Lessons Learned About Tolerance From a Walk in the Woods

There we were, crouched down on the side of a mountain, mesmerized by the view of a bull elk through the trees. My husband and I were about two feet apart, neither of us moving and both of us holding our breath in fear of alerting the majestic beast to our presence. And then, as only a married couple could, we started to argue.

“That’s a big bull,” I whispered. “It’s okay,” my husband replied, shrugging.

“It’s looking right at us,” I said. “No, it’s not,” he replied. “Its head is down, and he’s eating grass.”

“No, he’s looking right at me,” I asserted.

After several seconds of squabbling, which seemed like an eternity in the moment, my husband moved a few inches in my direction. “There are two bulls!” he quietly yelled. Although we were only two feet apart, it turns out that the short distance between us, and the thick underbrush in front of us, provided exceedingly different views. And we were both right! One was very large—a six-point bull elk, looking directly at us—while the other had less grandeur, and his head was down eating grass. Imagine that—neither of us were wrong, we just literally had different views.

As educators, we find ourselves in similar predicaments daily in schools when we are in conversations with students, parents, or colleagues. As administrators working together with teachers and support staff, we sometimes see very different paths towards the same goal, given our varied perspectives. As professionals working alongside parents, we are all genuinely invested in the safety and happiness of students, and yet we possess different outlooks on how to achieve it based on where we’re standing.

Why does it increasingly seem like we live in times when those who pride themselves on being accepting, open-minded, and tolerant are often the most judgmental and quick to condemn other points of view, unable to cohabitate in the same space? How can we teach kids to be confident and stand up for their beliefs while, at the same time, actually tolerating those of others? I mean really tolerating other beliefs, values, and points of view, and being able to sit across from someone on the other end of the political spectrum and value their existence.

Stephen Covey insists we seek first to understand rather than to be understood. Though many proclaim this as a tenet, how many people truly follow it? And how do we teach this to students?

Now, I am far from perfect, but at least with some maturity and 15 years of marriage, I have enough experience to be acutely aware of my faults and recognize when I’m truly listening and when I am not. Here are some things I’ve learned over the years, both in and outside of school, that have helped me become more accepting and tolerant:

  • Talk less. Listen more. And provide opportunities for students to practice. Truly listen. Kids are consumed by social media and technology, often further segregating themselves from those with different views and removing the human element from dialogue. But only by listening, without judgment and without an agenda in mind, can they genuinely seek to understand another person’s point of view.

    Ironically, one can strengthen their own perspective by understanding those of others. How often do we model this as adults and teach students that listening is the most significant skill needed in effective communication? We prioritize reading and writing, we emphasize problem solving and critical thinking, but do we teach how to be empathetic, effective listeners and facilitate adequate opportunities for students to practice? Conversational intelligence is becoming a lost art. It’s up to us to revitalize it.

  • Teach tolerance of opposing beliefs. Embrace constructive conflict. It’s not enough to teach students to stand up for what they believe in and encourage them to be civically active. It’s also imperative that students learn to exist in spaces where other views are not only allowed, but encouraged. According to Google, the definition of tolerance is “the ability or willingness to tolerate something, in particular the existence of opinions or behavior that one does not necessarily agree with.”

    Too often we hear of students feeling “unsafe” or “threatened” because someone has expressed a view that doesn’t align with theirs. Having a different point of view doesn’t constitute a safety concern, and we need to be comfortable with being uncomfortable in order to grow as humans. Orchestrate opportunities for students to argue a point of view in which they don’t believe and encourage them to seek first to understand rather than to prove their opposing opinion.

  • Empower and collaborate with others, especially those with whom you disagree. Instead of surrounding yourself with like-minded individuals, seek opportunities for collaboration with individuals who think differently, and encourage students to do the same. Facilitate such opportunities in the school setting and partner with groups holding different values and perspectives in hopes of finding common ground. We learn far more from those experiences than from listening to someone who already shares the same beliefs. We can disagree emphatically and still be respectful, kind to one another, and exist in the same space.

If you’re in education, you find value in all people and see their potential. Let’s get back to our roots and treat others and their beliefs with that same respect. If we can teach students these values, we can empower them to intently listen, accept differences in the same space, and collaborate for a stronger, more tolerant tomorrow. It doesn’t take much to see the value of perspective. It only takes a walk in the woods.

Katie Laslovich is currently an assistant principal at Bozeman High School in Bozeman, MT, and was named the 2019 Montana Assistant Principal of the Year by the Montana Association of Secondary School Principals. She previously taught high school mathematics for 11 years while coaching multiple sports and has served as a high school dean of students for three years and as an assistant principal for four years. Follow her on Twitter (@LaslovichKatie).

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