Overcoming Intolerance Learned at Home

During the school year, I try to empower my students to make their own decisions and form their own opinions. I begin with a unit I call, “Question Authority.” Students investigate all kinds of authorities, including government, media, and history. It’s a powerful unit that leaves kids shocked (“Food labels can say fat-free even if there’s fat in the food?”), disappointed (“Those models in the magazine are all Photoshopped?”), and angry (“We imprisoned people just because of their ethnic heritage?”). They learn to develop a critical lens with which to question the reality they once blindly accepted.

When a student finally gathers the courage to question me, I respond with one of my favorite sayings from Buddha: “Believe nothing, no matter where you read it or who has said it, not even if I have said it, unless it agrees with your own reason and your own common sense.” I want students to begin questioning the information that is presented to them, no matter who presents it. That’s where things get tricky.

As I recite my favorite saying, I think of the parents who complained that our school district was closed on one of the Jewish holidays because “Who cares about the Jews?” I think of the parents who refused to let their children participate in lessons on factory farming or who demanded that we remove the movie Supersize Me from our curriculum because it puts McDonalds in a bad light. One parent refused to let her child be taught about slavery from a white teacher. Another parent even accused us of pushing Obama’s liberal agenda because we read an article about a little boy who preferred pink to blue. “Stop trying to teach diversity!” she shouted.

These parents have complained to the principal, the superintendent, and the board of education. I call it fighting for ignorance, but intolerant parents are powerful obstacles to teaching tolerance. So are other forces that are largely beyond the control of a teacher, like friends, music and the media.

For a little while after students question me, I believe that I have opened minds and shined a bright light into our collective darkness. Then a parent writes me a note that her child can’t work in a group with Franco because Franco is a special-needs child who will lower the group’s grade. Then Lena comes in to class limping because someone on Facebook declared that it was “Kick a Ginger Day,” and her vivid red hair made her an easy target. The parents of the kids who kicked her say it’s all in good fun.

I used to believe that the shining light of Truth would always prevail. I believed that once a person was confronted with an irrefutable fact, he would have no choice but to assimilate that information into his worldview. What I realize now is that I’ll always be struggling against other viewpoints, no matter how irrational some of them are. My students are still kids, after all, and their worldview is still forming. My goal is to offer them all sides of an issue so that they can assemble their own ideas and opinions.

While I may not be able to change a family that embraces intolerance or convert society at large, I can shine a light. I can empower a student to question the authority of what he’s being told. In the act of questioning, he is already brightening the darkness. 

Sofen is a middle school writing teacher in Sparta, N.J.

Readers: We’d like to know—how do you counter the intolerant attitudes that students pick up outside the classroom?


I believe that children

Submitted by Alison on 10 November 2011 - 11:18am.

I believe that children should have their own opinion and views on things as well. Children are not born to be prejudice, they are taught to be prejudice by mostly their families. It is sad to this and this is why there needs to be more teachers out there to show and teach students that they can be their own person and believe what they want to believe. In the same retrospect, it is hard for teachers to do this because we need to respect parent’s wishes but it does not hurt to have a lesson here or there to help children realize that they have their own opinions and beliefs; not just what their parent's tell them what to believe in.

Buddha: “Believe nothing, no

Submitted by eleanor on 7 November 2011 - 1:54pm.

Buddha: “Believe nothing, no matter where you read it or who has said it, not even if I have said it, unless it agrees with your own reason and your own common sense.” THIS IS A GREAT LESSON I WISH ALL TEACHERS IN ALL SCHOOLS WOULD SHARE WITH ALL STUDENTS. WEE REALLY NEED TO STOP BRAIN WASHING OUR YOUTH AND START TEACHING THEM TO THINK FOR THEMSELVES

I wonder if it would be

Submitted by Lori on 1 January 2011 - 3:11pm.

