We do not teach in a vacuum. Even here in a boarding school, our young people have a constant barrage of media stories coming at them. This becomes the backdrop to their lives, one that is unfiltered, biased and relentless. And it probably has more impact than any of our teaching.
The majority of these stories centre on conflict, in all its manifestations. To counter it, we need to consciously and strategically teach children about peace and how to deal with conflict.
Step one: discuss conflict
Before we begin, we need to take the time to understand what we are up against. Bringing the world at large into our classroom discussions allows the students to show what they have heard. It also allows a more considered and disciplined engagement with contemporary issues. Don't be afraid to embrace the major issues.
Step two: do as you say
The second important part of our preparation is to know what underpins our teaching in terms of the values that we want to uphold. What do we, as a school, feel is important about how we teach and how we operate as a community? How do our own actions support that?
Students are awake to how actions support words; they look for the inconsistencies of behaviour and the rhetoric behind school policies. If we are to create a school filled with peace-makers then we need to demonstrate through our actions that we are too. And we need to support students to have a voice and to follow through on the things that we say are important.
It is important to be consistent and authentic. A peaceful school ensures that everyone has a voice. The biggest frustration in any conflict situation is the feeling of not being heard. From a place of being listened to, the process of collaboration can begin.
Step three: lead students to more informed opinions
Now you can begin the process of helping students to become ambassadors of peace. You need to create the space to help students make sense of the world around them. As educators we need to join our students in understanding the world, holding discussions about contemporary issues and bringing the latest in thinking and research to them, which is now more accessible through online media.
Make a space in the curriculum to talk about conflict around the world and to come together to try and form potential solutions.
The power of narrative and story allows children to engage with the meaning beneath an issue. Give them complex situations and conundrums to engage with and let them ask questions. As educators we can learn so much from the questions that our students ask. In those questions we see what confuses them, what intrigues them and we better understand what will reach them.
No longer is the teacher the only source of knowledge; that now comes from a variety of sources. But we are an important source of sense-making, helping students to engage with both sides of an argument, allowing them to explore safely, opening up possible ways to relook at a situation, creating space to listen to each other.
Now more than ever it is crucial we help children become citizens not only desiring peace but also possessing the tools to help create it. In addition to academic performance, a peaceful student will have developed moral imagination, the ability to stand in the shoes of all those affected by a situation.
Jackie Bagnall is director for peace and global studies at the Quaker Sidcot School in Somerset