[This article appeared on the Open Page of The Hindu on September 29, 2019.]
These are tough times to raise children. News, both true and fake, inundates us, and much that is considered newsworthy relates to violence and injustice.
Children cannot be protected from this avalanche, and parents and teachers must contend with its effect on their sense of well-being and security, and answer their questions: Why did they beat this person to death? Why have those people been forced to leave their homes, why does no one want them to enter their country? Why has this place name become a hash-tag? What is sedition?
Contend with these questions, we must. It’s our job.
“Establishing lasting peace is the work of education; all politics can do is keep us out of war,” Maria Montessori said. Since the 1990s, the National Council of Educational Research and Training (NCERT) has mandated that peace education be integrated into classroom practice across the curriculum. That is, schools and teachers should find a way to teach peace in every class and subject they cover in a school. The NCERT has created courses, tool kits and guidelines to facilitate this transformation.
But think of our average school: 40 to 70 children in a class; an exam- and marks-driven system that requires “covering” a syllabus at a military clip; aspirational parents looking anxiously at a competitive job market for their children; and a relentless clock. Teaching must feel more like consumer appeasement or crowd management than a scholarly avocation. To expect a teacher to bring a new approach to this conveyor belt seems unreasonable and inconsiderate.
And yet, our future depends on how well we nurture the best qualities of children — instinctive empathy, curiosity and an eagerness to express themselves. Empathy brings sensitivity, compassion and acceptance. Curiosity brings a willingness to learn about others and to explore new solutions to old problems. Encouraging the impulse to self-expression can go beyond an individual articulation of feelings and grievances when we also model honesty, thoughtful speech, listening, discussion, debate and conflict resolution through dialogue. These everyday habits, or ways of being, make us citizens inclined to choose peace-promoting behaviours.
As a teacher reading this on her way to spend the day in a jam-packed classroom full of raucous 10-year-olds, you are derisive and irritated. Fair enough, but small, easy changes go further than you think.
We start by listening to ourselves. When the class is noisy, I have the beginnings of a headache and I might yell in frustration. And when I do, children learn that yelling is an acceptable form of communication between humans. Cowed into silence (“fingers on your lips”), they learn that silencing the less powerful is an acceptable way to promote unilaterally chosen collective goals.
Children witness our expressions of prejudice and invasion of each other’s privacy (“You should eat less, you are putting on weight!” or “Does this colour make me look dark?”). They learn from our compulsive attacks on each other’s self-esteem an entitlement to belittle others and assert supposed superiority — an entitlement to verbal violence, as it were.
Most heinous, we say to little boys and girls who shake us off and express their distaste for being touched, “Be a good boy/girl, give aunty/ uncle a kiss.” We signal to children that their consent is not important.
How then as adults will they feel they have the right to withhold consent or respect each other’s right to do so? When the adult insists that a child should acquiesce to his or her wish to cuddle, the child learns that violence, the will to assert superiority and control is acceptable.
Thus, though well-intentioned, we leave a devastating footprint on a child’s psyche. The first step towards becoming a peace educator, therefore, is self-awareness. A compassionate self-awareness allows us to recognise harmful habits and gently change them without self-flagellation. We must also model that possibility — one can recognise one’s mistakes, feel (and express) contrition and change, without hurtling down an abyss of self-loathing.
The second easy way to start teaching peace is to engage with the news in the classroom. No matter your subject, the world as it is, is an appropriate topic for your students. Floods in a neighbouring State? War talk between capital cities? A bomb blast? Inter-caste violence over a love marriage? None of this makes sense to us, much less to an 8- or 11- or 15-year-old. Make it possible for them to raise questions in class.
Together in it
Don’t worry that you don’t know the answer. Fearlessly, confidently embark on a joint journey of learning. Allow their questions and fresh perspective to teach you. Share what you know and what you feel, and listen to them.
Your commitment to learning and thinking about the world will encourage your students to be proactive and compassionate citizens. Demonstrate the joy of an open heart and curious mind.
A great teacher is a peace educator by instinct. She is self-aware. She teaches students to reflect introspectively and to be sensitive. She nurtures self-expression, listening and dialogue, and affirms empathy. She is honest and open to learning and supports critical thinking and questioning. A great teacher raises a generation of proactive, compassionate citizens with democratic values. A great teacher embodies, learns and teaches peace every day.