Canadian psychiatrist Eric Berne once said that
The moment a little boy is concerned with which is a jay and which is a sparrow, he can no longer see the birds or hear them sing.
This metaphor perfectly encompasses how destructive it can be to pass on discriminatory beliefs to children and raise them in a way that promotes exclusion and lack of tolerance. Of course, it is presently almost impossible for children not to be exposed to negative examples, whether they come from their close groups or from the media, which is why it is all the more important for schools to set an example and point them in the right direction.
In 2018, the need for inclusive education is greater than ever and teachers are encouraged to invest in cultural diversity training in order to better understand the needs of discriminated students and turn the classroom into a safe and nurturing environment where children can learn and grow without feeling threatened.
Prejudice and discrimination in schools: an overview
In order to fight discrimination in schools, first, we must understand how it occurs and whom it affects. Unfortunately, institutional discrimination is a major threat that affects students of all ages, starting as early as preschool and going all the way to college. Schools in Europe and the United States seem to be struggling in different ways with discrimination and a report from the Equality and Human Rights Commission paints a bleak picture of the impediments children are dealing with:
- Two-thirds of British students claimed to have been bullied at school at least once and the number of students who have been cyberbullied is on the rise.
- Many schools in Europe are still highly segregated, as minorities, refugees and migrants are denied access to mainstream schools.
- Underprivileged students who qualify for free meals are bullied on poverty grounds, forcing them to skip lunch.
- Race remains the main source of discrimination: people from non-white backgrounds are more likely to become victims of bullying and be excluded from school. The highest rates of exclusion were found in Roma and black Caribbean pupils.
- Although attitudes vary between member states, sexual orientation is also a growing cause of discrimination.
The European Commission encourages diversity within the teaching profession
As outlined in the 2016 NESET report, the European Union aims to create an environment that fosters tolerance and respect in schools. To do that, simply mixing children of various races and backgrounds in the same class might not be enough to lead to better interaction. However, increase the diversity within the teaching profession could lead to a tangible change.
A 2017 study identified that one of biggest challenges in training teachers for diversity is the relatively low number of teachers coming from diverse backgrounds. This key finding has also been pointed out by numerous European activists such as Viatcheslav Kantor, whose work focuses on the promotion of tolerance and reconciliation in the modern world.
Increasing diversity of teaching staff could eliminate some of the barriers that separate teachers from students, creating more trust and encouraging children to speak up against the ones who discriminate them. Moreover, if diversity seems to be appreciated by school management, it would be better received by students as well.
The key principles of classroom tolerance training
Fighting discrimination in schools can be a difficult battle and requires a multi-faceted approach, especially considering that students can still be exposed to negative behaviours outside the classroom. For this reason, a teacher’s tolerance training should include core principles such as:
- Openness towards a more diverse curriculum that can reduce racial bias. Instead of presenting to the class only historic examples of the majority population, teachers should try to present the views and identities of minorities and marginalised groups. Seeing their identities reflected in the school curriculum would also give students more confidence and help them embrace it, not repress it. This also includes bilingual and multilingual education.
- Addressing controversial topics. In many cases, teachers choose to ignore and avoid controversial topics about race, gender or sexuality, for fear that they may cause a conflict. However, this approach does more harm than good. Teachers should, in fact, discuss controversial topics at an age-appropriate level. Sweeping serious issues such as the migrant crisis or homophobia under the rug and pretending like it doesn’t exist only strengthens the stigma around them. On the other hand, talking about them in a safe environment promotes tolerance, critical thinking, and a civic attitude. For instance, Dutch legislation obliges schools to include LGBT education in the curriculum, as early as primary school and studies show that this approach helps LGBT youth feel safer and less exposed to bullying.
- A firm attitude towards prejudice and discrimination. Teachers should be taught how to respond promptly and firmly against prejudicial behaviours and set clear boundaries in the classroom.
- Rejecting stereotypical thinking. Schools should teach children to avoid stereotypes and stereotypical thinking. This can be done by encouraging fact checking and seeking the scientific truth. For example, if a student says that girls are weaker than boys, the teacher can ask them what facts point to this conclusion and then proceed to give examples of successful woman athletes.
- Encourage dialogue. In many cases, prejudice stems from lack of knowledge, so teachers should be able to engage in interesting discussions and allow students to ask questions about the controversial topics they do not understand.
- Understanding the specific cultural needs of every classroom and respond in a relevant way. Classes are not homogenous, so it is up to the teacher to pinpoint the sensitive issues it faces and address them in a constructive and diplomatic way.