Is Tolerance Enough?

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Chanda Coblentz

Chanda Coblentz, Instructor of Education, Malone University

By Chanda Rhodes Coblentz |

Webster defines tolerance as “the ability to accept, experience, or survive something harmful or unpleasant.” When I think of things that I tolerate, a few things come to mind: that desk drawer that always gets stuck, that tag in my sweater that keeps rubbing against my neck, standing in a long line at the Department of Motor Vehicles, the warning light that is always displayed on my car’s dashboard that the mechanic can’t seem to reset. You get the idea. Tolerance does not generally bring to mind something positive. I usually think of things that I can deal with for a short while.

A more modern definition of the word tolerance is defined by the MacMillan Dictionary as: “the attitude of someone who is willing to accept someone else’s beliefs, way of life, etc. , without criticizing them even if they disagree with them.” Even though this definition tends to be widely accepted in society today, the philosophical view of the word still tends to be the idea of simply “putting up with something” (Rapp & Frietag, 2015). Regardless of the definition that we choose to use, we understand that tolerance has become a buzzword in recent years when discussing how we should treat those with whom we do not agree or maybe look different or speak differently than we do.

For a few years now, this word has bothered me. I cannot imagine Jesus using the word tolerance. He said in Mark 12:31, ”Love your neighbor as yourself. ” Can you imagine if He had said, “Tolerate your neighbor”? Christ would encourage tolerance to mean “treating others with respect and dignity without necessarily agreeing with or accepting their values, practices, or the importance of those practices to the way of life of the people who engage in them” (Bergen and Collier, 2013).

Jesus gave us the ultimate example of love and patience for those in his family and those who believed like He did, but He also loved those who were completely different. He embraced all people. The woman at the well was a Samaritan, a group of people who were treated with disdain due to their heritage. This woman was not only a Samaritan, but also had a reputation that distanced her from the religious and respected people of the day. But Jesus loved her! He did not tolerate her. He offered her love, acceptance, and hope for eternal life.

As we apply the word tolerance to the classroom setting, we should strive to display true love and acceptance to students and their families as Jesus taught us and modeled for us in His everyday encounters. He accepted families with their faults. He ate dinner with sinners. He asked children to sit with him and told them stories. I can guarantee that not every child was from a well-respected family. Not every child learned quickly and easily. Not every child’s family believed that He was the Son of God, but He loved them all.

I am reminded of a little boy who I taught a number of years ago. A loving Christian family adopted him out of an abusive situation. This student was diagnosed with anxiety, ADHD, obsessive-compulsive disorder, a learning disability, and a host of other emotional issues. Needless to say, teaching this child had some challenges, but I was able to bond with him rather quickly. I prayed for him daily. I kept in constant communication with his family. I worked tirelessly to make him feel like a part of our class. I did not simply tolerate this little guy who was different and challenging. I treated him with love.

I think of another little one whose family moved to the United States from Vietnam to make a better way for their children. They opened a nail salon and worked seven days a week. This family was learning to speak English together. There were certainly times when communication could be a challenge.

This little guy was so proud of his new jade necklace that he had gotten on his recent visit to his home country. As excited as he was about this new necklace and his fun vacation, the reality was that he had missed three weeks right in the middle of the school year! His family did not seem to be aware of the problems this trip had caused for his school routine. Trying to make up missed work was a quite a challenge for the student and his teacher. He also wanted to speak often of his trip, particularly of the small icon that he brought back to his new home. The icon was placed in a corner where his family would offer food and other gifts hoping to have prayers answered.

As a Christian teacher, how should I respond? This family certainly deserved to be treated with respect, but God truly calls us to go beyond that. What if I judged this family and their decision to return home for a much-needed visit with family due to the inconvenient timing of the trip? What if I ignored this child’s desire to speak to me of his new little idol because of my personal beliefs, or fear of his differences, or even my own lack of time? How can I then show him the true God who is living and breathing and loves him with an everlasting love?

Can we do better than simply tolerate our students and their families? How can we move beyond tolerating them and move toward biblical love and acceptance in the manner that Jesus taught?

We can respect our students and their families. Respect is not something that should be earned, but freely given because we allow God’s love to dictate our words and actions. We can show respect for families by truly listening. We should listen to their stories and welcome the sharing of their customs and beliefs. We can show respect by not making assumptions about their differences. Whether a language difference, a learning difference, a cultural difference–make no assumptions that we know their stories and experiences. Give each student a platform to be heard in your classroom and fully accepted.

We can pray for our students and families. When we pray for others, God not only changes them, but He changes us. God can give us compassion for those who are different. Pray for that compassion to fill your heart. Pray for children to feel safe in your classroom. Pray that your students come to know the true and living God who is the healer and Savior of all. Pray for the families who may be suffering in ways you may not even be able to imagine. Many of our families come to us broken and lost and hurting. We may be the only safe place they have to fall. Pray, dear teachers, pray.

Attempt to make connections in any way possible. Learn a few words in their first language. Conduct research about their cultures and customs. Begin conversations about things that matter to your students. Get to know them personally. Consider attending a basketball game or a ballet recital or an event in their community. Making these connections will show your students that you are taking the time to truly know them as you embrace them into your learning community.

Make learning accessible in your classroom. Do not simply tolerate the fact that it is your responsibility to teach this child. Purposefully differentiate your instruction for these dear students. School can be pretty tough for many kids, but compounded with obvious differences, it can seem insurmountable for some children. Communicate regularly with families. Take the extra step needed if a language barrier exists. Families need to feel welcomed into your classroom so that effective communication between home and school can exist.

So, is tolerance enough? I have a feeling that our Master Teacher would not simply embrace tolerance. His display of unconditional love has set the bar high for us, my fellow educators. But teachers are always up for a challenge, right?

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