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Creating Tolerance in the Classroom

Education Expert Advice from Barbara Callaghan

Q: The topic of homosexuality is becoming more prevalent in the school where I work. One boy in particular is struggling with this issue. The teacher is having a difficult time dealing with this in the classroom. The other kids call him names such as queer and faggot. Unfortunately, all the teacher says is stop, that's enough. More needs to be done. Do you agree and do you deal with this in your educational setting?

A: First of all, I believe that queer and faggot are terms that are as unacceptable as any ethnic, sexual, or racial slur. If a teacher hears such words, it is her responsibility to make sure that the students in her classroom understand the consequences for using that type of language. She sets the tone for how her students treat each other, and she needs to make it clear that bigotry is not tolerated. This is a teachable moment, when students could actually learn something if the teacher seizes the opportunity.

This issue is often addressed in the school rules, and school district philosophy often includes a statement about accepting each person without prejudice. But the critical piece is that the teacher sees the name calling for what it is (harassment) and addresses it accordingly.

Teachers should spend some time discussing diversity issues and helping students learn sensitivity and tolerance. In my particular school, the guidance counselor plays a role and comes to each class to teach these social skills, which I then try to reinforce on a daily basis. Discussions, role-playing, and guest speakers can help to raise students' awareness and prepare them for negotiating a world full of different kinds of people.

Secondly, if I knew that a student in my class was struggling with his or her sexual orientation, I would suggest that she meet with the school guidance counselor. My main concern would be that the student got the support she needed to work through what is all too often a lonely, painful and confusing process. Every classroom is a community of future adults, and we can change our society for the better by socializing students in an environment free of hatred, fear, and ignorance.

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After teaching in California for nearly ten years, Barbara Callaghan moved to New Hampshire in 1985 and became a principal. After 10 years as a principal, she returned to teaching, her first love and true vocation.

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