Expert Q&A | Paul Martin

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Q: With the growing concerns about discrimination, racism, homophobia, religious intolerance and bullying in our diverse school communities, what should educators do to foster inclusive schools that accept and respect difference?

A: Schools have a huge responsibility because they are there to teach both curriculum and an understanding of decency. Good teachers are also major role models for young people. I think a teacher has to demonstrate an absolute intolerance for intolerance in everything he or she does.

Sometimes things like racism occur out of fundamental ignorance of what the world is all about. Part of the problem is we don't teach Canadian, aboriginal and world history in the schools the way that we should, including about the leaders who are from every corner of the world and of every race and creed.

At the same time, for most of these issues, the first responsibility lies with the parents. For instance, based on my experience with talking to people in schools, the chances are great that either the parents don't know about their child bullying others and should be informed so they can work with the school and their child to solve the problem, or the fault lies with the child acting out because of a problem at home. Fighting discrimination in all its forms requires a joint venture between the school and the parents.

Fighting discrimination in all its forms requires a joint venture between the school and the parents.

One of the stories that I tell students when I speak in schools is about the phenomenal courage young Afro-Americans showed when, some 50 years ago, I walked with them as a student during the civil rights marches in Michigan. I encourage young people today to show the same kind of courage when people do or say something racist or intolerant.

Schools should expose students to different cultures and allow those from different cultures to explain what they believe and what they think. When you're consistently interacting with people from different backgrounds, you have to begin to understand that others may see things very differently. It doesn't mean one is right or one is wrong–it just means that they are different. The best people to explain it are the students themselves, and the role of the teacher is to make it very clear to the other students that each story is valuable.

Q: How should schools handle cases where the beliefs or practices of the other culture are offensive to Canadian values?

A: If something is offensive, you've got to be prepared to say that it is offensive. However, it has to be fundamentally offensive to Canadian values like the mistreatment of women, for example, not just minor differences. Indeed, minor differences are what this country is all about.

Q: What is diversity's role in promoting the success of students? 

A: Diversity is a central part of education and we're so lucky in this country to have people who bring diversity into the classroom. Many countries don't have this kind of diversity and they are going to have difficulty in a world that is increasingly integrated and interdependent.

There are now seven billion people in the world. It's going to be nine billion in 2050 and 80 per cent of that new two billion people are essentially going to be growing up in Asia and Africa. If North American students do not understand the Asian and African cultural perspectives which are by no means homogeneous, they simply will not understand the world in which they are going to live.

For instance, in Canada, the youngest and the fastest growing segment of the population is aboriginal Canadians. So if non-aboriginal youth do not understand the history of this country and who the first Canadians were, then they're simply not going to understand their surroundings or what makes this country great.

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