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Spring 2008 | Volume 31, Number 1 | Features

Hope and Education

Creating a respectful classroom environment

By Matthew Okun, Internship Supervisor in the SPU School of Education []

If we think of hope as the desire for something positive to occur in the future, then it seems clear that educators must be eternal optimists. We teach so that we can "touch the future." We believe in the goodness of our students, and work to enhance those qualities. We look at all of the current problems in the world and dream about a world without war and hunger. And we have faith in the fact that, as individual educators, we can make a difference.

 It is my belief that if educators teach tolerance and the acceptance of diversity in our classrooms, we have made a "small step" toward a more peaceful world; thus, as a group, we are capable of making a "giant leap" toward the "dream" which Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. introduced into the American cultural reality four decades ago.

Dr. Jürgen Moltmann, Seattle Pacific University’s guest for the 2007–08 Day of Common Learning, wrote in Religion, Revolution, and the Future that “Hope is not born out of enthusiasm, but out of love which liberates us from old bonds, and opens up new opportunities.” The following is a discussion of how Dr. King’s and Dr. Moltmann’s “dreams” can be put into practice in the 21st-century public school classroom.

Neither Dr. King nor Dr. Moltmann were espousing some kind of blind optimism, but rather they were hoping to instill in us the importance of making our best effort to foster positive change. Educators have the opportunity to enhance the ability of their students to be tolerant and accept diversity. Ideally, then, we can help create a “ripple effect.” These values can spread to students’ parents and, eventually, to the entire community. Not just recognition of our differences, but also the ability to cherish those differences –– as well as our common humanity –– is essential to achieving a more peaceful world.

But what are the steps to creating the ripple effect in our classrooms? One initial approach is for the teacher to model the desired behaviors. He or she encourages discussion of diversity, and embraces the variety and uniqueness of the backgrounds and experiences of students. It is also essential to enforce rules of student behavior regarding use of derogatory terms and statements. Many schools use the word “respect” to represent this concept. And an important final step is to explain why. Is it truly enough just to assert that “You are not allowed to use that word”? Students must understand the prejudice, discrimination, and/or intolerance implicit in its use.

Let’s climb down from the ivory tower for a moment, and try to imagine how this looks in a real classroom. Student A doesn’t agree with an opinion that Student B shares with the class. Student A says that Student B’s response is “retarded.” The teacher, of course, has never used that term, thus has been modeling appropriate behavior up to this point. Ideally, educators should never ignore this inappropriate language, and should enforce whatever rules govern use of disrespectful language in their classroom. But, finally, it is important to explain to Student A why the term is inappropriate: Because the term is disrespectful and, more so, because the fact that you disagree with someone does not mean that person is developmentally disabled.

It is also important to look at the big picture of diversity in the public school classroom. Of course, no two students are identical; all students represent a complex combination of various components related to their and/or their parents’ race, religion, ethnicity, socioeconomic status, political/ideological beliefs, sexual orientation, exceptionality, gender, age, and nationality. So what should the educator’s priorities be in terms of meeting students’ unique needs?

No teacher is capable of developing individualized instruction plans for every student (secondary teachers often have 300 different students in a single school year). Nonetheless, we strive to familiarize ourselves with each student’s strengths and weaknesses; cultural heritage; and, perhaps most importantly, interests outside of the classroom. Ideally, we use that knowledge to establish a relationship with the student that exceeds the simple ability to grade papers or say hello as he or she enters the classroom.

Teachers, then, should work to achieve the goal of being role models of polite and respectful behavior. It is feasible to incorporate our personal spiritual belief system into this behavior. In a public school setting, this cannot include espousing any particular religion, but we can certainly model the values of non-violence, forgiveness, acceptance, and reconciliation. Here are examples of some concrete techniques teachers can use to model cultural sensitivity and thereby help foster a positive learning environment:


  • Constantly make the effort to cherish individuality (e.g., a student presents an anecdote which represents a practice of the dominant culture; the teacher asks if someone has a different perspective, has seen different examples, or has differing thoughts on that issue).
  • Use culturally sensitive and/or politically correct terminology (i.e., “his or her”) when gender is uncertain.
  • Involve families in presenting/explaining diverse traditions (i.e. food, clothing/costumes, holidays, and specific cultural celebrations).
  • Assure that activities and/or assignments do not discriminate against certain groups (i.e., theists, Jews, Muslims, Buddhists, Christians, Jehovah Witnesses, students with non-traditional family structures, etc.).

The more we model the ability to cherish diversity in our classrooms, the more likely our students are to not only behave in the same way, but also to create the ripple effect in their school, families, and community at large. This is our HOPE.

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Department Highlights

from the president
President Philip Eaton reminds us that God's promise to “do something new” creates and sustains our hope.

New Leadership
The School of Theology welcomes Doug Strong, Ph.D., as its new dean.

Detours and Unexpected Destinations
Samuel Lin ’65 was named SPU Alumnus of the Year for a lifetime of service.

Oh, So Close
Falcon women’s soccer had 23 straight wins in 2007–08 season; was in Final Four.

my response
Poetry by Emily Dickinson
SPU Professor Susan VanZanten Gallagher on Emily Dickinson’s Poem #314 and “Hope.”

Response art
The Advent of Breathing
SPU Professor Christen Mattix on “The Advent of Breathing.”