Advice From the Experts

Answers to your toughest social justice questions.

Teaching Tolerance illustration of girl picking thru a black cloth covering her eyes
Illustration by Jonathan Burton

Q: How do you deal with parents who deny the Holocaust and want their child excused from studying World War II? We talk a lot about understanding different perspectives, but this situation seems especially challenging.

Tolerance means embracing differences that arise from people’s identity and experience—not from their ignorance. Holocaust denial is on the far end of the intolerance spectrum, and under no circumstances should you entertain it as a legitimate position.

WWII is a required topic in most schools. Include Holocaust denial in your teaching. (The United States Holocaust Memorial Museum has a great resource on this topic.) Even if this student doesn’t hear it directly from you, the information may get to her through peers.

Outside of class, develop a relationship with this young person. Expose her to as many types of people and ideas as you can, and encourage her to think independently. Avoid bad-mouthing her parents or getting into debates around this issue. Rather, focus on being a trustworthy person who provides an antidote to the intolerance she experiences at home.

Before you do anything, be sure to alert your administration. You may need their support in handling these parents (particularly if you’re enforcing absence policies when she misses your lessons), so it is best if they’re aware of the situation and how you plan to handle it.


Q: A young friend is one of the first students of color to attend a public boarding school in our state. How can she and other members of the diversity club share their cultures without having to respond to questions they find offensive?

Ask what the adults in the school are doing to create community and make the school a safe space. The faculty advisor running the diversity club should understand that using the experiences of students of color to “teach” others can easily isolate them further. Ideally, that person can coach your friend and her peers to come up with responses to offensive questions without being insulting or defensive. Being prepared with a few phrases like, “I’m surprised you’d ask that,” or “That’s kind of like me asking you _____,” can help correct the behavior of others at the school so your friend doesn’t have to field unwelcome questions about her race, ethnicity or culture. Creating an atmosphere of respect and safety will eventually allow her to share her background if, when and how she chooses.

If your friend finds the faculty at the school to be responsive, encourage her to share these resources about diversity and privilege:

Our Groups of Friends

Confronting White Privilege

The Gentle Catalyst


Q: I have a student whose hair is so terrifically awesome that I feel compelled every day to tell her how beautiful she is. Is it wrong to tell her she has spectacular hair?

Tell her once that you appreciate her hair, but only if all your students are accustomed to hearing compliments from you. If not, don’t start now with this student. You run the risk of eroticizing or exoticizing her, even if your intentions are good.

Consider how the message is heard. Unusually tall people get really tired of having their height commented on; the same is true for other physical traits that are admired. After a while, it reduces the person to that trait. No one wants to be known as the “tall kid”—just as you don’t want to be remembered as “that teacher who was obsessed with my hair.”

Rather than singling out this student, build opportunities to exchange compliments into your classroom culture. Use and encourage compliments to reinforce great behavior and affirm good choices, like speaking up or persevering to solve a problem. These kinds of compliments can affirm multiple dimensions of students’ identities and enhance the learning environment.

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