I wonder if it would be surprising to you, Ms. Sofen, to know how intolerant your article reads to a conservative-minded parent. I share with you the desire to teach children to think for themselves and raise them not to always take things they see or hear at face value. This includes things that they learn from their teachers at school.

Yet, I do not believe that teachers and parents are equals. You, as a teacher, do not have an equal right or responsibility for shaping the values of MY young child, and certainly do not have the right to insert yourself between parent and child. Believing that it falls upon the educational system to develop the "right" kind of thinking in our children means embracing a profound undermining of parental authority. It is something to which I strongly object.

I see a progressive, leftwing agenda in almost every example you cited, and you have called parents like me, who hold a different point of view from yours, "ignorant," "irrational," and "intolerant." Were my student to be in your classroom, I would be hard-pressed to decide whether to request a less ideologically-blinded teacher, or to use you as a daily debriefing example of the ways our educational system has sadly become corrupted by a very distinct leftwing political agenda.

Lori, it seems to me that

Submitted by dhyatt on 5 January 2011 - 2:53pm.

Lori, it seems to me that teaching a child to think critically is neither left nor right winged. It is simply teaching them to use logical thinking and sound argument to make their own decisions. I consider myself conservative BUT I do teach my children to read food labels beyond the colorful claims on the front of a box. I do teach them to be fair and open minded when they hear the opinions of others but also to understand the source when they are fed information that sounds "to good to be true." I do not think Mrs. Sofen called all parents "ignoranr,""irrational," and "intolerant." But there is no doubt in MY mind that some of these parents are just those things. This country was founded on principles of equality and tolerance. That is neither right nor left, it is the American Way.
Perhaps if you gave us some specific example of teaching that you disagree with?

The ability to seek and find

Submitted by Keith Moore on 21 December 2010 - 12:15am.

The ability to seek and find the truth depends mostly, if not entirely, on asking questions of everything until you are satisfied that there are no more questions to ask. I myself have often replied to people who ask me about my religious convictions that I have asked every question of my beliefs that I can think of and that my confidence comes from having never stopped asking until I was certain that I had exhausted my ability to find answers. It is critical, absolutely critical, that this attitude towards information be taught to students for I find that far too many of them these days are depressingly willing to accept broad generalizations on faith because it pleases their existing biases. I think, however, that there is a trap built into a teacher pushing students to ask these questions, especially when the maturity of those students is still developing. In fine, there is a great risk that the teacher will push their students to question authority, not because their beliefs are harmful or ignorant but because the teacher believes those beliefs to be harmful or ignorant.
There is little harm, for example, in a student believing in God but strictly speaking, the belief is unscientific. There is little doubt that a teacher should push their students to question racist, ignorant, or otherwise malicious beliefs but what if a teacher also believed that students have a duty to question beliefs that are unscientific? It seems to me that a teacher demanding that a student question their belief in God is wholly improper because the belief in and of itself is not harmful to the student or others. Now, if the student believes that God wants "fags" to be killed because they're sinning, that's quite a bit different and a teacher ought to encourage them to question such a conviction... but believing that God wants you to kill people isn't the same as a belief in God.
It is, I believe, also arguable that it is the job of a teacher to push a student to question a belief that may upset or offend the teacher but is not harmful to others. Returning to the perspective of some religions on homosexuality, there is no question that the conviction of some religions that homosexuality is wrong and sinful is quite offensive, especially to students who are homosexual or unsure of their sexuality. I believe that this situation may call for a lesson in the appropriate time and place for sharing beliefs but is it really the teacher's job to push a student to question such a belief, especially if the belief does not extend to harmful action? Ultimately, is it the role of the teacher to go beyond teaching students to seek truth and start pushing them to look for the truths that satisfy the teacher's own biases and intellectual preferences? I believe it is not and thus, I believe that it is very much the role of the teacher to question themselves mercilessly and teach in full consciousness of their own beliefs and prejudices. I also believe that they should take great care to guide their students towards a lifetime of practicing an open mind and a thirst for what is true instead of a thirst for only the truths that appeal to the teacher. It is not for a teacher to fill a vessel but, rather, to teach that vessel how to fill itself.

