By Barbara Suter (originally posted on her blog "Teaching for Life" https://barbarasut.wordpress.com/)
Emotions and thoughts have been swirling through my mind since I heard about the acts of terrorism in Paris this past weekend. Paris is a city I love dearly, having lived there for over a year in my mid-twenties and returning many times to visit. In the early 70’s Paris seemed like such a cosmopolitan place to me; there were many Africans living there from the former French colony of Algeria; French friends took me to Middle Eastern restaurants which were very trendy at the time and unheard of in the U.S. People from all over Europe streamed in and out of the city. It seemed to me that so many of the people I met there were immigrants seeking a better life.
I first began reading about the banlieues (outskirts or suburbs) of Paris about a decade ago with some degree of angst. This was not the Paris I first experienced where everyone intermingled. It had become a city of haves and have nots, with clear boundaries between the native insiders living within the city and the outsiders/immigrants relegated to substandard lives on the outskirts of the city. There were serious outbursts of dissatisfaction from these outsiders who burned cars and trashed their neighborhoods as a way of expressing their frustration and anger. But things returned to the status quo and their frustration was forgotten. I wondered when it would resurface.
This past year the news of the violence that took place at Charlie Hebdo, the French newspaper whose cartoons mocked the Muslim extremists, reminded us of that anger. The lives of several French cartoonists and journalists were taken in another outburst of hatred toward French culture. The world responded with sympathy (“I am Charlie Hebdo”) and a renewed vow to celebrate “free speech” across the free world.
But this past weekend’s events remind us again that this hatred is not dead, that more extreme and widespread violence may have just begun, and that we have been deeply wounded and are wondering what to do next to contain or combat extremists throughout the world.
This is where teaching comes into the discussion. I am so proud of my profession; more so than ever. Teachers have been on the frontline of cultural differences for decades as they are the ones teaching the children of immigrants and interacting with their families and extended families. We have been the ambassadors of plurality, seeking to find ways to assimilate and educate our newcomers as they arrive at our borders and in our airports.
This is not to say that all teachers welcome undocumented immigrants and their families; prejudice and scorn often rear their heads in faculty lunchrooms. But even those who do not appreciate our tolerance for such immigrants understand that our nation was built on their efforts and continues to flourish in many ways because of them. They also understand that although building a wall might be possible, it is not the best way to solve the immigrant dilemma. Teachers know that the children of immigrants, especially those born here, need to be welcomed and made to feel part of our multicultural nation at the earliest possible opportunity. Supporting the assimilation of these children and their families into our culture is how our nation will, in future decades, continue to sustain its principles of freedom and equality.
Teaching is a very difficult job. I have questioned my own beliefs and my own profession as a teacher of English to immigrant students many times over the past several decades. But, in the end, I have always come to the conclusion that becoming more understanding of people from other cultures, while helping their children to become better educated so they can better participate in our culture, is the only way to continue to build a foundation of trust and strength.
Today, I am particularly proud of English as a Second Language teachers. For several decades I believe we have had the most difficult job of anyone in our school system. We are on the front line of welcoming immigrant students and their families. We are often not held in high regard in our own schools or communities because of the work we do. But we can hold our heads up proudly because as teaching professionals we know that humans, for the most part, share the same needs and desires for themselves and their families. We are the best advocates in our educational system for making sure that all children within our borders have equal access to a good education. Right now, following the recent tragedy in Paris, our values are being sorely tested, but all teachers must continue to do what we do best. Education is terrorism’s worst enemy and the best weapon we have for preserving our values.
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