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Friday, November 19, 2010

Bare, Do Not Bear, Prejudice

Prejudice poisons the soil and keeps tender flowers from growing. If we would gather pretty posies at a later date, we need to make sure the soil is pure and free from the poison of prejudice. We need to eliminate our own prejudices and keep our environment free from the prejudices of others. Sometimes that means taking an active, preemptive role in the life of others who would infect our soil. Sometimes it means stating we will not accept prejudice in our work, or play, world.

Years ago when I worked as a training program administrator for the U. S. State Department, military officers (defense attach├ęs) and State Department diplomats were trained together prior to being assigned to an embassy abroad. When I first arrived on the training scene, I was surprised to see that there appeared to be two classes of students in many of the teachers' eyes: the upper class diplomats and the lower class attach├ęs. Having been a military officer myself, I did not share some of the teachers' opinion that the military students were intellectually inferior to the diplomatic students. Matters quickly came to a head when at one staff meeting the suggestion was made to leave military students in the classroom while the diplomatic students took a field-study trip, ostensibly for financial reasons but subtly for reasons of discrimination. Finally, one teacher put the prejudice into words, saying, "Well, the military students are less likely than the other students to get something out of the trip."

Time for drama! I slammed shut a book that lay in front of me, sending a pencil that had been lying on top of it flying toward the ceiling. (The pencil's action was not planned but it did add to the drama.) "If the military students do not go," I said emphatically, "no one goes." With that, I walked silently out of my own staff meeting and into my office.

The teachers were stunned. They remained in the room and discussed the situation, or so I was told. Twenty minutes later, I heard a soft knock on my door and the head teacher peered in. "I guess you feel strongly about this," he said.

My discussion with him was followed by a similar one with the teachers about the evils of prejudice--especially when one does not even recognize that prejudice exists. When that particular class graduated, one of the military students told me that he and the other military officers in the class had felt like second-class citizens until I arrived. Then that changed. Military officers in future classes often commented on the lack of prejudice among teachers in my section compared to what some of their peers were experiencing in some other training sections. Teachers, too, began to feel better about their interactions with military officers. Clearly, prejudice bared was prejudice overcome. My drama had planted seeds that had taken hold and grown into flowers for both teachers and students.

Along similar lines, one of the most complex things I have had to do is to establish a Serbian and Croatian language program at a large language training institution during the beginning of the war in the former Yugoslavia. Because all students had to learn both variants of the languages quickly and well, the most sensible thing was to assign two instructors, one Serb and one Croat, to share the 6-hour training day with each group of students. The instructors would teach two hours separately, and then they would teach two hours together in a classroom team.

This all seemed simple enough, except that the program was large and a couple dozen teachers were needed overnight. Finding unemployed teachers of these languages who could begin work immediately among citizens of the United States turned out to be impossible, and so recruitment had to occur from among citizens of both ethnic areas of the former Yugoslavia. People who were warring with each other at home now had to share a classroom, a group of students, and a common goal (a specific and high level of language proficiency in the students). If they did not work together, they would not reach that goal. To meet that goal, they would have to establish rapport with the students and create a productive learning environment. Further, they had to talk about the war without bringing in their own opinions and prejudices. A tall order, indeed!

Management had to set the tone and the rule to keep the discussion of the war in the classroom, while keeping any personalized reenactment of the war out of it. The working rule was: Feel and act as you want from 5 p.m. to 8 a.m. -- dislike each other, do what enemies do (whatever that is), if you will -- but from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. project a collegial, warm, student-supportive learning environment in the classroom. Management expected the teachers to like each other as well as the students, and management made it clear that it liked all the teachers equally. Further, management brought in an American director for each component of the program, a Serbian curriculum specialist and a Croatian curriculum specialist. These two truly liked each other, worked together to form a common curriculum, and became role models for the instructors in how to have a personal relationship that was not politically influenced.

This group of teachers did a wonderful job of not showing prejudice even where there probably was some, or, at least, there were differing opinions about which side at home was right and which was wrong. Students never knew those opinions because teachers adhered to the 8-to-5 rule.

The funny thing was that once they donned the garb of collegiality during the day, most teachers found it hard to take it off and put on the robes of prejudice in the evening. Over time, many became social friends as well as colleagues. There was soon a field of beautiful flowers growing behind the school house. If only war at home could have been resolved as easily and flowers planted on the scarred and burned soil there.

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Excerpted and adapted from a collection of vignettes, copyright 2003.

2 comments:

  1. Liz a very good write. I comment those teachers. Thank you for sharing on this topic.

    ReplyDelete

About Me

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I am the mother of 4 birth children (plus 3 others who lived with us) and grandmother of 2, all of them exceptional children. Married for 42 years, I grew up in Maine, live in California, and work in many places in education, linguistics, and program management. In my spare time, I rescue and tame feral cats and have the scars to prove it. A long-time ignorantly blissful atheist converted by a theophanic experience to Catholicism, I am now a joyful catechist. Oh, I also authored a dozen books, two under my pen name of Mahlou (Blest Atheist and A Believer-in-Waiting's First Encounters with God).

My Other Blogs

100th Lamb. This is my main blog, the one I keep most updated.

The Clan of Mahlou
. This is background information about various members of the extended Mahlou family. It is very much a work still in progress. Soon I will begin posting excerpts from a new book I am writing, Raising God's Rainbow Makers.

Modern Mysticism. This blog discusses the mystical in our pragmatic, practical, realistic, and rational 21st century world and is to those who spend some or much of their time in an irrational/mystical relationship with God. If such things do not strain your credulity, you are welcome to follow the blog and participate in it.

Recommended Reading List

Because I am blog inept, I don't quite know how to get a reading list to stay at the end of the page and not disappear from sight. Therefore, I entered it as my first post. I suppose that is not all that bad because readers started commenting about the books, even suggesting additional readings. So, you can participate with others in my reading list by clicking here.
I do post additional books as I read them and find them to be meaningful to me, and therefore, hopefully, meaningful to you. One advantage of all the plane traveling I do is that I acquire reading time that I might not otherwise take.
   

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