The first year that I moved

Submitted by karen on 7 December 2010 - 7:25pm.

The first year that I moved into the Sacramento area, I took a position in a large school district, in a neighborhood that was riddled with gang problems, unemployment, and violence. After the first two months or so of school, I stopped asking the kids what they did over the weekend because it was so horrifying to hear about weekly drive-by shootings, drunken parents, gang violence, and other similar topics. I was appalled that these shootings never even made it into the paper, and quickly realized that it was because they were considered the norm and even expected. The population was predominantly black, and unfortunately within law enforcement, school districts, and many other organizations, there exists a different standard / expectation when it comes to Americans who are black than exists for Americans from other races. As an aside, I use the word “black” instead of “African-American” because that is how my students and their families referred to themselves in regards to race, and I respectfully follow their lead in how they prefer to name their ethnicity.

I state “there exists a different standard / expectation when it comes to blacks”, because things like drive-by shootings every single weekend would not be tolerated in another neighborhood. (I want to clarify that I am referring to how others view blacks as a group, not how they view themselves.) Why is it allowed to continue in this predominately black neighborhood? And why are crime rates so high and poverty so high in some neighborhoods, often referred to as ghettos, which are overwhelmingly and disproportionately black? While certainly blame must be laid at the feet of those involved in crimes, isn’t our society as a whole doing something wrong when this pattern recurs across generations, cities, and states?

Individuals within institutions such as school districts make polices, such as crafting boundary lines for individual schools, which play into the problem. An example of how insidious the thinking is in regards to certain groups of people is perhaps best exemplified by a single line in the “psych report” of one of my students (I am a special education teacher, and all students with IEP’s have a report compiled by a school psychologist as part of their initial or continuing qualification for special education services). In a section discussing the students’ behavior and socialization skills, the psychologist noted that this particular child “Has an abnormal reaction to the sound of gunshots – running inside”.

Really? Gunshots are so common-place in this neighborhood that even the school psychologist has determined what comprises a “normal reaction” and an “abnormal reaction”? I don’t know about everyone else, but I would probably run inside if I heard gunshots near my house. And so the effects of racism trickles down into the classroom before a child even opens his or her mouth to state their view, or to repeat what they have learned at home.

In the beginning, I faced racism at that school on a daily basis. Some of the families I worked with had a deep distrust of me because I am “white”. This was often echoed in the voices of the children in these families, who would innocently say things like “My Uncle’s in jail because that cop was white”. When I asked the child what had happened, they would tell me things like “My uncle, he had a gun, and he robbed this liquor store”, and went on to state that he was in jail because “that white cop who don’t like black folk took him to jail”. And so these kids spend their childhood, while at home, hearing tales of how “white folk” put “black folk” in jail, and completely miss a lesson on personal responsibility and consequences for ones’ actions, such as jail time for armed robbery.

I hoped to create a bridge of understanding based on shared commonalities between races, to help tear down the mistrust based on the color of one’s skin. I really was not sure how to do so, but knew that we had to talk about it. One day I opened up to the students and told them that I felt really bad about something, and that I did not know how to solve a problem. They eagerly asked me what was wrong, their good hearted nature and desire to help others shining through. I let them know that I was sad to hear them talking about people based on the persons' race all the time. I asked them how they might feel if I called them “the black kid” or “the Hispanic kid” or “the white kid” instead of simply calling them students. None of them liked the idea. I shared with them that while many of them had talked about times they felt they had been treated badly by someone who was white, I had not heard stories of times they were treated kindly. Most of them responded with things like “That’s because white folk don’t like black folk”. One student pointed out that “Suzie”, the only child in class who was white, did indeed like them, and was usually nice to everyone. (To which Suzie responded by insisting she was black, which was really very funny because she was so light-skinned she was almost translucent, had hair so blond that it was nearly white, and the lightest blue eyes I’ve ever seen).

