In this article, the author reflects on his experience as a member of the 2015-2016 Peace Teachers Program cohort. Learn more about the USIP Peace Teachers Program.

I think most educators will understand when I say that one of my most memorable classroom moments of 2015 was when I went off-script. Sure, I had my lesson plans tidied up and the daily learning objective posted on the board, but I’m beginning to learn that the best teachable moments are those not planned for. Sometimes it is simply enough for a teacher to be present, I mean fully present with mind, heart and soul, to recognize where students are coming from and to find harmony with those strange forces shaping their experiences as young people in an overwhelmingly complex world. 

Michael Martini’s sixth grade class participates in a mini United Nations simulation at Alice Deal Middle School.
Michael Martini’s sixth grade class participates in a mini United Nations simulation at Alice Deal Middle School.

I was proud of the lesson - we were investigating the barriers around the world that prevent children from getting an education. Focusing on poverty and gender values, I’m always energized to share with students the “Diary of Ma Yan,” a collection of journal entries written by a teenage girl growing up in rural China. The author, Ma Yan, maturely navigates the heart-wrenching decision of her mother to pull her out of school while continuing to spare what funds she can to keep her younger (and certainly less-deserving) brother in school. Each year, my favorite moment comes when we watch a documentary revealing Ma Yan’s life 10 years later. Ma Yan miraculous found a way to continue her studies through high school and was accepted to a study abroad semester in Paris! 
Then the moment that has haunted my thoughts and reflections throughout this holiday season - “Mr. Martini, is she going to be okay?” The question reverberated across the room until most students were on the edge of their seats wondering if she could survive such an experience. In their young minds, the City of Lights in 2015 had been reduced to a dangerous war zone à la Baghdad in 2003. Sadly out of touch, my rash response included something about their lack of historical understanding and an explanation that the incident in Paris was only an isolated attack. I simply explained their feelings away so that I could get back to the pre-determined lesson I was initially so proud of. But in that moment I failed to be what they needed most - a teacher.
A few days later before we recessed for winter break, I decided to leave an entire class period open for discussion. The prompt would be one of my favorite quotes attributed to Mother Theresa, “I alone cannot change the world, but I can cast a stone across the waters to create many ripples.” The fruits of that discussion have been the most impactful lesson taught this year. Referencing modern day comic book characters, the upcoming Star Wars movie release, and even Lord Voldemort from the Harry Potter series, together we came to realize that we don’t need larger-than-life superheroes to make things better. Real power lies within us all in the small decisions we make each day in our interactions with one another. We write the script of this drama each time we decide to help someone pick-up their books in the hallway, to stick with a friend when they are being bullied, or to simply say thank-you to our parents for making sure we have food to eat and clean clothes to wear to school. These small things inspire others around us to also participate in building a more peaceful world or at the very least to reflect upon their thoughts and actions.
A peaceful world won’t just happen. It won’t be created at will by powerful politicians, athletes or celebrities. Rather it is built by us, in our families and communities, each time we are given the opportunity to offer help or express gratitude to a neighbor. While I don’t know if my students have truly come to understand the complex forces motivating the attacks in Paris last November, nor the broader narrative within which all terrorists operate, I do know that they took to heart their most important homework assignment yet this year - over winter break, say thank you to someone and mean it. As often as you can. 

The views expressed here are those of the author and not necessarily of the U.S. Institute of Peace.

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