This month, Verdala International School (VIS) has been focusing on racism and race as part of our diversity calendar. Once known as Black History month, evolving into BIPOC month, our thinking shifted into how to foster courageous conversations around all kinds of racism and race issues.

Our VIS anti-discrimination policy states: “Teachers are encouraged to provide students with a variety of opportunities to learn about diversity and different cultures. We value people’s right to express views and opinions in a respectful manner; however, discrimination on any basis is unacceptable.”

With 54 nationalities, VIS is not unfamiliar with the challenges of difference. A simple discussion may quickly evolve into a deep upset when topics are based on experience and perspective.

Children grow up believing that the world is made up of good people and bad people. Fairy tales feed this illusion: avoid strangers in the woods or fight the scary dragon.

VIS kindergarten pupils sharing examples of how they can show empathy.VIS kindergarten pupils sharing examples of how they can show empathy.

Conflicts involving their home-country can naturally cause worry, defensiveness and confusion, especially in the context of a school that is advocating global citizenship, diplomacy and peace. Why would people want to kill each other or cause such devastation?

These discussions bubble to the surface, and playground chats can meander into tense debate. Young people see enough social media to notice the suffering and wonder why the adults are making these kinds of choices.

Empathy skill-building means developing perspectiive, emotional intelligence and communication skills

As educators, we cannot put our heads in the sand and pretend the outside world doesn’t exist. We cannot only focus on past wars when there are a range of conflicts happening right now.

We must steer the conversation through the difficult zone of different perspectives, emotions and contexts. Empathy and compassion are the most helpful tools in these discussions, which take some skill, as they can easily derail.

Empathy is not developed overnight, and while it is a value that schools foster, it needs practice and development. We help students talk through topics, which may at times include recognising wickedness in the world, channelling it with age-appropriate conversations about what pathways towards resolution there could be.

Diplomats often refer to the challenge around conflict as the Drama Triangle; somebody feels like they are the victim, and that somebody else is persecuting them. A third person steps in to rescue the victim. As time goes on, more people get drawn into supporting one side or the other, with a knock-on effect of the problem never going away; destroying families, communities, countries, regions.

It will only ever stop if one side has the courage to lay down their grievances, stop playing the blame game, and when the other people follow, the cycle can come to an end.

Global geopolitics dominates our lives, and many of our students are personally affected; therefore, understanding how diplomacy works is important. VIS was recently honoured to have a panel of distinguished guests – the high commissioner and chargés d’affairs from India, Turkey, Germany and the US talked to our high schoolers about their roles, pathways and challenges. One take-away was how long it takes to make decisions, and that patience and building relations are crucial components.

‘Race and Cultural Empathy’ month has allowed us as a school to deep dive into both empathy skills and practice, and acknowledge that we need to continue to work at this.

Our high-school students had the opportunity to see the film Hidden Figures at the US Embassy, and came back horrified by the discrimination, yet inspired by the courage and contributions of Katherine Johnson, Dorothy Vaughan and Mary Jackson, three African-American female mathematicians.

Empathy skill-building means developing perspective, emotional intelligence and communication skills. By using culture, art, sports and scientific accomplishments, as well as people who have triumphed through adversity to inspire and remove prejudice, we can help students learn how to consider how someone else is feeling, even if we are not in the same situation.

Further up the school, this shifts into courageous conversations that allow for respectful disagreements in a safe space, with an understanding that we may not agree, however we fundamentally come from a place that celebrates diversity, values kindness and a shared responsibility to walk alongside each other to create a better future.


Totty Aris is head, Verdala International School.

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