I recently wrote the following in response to a friend's question "What is it about the school that helps promote peace education efforts in your context?" I've been working with peace education in South Korea and now in Harrisonburg, Virginia while I attend Eastern Mennonite University (EMU). My response reflects my connections of my study and experience. Statistics show that most of the public school teachers in North America are women. What if women would start to pull some of these ideas into their work? How would that influence the educational systems in which children are shaped?
The peace education contexts that I’ve experience include alternative schools in Korea, a peacebuilding education organization, the Intensive English Program (IEP) at Eastern Mennonite University, public schools in a suburb of Seoul, and an English language institute in downtown Seoul. They are all very different schools, and very different contexts, however, they have several points in common.
One point of commonality is that they all have staff and faculty committed to the value of peacebuilding. Whether the commitment is for faith reasons or because people know clearly the cost of “not-peace,” each person in the organization has a personal interest and awareness of peace as a value and way of life.
Second, in all contexts teachers have a sense of ownership and belonging. There is both freedom to develop courses and classes from their own ideas, and also accountability to other educators in community. There is both flexibility and support for the educators.
Third, each of these contexts is a “learning community” in that the communities are willing, able, and eager to change and grow, and to learn more about education and peacebuilding. None of them has a sense of “we’ve arrived” or “we have the answer.” Instead they all continuously seek to provide better education and to be more peaceful.
Also, “Peace” is not just content in each of these contexts. Along with personal commitment, there is communal commitment to practicing what is taught – finding creative ways to deal with conflict that resolves issues and nurtures relationships, transforming conflict into opportunity. Perhaps there is a lower level of fear of conflict in these organizations? That may or may not be true, but something in the context suggests that these communities face conflict intentionally, knowing that it will provide opportunities for personal and communal learning.
A final point in common is abundant sharing that goes on among educators. In all cases there is either co-teaching, or at least a lot of honest dialogue about ideas in the classroom. Teachers are definitely NOT isolated.
The question that automatically arises for me, then, is how to get to this point? IEP and the public schools outside Seoul are two from this list that are transformed schools rather than new schools. It seems easier to start something new with a group of committed people, but it’s not impossible to change an existing educational organization. At IEP several recent changes from an organizational perspective, including a change in leadership, may have had something to do with it. In the suburb public schools there was an initiating point of change – a “window of opportunity” – plus a supporting organization and a small group of committed parents and teachers.
For peace education to work in schools, I think systemic change is needed, and this doesn’t happen all at once. It’s cultural, structural, and personal transformation. This is definitely not linear, but complex and multi-faceted. It takes ongoing commitment, vision, and “trial-and-error.”