"Envision the year 2020. What issues do you think will present the greatest challenges to our schools then?" the moderator asked. For the teachers gathered together on a rainy spring day in Minneapolis, the answers came swiftly: "diversity," "differences," "racism," "violence."
"We've made great strides in the last two decades," said one educator. "But it's frustrating to see all the hate out there. And then you think 'Wow, that's not a teeny, tiny problem. That's a lot of people -- a lot of children.'"
As a member of one of three focus groups assembled in Minneapolis and Houston, this educator, along with 26 of her peers, engaged in honest and, at times, difficult discussions about the realities of classroom teaching. Their insights laid the groundwork for Teaching Tolerance's first nationwide survey of attitudes about the state of U.S. schools and the usefulness of available anti-bias classroom materials, including its own products.
Administered by Lake, Snell, Perry and Associates, an opinion research firm based in Washington, D.C., the 1999 survey polled 600 randomly selected subscribers to Teaching Tolerance magazine and, to provide for a comparative analysis, also asked questions of 500 classroom teachers who do not use the program's materials.
The State of U.S. Schools
Although a vast majority of participants described race relations in their schools as good, the educators polled believe that bias is an issue on their campuses, in their classrooms and in teachers' lounges.
"We don't have a lot of problems with active racism, like hate crimes, among our students," said Margaret, a high school English teacher. (All names have been changed.) "But I'm not sure that there is a whole lot of actual acceptance [of differences] either. The barriers between groups aren't really being broken down."
When respondents were asked specific questions about racist, sexist, homophobic and other biased behaviors, a clearer picture of school intolerance emerged. According to the teachers polled nationwide, students make sexist and homophobic comments often and use racial epithets and slurs toward particular religious groups somewhat frequently. By the same measure, respondents reported dramatically high levels of intolerance among their teaching peers. Comments suggesting racial and religious intolerance, for example, were heard almost twice as frequently from colleagues as from students.
"I have heard colleagues say things like 'I don't shop in [certain neighborhoods] anymore; it's just too dark over there,'" said Tim, a 3rd grade teacher. "That attitude and others like it translate into the classroom setting, and the way that some kids of color are treated is just frightening."
Tools for Tolerance
Where do teachers turn to combat prejudice among peers and students? Most educators surveyed integrate articles from the popular media or multicultural textbooks, literature and videos as a first line of defense. Some also choose to engage in active dialogue with bigoted colleagues or students.
Although a majority of teachers polled believe that there are an adequate number of anti-bias resources available, many feel that those materials are not relevant to their classrooms. "A lot of teachers tend to think, 'Well, I teach math.' Or 'I'm teaching biology. What does tolerance have to do with that?'" remarked Abigail, who teaches algebra.
As a tool for rectifying this problem, 77 percent of the subscribers surveyed rated Teaching Tolerance materials the best available or better than average. Respondents cited the broadness of the topics covered as a major strength.
"Teaching Tolerance is 'one-stop shopping,'" Jeanne, a media specialist, commented. "It talks about boys. It deals with gay and lesbian issues. It covers a wide array of Native American topics and other race and ethnic issues. There once was even an article on body size. Other materials often just talk about color and avoid comparable hot topics."
Room for Improvement
Teaching Tolerance and other multicultural programs may well have overlooked an important player in the struggle for tolerance, however. When asked who or what posed the greatest challenge to anti-bias initiatives, a large portion of survey respondents said "parents." In order to maximize effectiveness, these educators say, multicultural materials need to include a parental component.
"Like it or not, teachers are in a position in which we have to educate families, too," Thomas, an 8th grade history instructor, said. "If a teacher goes out on a limb with a topic, he or she runs the risk that a child will go home and say something to a parent. If you can't get support from parents [or guardians], your lesson will fail."
Educators subscribing to Teaching Tolerance also identified several "improvement areas" specific to the program's magazine and curriculum kits. "The articles don't need to be quite so long," one teacher lamented, while another said, "I would like to see more lessons, because it is really nice when you have something you can use right away."
The main complaint from subscribers, however, concerned infrequency of publication. Sixty-four percent of those polled echoed the sentiments of Mandy, an ESL instructor, who said simply: "I would like to see the magazine more often."
Resources of all kinds -- magazines, books, videos, posters, music CDs, CD-ROMS and others -- are needed, these educators argued, not just for students but for practitioners. "Teaching Tolerance materials and other tools for change expose me to different perspectives, different cultures and different languages," said Lanita, who teaches psychology. "They encourage self-growth, so that I, in turn, can model acceptance and understanding for students. Differences are hard for grown-ups, too, you know."