I asked the kids who they felt was a big hero, who made life better for “black people” in particular, but all people in general. Martin Luther King and Rosa Parks were the two answers that I got. I agreed that these people were very brave, and helped bring about some very important changes to society. I asked them if they knew that many people helped MLK and Parks, including white people. Many of the students did not believe me, and I had to find books about MLK and Parks that included photos. I pointed out that there were white people to be found at rallies supporting equality, and white people sitting at lunch counters during “sit-in’s”. I asked the children if they thought MLK wanted people to be considered as equals, if he thought whites were better than blacks, or if he thought blacks were better than whites. While they all knew he thought people should be treated equally, they had not previously tied that into their own thinking about race. Many of them exclaimed in great surprise “my momma never told me that!” (In regard to whites and blacks working together for equality with MLK and Parks).

The little girl, “Suzie”, who I mentioned earlier, continued to tell everyone that she was black as the school year went on. At the start of the year, the kids would get angry and reply “No your not – your white” and a classroom argument would often take over instruction for a while. Towards the end of the year, upon hearing her once again state she was black, I asked the kids if perhaps they could think of her as being “honorary black”. They asked what this meant, and I pointed out that sometimes a big University gives someone an “honorary degree”, meaning that even though the person did not go to school there, the person did so many good things for society that the University is honoring their good work by giving them an honorary degree. I pointed out that “Suzie” did many nice things for the class, and that she was a friend to everyone in the class. I shared that I did not know why it was important to Suzie that she be considered black, but that perhaps they could allow her to say this without arguing with her, and consider her “honorary black’. The kids all greed to this happily, and Suzie never felt the need to tell the class again that she was black.

I moved on from that school to a school much closer to my home, in a neighborhood where my personal safety was not daily at stake. I continue to hold discussions about racism. It is not always easy, and you will not always have administrative support or parental support. Yet we have to continue down the right path, or we will not be living up to our jobs as teachers. Education of young minds is entrusted to us, and if education does not include ones' moral compass, we are lost.


Ps… One of my favorite quotes is “Racism is just human cruelty looking for a place to land”, which I think is by Juliette Fairley. I loved the Buddha quote from an earlier posting.

Your article was refreshing

Submitted by Melissa Desforges on 7 December 2010 - 12:57pm.

Your article was refreshing and rejuvenating! I am a school counselor at a middle school and am sometimes overwhelmed with the intolerance and the ignorance I see being taught at home and unfortunately sometimes reiterated in schools.
Thank you for reminding us it's all about sparking that light in a child. Trying to fight the entire darkness of intolerance is where we become exhausted and drained, but lighting one small light in a child is where we renew our energy and strength and ultimately teach tolerance.

Thank you.

Thank you. I was fortunate to

Submitted by Kara on 3 December 2010 - 9:54am.

Thank you.

I was fortunate to have a few teacher's like you in the early 80's. It made all the difference.

I was raised by a father who was radically anti-semitic, racist and militant. School was a haven of logic and freedom. Few of my teacher's knew the true depth of insanity in my home. Those teachers who showed me a path to tolerance were my heroes. I would choose my husband on whether he was tolerant and embracing of ideas. We are married 18 years later.

I now live in one of the most ethnically and racially diverse neighborhoods possible. I am so fortunate that I have known and loved a broad range of people because I could loose the fear of anyone who is different. My husband and I work with kids through several organizations and tolerance is always a subtext.

Don't underestimate the impact of what you do. It is a struggle, sometimes teachers even put themselves in peril. I am the person I am today because they put forth that effort.

Again, Thank you.

Me, too!

Submitted by Trevor Barton on 6 December 2010 - 11:30am.

Me, too!

Thank you, Kara. You give me

Submitted by Laura on 4 December 2010 - 11:43am.

Thank you, Kara. You give me hope.