“Do one thing every day that scares you” – Eleanor Roosevelt

As an English teacher, conflict is a topic that we frequently discuss in class.  Great literature – any great story, really – is centered on a conflict that readers can relate to. We talk a great deal about internal and external conflict in terms of imaginary characters and imaginary struggles. While we try to relate our protagonists’ struggles to our own lives, and learn from them, there is always a safe emotional distance inherent in those conversations. Tackling conflict in our everyday lives, or discussing conflicts in our schools, our communities, our country, and our world is a much more challenging task.

I entered the world of becoming a peace teacher with a fair amount of naiveté. Though I have taught about human rights issues and genocide before, both in and out of the classroom, there too was a bit of a buffer between discussing historical events or events happening half-way around the world that allowed an emotional safety net that I definitely took for granted. While I was excited by the idea of talking more about peace and peacebuilding in the classroom, I realized that in the abstract these ideas were also “emotionally safe.” What surprised me most about myself as I prepared to teach my first lesson from the USIP Peacebuilding Toolkit for Educators, was how nervous I felt. I did not know what to expect from my students, I did not know if they would take the assignment seriously or be engaged, and I was concerned (ironically) that our discussion about peace would cause conflict in the classroom.

Looking back over my twenty years as a teacher, this is a classic struggle for me.  I think that I am interested in peace, peacebuilding, and human rights education because I am so personally opposed to conflict, especially violent conflict. However, the older I get, the more I realize that to really address these issues in my school and community, I have to “dive in and get both feet wet”. In the process, I will have to face those fears and tackle my own personal conflict in order to be the most effective teacher I can be. 
Early on, it was enough to seek education and training and to become more aware of these issues that I care about. But at a certain point I had to be willing to “walk the walk” and take steps to make things happen. My primary motivation in becoming a Peace Teacher is to enable my students to be peacebuilders and “upstanders” in their everyday lives. If I expect them to move from learning to internalizing/actualizing to action, then I must be willing to take on that same challenge myself. It begins with my first lesson and continues with each additional lesson. Step by step. Day by day. Slowly but surely the process takes shape.

A few things surprised me about that first lesson. First, my students were very interested in talking about peace, and they approached the lesson maturely. They openly shared ideas with each other, with me, and with their families and friends. I found out later through a few parents, that not only did their children really enjoy talking about peace and current events around the world, but also that it allowed for a dialog the parents had not previously enjoyed with their children. Second, there was more agreement about how to define peace and approach the task of peacebuilding than I had anticipated. Students displayed more interest and passion when talking about actual events than fictional scenarios, which I had previous deemed more emotionally safe.  This leads to my third realization – I had less to be nervous about than I had feared. My students grew up in a world defined by conflict and one in which their country was almost continuously at war. They were ready for real conversations and peacebuilding activities in a way I could not be. They showed me the importance of not letting my fears hold me back from the important discussions that can move us forward as a community, a nation, and a world. It was not the first time I learned an important life lesson from my students, but it was a very poignant experience that forever changed my approach to tackling what I perceive to be “difficult” conversations.

I have a poster in my room with Eleanor Roosevelt’s famous quote, “Do one thing every day that scares you.” I had always thought I displayed it to inspire my students. They showed me that it is just as important for me to follow that advice as it is for them to do so. With the tools, training, and experience I am gaining in my first year as a USIP Peace Teacher, and with a lot of guidance from my insightful students and Peach Teacher colleagues, I feel I am moving much more confidently in that direction.

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

Click here to learn more about the USIP Peace Teacher program.