should consider how to approach the issue of human rights and social justice. 

The images of the televised wars in Israel and Ukraine have evoked disturbing memories of my decades long teaching in international schools -- in particular my years teaching in Lebanon and Qatar during times of political upheaval. My experiences led to questions many international teachers inevitably ask themselves, and should ask themselves, about how to help our students become aware of themselves as global citizens.

One such question is: If I find myself in a country where war or political turmoil exists, do I try to build a psychological safety wall inside my classroom by ignoring that turmoil, or do I find a way to navigate my teaching to create windows of understanding of conflict?

My neighbor in Lebanon in 2005 was an independent war correspondent. At a dinner party he confessed he was an addict. “I’m addicted to the battlefield,” he said, “to the dynamics and complications of war, to the heightened sensation of each moment.”  He went on to suggest such addictions were true not only for himself, but for entire countries. We drank coffee and talked of the car bombs exploding in our West Beirut neighborhood, of the deep crater in the earth created by the bombing that wiped out the HSBC bank and of Rafic Hariri, the Prime Minister of Lebanon, who had been killed while in his motorcade. As the struggle between militias took shape again in the streets, students spoke in whispered tones about “outside, on the streets.” Whispering can lead to silence that grows out of fear of ostracism for one’s opinion. I chose to build windows in my classroom rather than locked doors and to create what is sometimes called “deep listening.” I began by acknowledging verbally what we all saw on a daily basis on the streets and heard on the news. Taking 10 minutes at the start of any subject class to “be real,” led to calm rather than agitation. Research in group dynamics suggests airing our views and being heard, while listening to others’ viewpoints in turn, is a significant foundation for building a tolerant classroom and, as one school’s brochure states, “a caring, compassionate and cultured community.” A version of that mission statement exists in most international schools.

Another year, on my summer flight home to the United States (US), I sat next to a US military officer who had served in Afghanistan. His job had been to interrogate prisoners. One statement from our long conversation remains, “When a nation stockpiles weapons and talks of war, it will go to war. There’s a hunger to use weapons.” That short exchange between us on a flight to the U.S. was one I shared with my students when school resumed in the fall. I asked them if they agreed and if they thought humans were inherently aggressive and driven by power. Asking pivotal, provocative questions that engender critical thinking and metacognition is another essential building block for creating an atmosphere of tolerance in the classroom.

In Doha, Qatar in 2003, I worked for CfBT, an Educational Development Trust from England. I was part of a team of teachers and administrators sent to be part of a pilot program under the Qatar Ministry with the stated goal to “modernize” the educational system for girls. The teachers were Arab women from multiple Arab countries. One day an Iraqi teacher asked to see me and said, “I am not able to work with you, with someone from a country that is currently bombing my own home and where my brother was killed by an American bomb only yesterday.” 

A question international teachers must ask themselves is: Am I able to acknowledge the right of someone to speak their mind if they profile me in terms of my nationality?

Sometimes, if a teacher shares her own difficult experiences such as mine in Qatar, students will follow suit and share their own difficulties. The teacher’s role in this case is to set up or let the class create simple rules for emotionally charged discussions. One obvious rule is “respect the dignity of the speaker.”

Some historians and political thinkers say we are living in a transition period that reveals a new jigsaw of global power. Power generated through an appetite for violence is a difficult instinct to circumvent. As teachers we are called upon to reflect carefully on world events as our lives and those of our students’ lives are subject to the movements of power politics. We are given the chance to offer alternative visions of a world that values human beings and strives to create dialogues of tolerance.

I’d like to believe humans aren’t inherently aggressive or hungry for power but at heart prefer to live in a world of peace and harmony. Harvard University’s most popular class is Positive Psychology, a class on happiness. There’s no surprise that most people find a sense of wellbeing through compassionate connection to other people. There are hundreds of websites dedicated to teaching kindness, indicative of the hunger for kindness, a hunger that is possibly stronger than the hunger for weapons of war. It may be a surprise to some that acts of kindness benefit the person who behaves with kindness as much as the person who receives it. With this in mind, our goal should be to refine our vision to see the essential, common humanity in others.

The question we should ask is: How can we erase the notion of “other” and replace it with the collective “us?” 


Mary Opalenik is a retired international teacher who taught International Baccalaureate English for two decades. She now teaches at-risk students as an in-home instructor for Hillsboro School District in Oregon, US.    

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