Make the Most of Teachable Moments

Responding to Hate and Bias at School
Section One: Before a Crisis Occurs
Make the Most of Teachable Moments

It’s generally easier to discuss a hate crime or bias incident that has occurred elsewhere—to pose the questions “Could it happen here?” or “How would we respond?” in a theoretical manner, rather than in the heat of your own crisis.

So prior to any crisis arising on your campus, pay attention to struggles happening at other schools. Find moments that can be used for staff and classroom discussion. Focus the conversation on the kind of atmosphere you want at your school and how you can achieve that. Don’t discuss how to punish perpetrators; instead talk about how to create and sustain a climate in which such an incident would be less likely to occur. Frame discussion questions accordingly.

Don’t ask, “Why did he do that?” Ask instead, “How and why did this happen?”

These are teachable moments. Moments when you can remind all members of the school community about school expectations. Moments when you can help students understand the damage done and pain inflicted by bias and bigotry. Teachers across the country share “teachable moments” with Teaching Tolerance on a regular basis. Join us on Facebook to follow these stories. 

Also use these teachable moments to build student capacity for empathy. Is there something students can do to support those at the other school who were targeted by hate? Write cards of encouragement? Paint a banner of support and send it to the school? Hold a rally at your school in support of victims at the other school, and post a video of it on YouTube?

And remember this: Sometimes, you as a school leader are the one learning in a teachable moment. In any moment of bias or bigotry, whether it happens on campus or elsewhere, ask yourself—and ask others in the school community—what happened and why are people reacting to it? Could it happen here? If so, what might we do to prevent it, or at least lessen its impact?

Because make no mistake, things can go powerfully wrong in the wake of a bias incident at a school—as they did in Jena, Louisiana in 2006. Read “Six Lessons from Jena: What Every School & Educator Should Take to Heart” to learn more about how to constructively respond to a hate incident at your school.

Here are other considerations:


What if hate comes to town? 

If a hate group, such as Fred Phelps’ Westboro Baptist Church, plans to hold a rally in your community, take time to discuss the most effective response. Talk about the group’s history and practices with students, and discuss what other communities have done in the past. Develop a plan that is thoughtful and strategic, avoiding knee-jerk reactions that may end up being portrayed as little more than shouting matches on TV news programs. Likewise, if a hate crime happens in your community or in a neighboring community, be prepared to discuss how your school might respond. Not in Our Town and its Not in Our School program are great resources for planning this kind of response.


Avoid reinjury. 

It’s bad enough when a pejorative word is used publicly. Don’t compound the problem by focusing on targeted students when asking questions about the damage caused by a bias-based incident. Don’t single out the Latino students to comment on an anti-immigrant crime or incident. Ask the whole class or group, without singling anyone out, putting anyone on the spot or tacitly demanding that a single person speak for his or her entire identity group.

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