September 27, 2016- As the new school year begins, civil war, terrorism, and violence dominate the headlines, as does divisive political rhetoric. As educators, we seek to prepare our students to make a difference in a complex and uncertain world, but it can be difficult to know where to begin.

For the Global Peacebuilding Center’s USIP Peace Teachers, it begins with peace. The Peace Teachers program is a year-long professional development opportunity for middle and high school educators in the United States. Launched in 2015 by the Global Peacebuilding Center, it offers a select group of educators the opportunity to work closely with each other and with the U.S. Institute of Peace over the course of a school year as they integrate global peacebuilding themes and skills into their classrooms.

Last year’s Peace Teachers program concluded over the summer with a conference at USIP’s headquarters in Washington, DC, where the six 2015-2016 Peace Teachers shared their experiences and advice with the educational community. The teachers hailed from five states and taught a variety of ages and subjects, but they all came to a similar conclusion. “We need to elevate the visibility of peacebuilding. Students need to see peacebuilding in the real world. When they don’t have that avenue, they feel hopeless,” Peace Teacher Amanda Terwillegar said at the afternoon’s public event. 

Amanda Terwillegar at USIP event
Peace Teacher Amanda Terwillegar at USIP event

Learn more about our 2015-2016 USIPeace Teachers cohort and their experiences in this video.

This school year, we hope the following advice from our 2015-2016 USIPeace Teachers will help you as you consider how you might “teach peace” to prepare your students to make their world a better place.

1. Teaching peace is teaching skills. For many educators, the idea of a separate peace class or unit is impossible. That’s ok! As middle school teacher Monica Shah pointed out, “You don’t have to be teaching a formal peace class to teach peace.” Instead, consider how you might incorporate peacebuilding skills into your classroom. These include active listening, empathy, conflict analysis, and mediation – all important skills that help students both manage conflict in their own lives and increase their understanding of historic and current events. “These are universally applicable skills, no matter what course you teach,” agreed high school teacher Laura Keldorf.

Teacher Tip: Start with one activity from the Peacebuilding Toolkit for Educators, such as the Nonverbal Communication Birthday Line. “I cherry picked an activity from the Toolkit, and I have been using it as my first day of school lesson. I structure every year to use more of them,” says middle school teacher Michael Martini.

2. Model the peacebuilding behavior you want to see. It’s not enough to teach your students these skills. You have to practice them yourself. “Modeling how to listen and making peace as personal as possible was important. My students loved that, because when you ask them, they say that no one in their lives listens to them,” offered middle school teacher Andy Blair. High school teacher Amanda Terwillegar learned to start using peacebuilding vocabulary from day one. “It has to become second nature and muscle memory” for us and our students, she said. Ms. Terwillegar and her students created Peacebuilder Standards to help guide them and provide them with a common language.

Teacher Tip: Review the active listening lessons in the Peacebuilding Toolkit for Educators (Lesson 2.4B for middle school, and Lesson 2.6 for high school). How might you, as an educator, model effective active listening skills? What would it look like, and how might it change your classroom dynamics?

3. Step outside your planned lesson to be present. “I can remember very clearly a turning point for me on how I approached my relationships with my students and my classroom environment. It was shortly after the attacks in Paris, and I didn’t have a plan to address it. That day, we were reading a story about a girl who went from poverty in rural China to study in Paris. And my kids were shocked and scared for her. I never thought I would have to grapple with that. I very quickly realized that they might just need me to be present – not be a teacher, not have a lesson plan – but to just talk to them about what was going on,” shared middle school teacher Mike Martini. When he set aside his lesson, he had one of the most rewarding conversations of the year. In a real and timely way, “we explored how our actions in our own community help us participate in the world.”

Teacher Tip: Middle school teacher Andy Blair found USIP’s Olive Branch blog a useful source of information on current events. His students composed letters to their Members of Congress advocating for peacebuilding solutions to ongoing world conflicts, drawing on research from the blog. He has shared his lesson plan with you here

Peace Teacher Andy Blair at USIP event
Peace Teacher Andy Blair at USIP event

4. When teaching conflict, use a peacebuilding lens. “Our markers for teaching history are often wars. I teach a lot about genocide and survivors’ experiences,” high school teacher Amanda Terwillegar shared. “A lot of my students were leaving classes feeling pretty demoralized about the condition of the world and helpless in the face of that. When I started coming to USIP, a shift happened in me.” Ms. Terwillegar began teaching conflict through a peacebuilding lens. This included providing students with models of peacebuilders and helping them discover practical and successful peacebuilding strategies. High school teacher Tim McMahon approached teaching the War of Independence differently last year, as well. His students developed mediation skills, and then applied those skills by attempting to mediate conflict between the various sides to the conflict in a puppet show. “Students are good at finding creative solutions to problems when they’re given the chance,” Mr. McMahon said.

Teacher Tip: The Peacebuilding Toolkit for Educator’s conflict analysis lesson provides students with a useful tool to develop a better understanding of a conflict and can lead to creative problem solving in the search for solutions. 

5. Focus on action. While it’s important to teach peace in the classroom, it is even more important to provide students will opportunities to put those skills into practice outside the classroom. High school teacher Laura Keldorf challenged her students to research the connection between impact investing and peacebuilding, asking them to consider “The Human Cost of Cheap” and what role they each play as consumers. Ms. Keldorf was astounded to see how quickly students brought the peacebuilding skills they learned into their lives. “They were hungry for them,” she said. By focusing on action students could take in their communities and world, the Peace Teachers reported that students felt more hopeful and empowered.

Teacher Tip: Consider encouraging your students to start a Peace Club to inspire peacebuilding action. Peace Clubs are student-defined and driven. “Student-led organizations are more effective at building peace because they have a greater sense of ownership,” pointed out high school teacher Tim McMahon. How might you hand over the reins to your students? 

USIP President Nancy Lindborg and staff with USIP Peace Teachers
USIP President Nancy Lindborg and staff with USIP Peace Teachers

Learn more about our Peace Teachers program. 

Learn more about USIP’s resources for educators and students.