A vibrant, healthy community is a group of people who respectfully co-exist despite recognized differences. The differences are what make a group interesting. And when those differences challenge us, then we are encouraged to look more closely at ourselves and at our ideas, to recognize unexamined biases and beliefs, and to let the “other” influence us. That is the space where the most vigorous learning can happen.
But it is not a comfortable space. In order to have a space where people can verbalize and share differences in more than superficial ways, people have to feel safe. I have learned that one of my primary roles in a classroom is to create a climate where students feel safe enough to take the risk of sharing with each other and with me. Together, we create the space where our differences can challenge us and where we can explore together difficult material and ask tough questions.
In prosperous, industrialized countries, we have gained the luxury of mobility. Prosperity and advances in transportation technologies have allowed people to create communities of choice, geographically and socioeconomically and ideologically. Before people had the luxury of mobility, community existed in the small town or village where people were born, lived and died. A community was the people who lived nearby. While this was destructive for many, it also tended to be more diverse, particularly socioeconomically, than many current living situations in prosperous, developed countries. When people have the means to choose, they choose to swim in worlds that are increasingly defined by narrow parameters. People choose to live with and associate with others who appear like them – their social class, usually their skin color, and certainly their ideology. Unfortunately, the Internet is evolving in ways that worsen this silo effect; personalized algorithms form filter bubbles around us, insulating us in ways we cannot even see.
In my experience teaching in public schools and universities, thankfully, a remnant of the village remains. While diversity in the southern United States is usually interpreted in racial terms, the diversity I have seen in my classrooms is of a broader swath. Particularly in my classrooms at Virginia Commonwealth University, I have taught students who vary in age, life experience, gender identification, race and ethnicity, country of origin, religious beliefs, socioeconomic status – just about every marker of diversity there is. The best part about teaching at VCU was having students who expected that diversity and valued it because they recognized how it had forced them to grow. As an instructor, I have found myself disappointed when a class is less diverse, because diversity in the classroom enriches the learning experience in ways that I alone cannot provide.
My job as the leader in a classroom is to create a classroom climate that stimulates and encourages risk-taking and learning within a structure that provides safety and respect. I have been learning how to do this since I led Alternative to Violence Prevention workshops in a women’s prison in the early 1990s and trained volunteers for the Virginia Treatment Center for Children, a public psychiatric hospital for children and adolescents. While working at VTCC as a Public Information Officer, I also created and led the 10th Street Mental Health Players, an all-volunteer improvisational drama troupe that used story-telling and role-playing to educate the public about mental health and substance abuse issues – another form of diversity.
Parker Palmer, a Quaker scholar, says that we teach who we are. As an individual, I am committed to facing my own biases, particularly when they affect my ability to see each student as the individual he or she is. This primarily springs from my Quaker belief that every individual has “the divine within,” that every person deserves my respect. Over the years, I have also honed the classroom skills to go along with my beliefs. As I tell students when I spell out classroom rules – my main rule is respect. I respect the individual autonomy and life experience of each student and I expect them to respect each other and to respect me. If we do that, together we will go far as a learning community.