Seventh Grader shouts “I’m Osama bin Laden!”

And his teacher, a Tanenbaum trainee, knows just how to respond.

Beth Havorford is a teacher in the New York City public school system, where 60% of students are immigrants or children of immigrants. Her classroom reflects one of the most diverse cities on earth.

Beth attended a Tanenbaum training for educators, so she knew what to do when David, a seventh grader, came tearing down the stairs with a jacket wrapped around his head yelling “I’m a terrorist! I’m a terrorist! I’m Osama bin Laden!” Some kids laughed, some looked at him in confusion and some turned away. Tension grew.

Beth stepped forward to defuse the situation. She asked David why he was acting this way. He responded, “My jacket is a turban; I look like a terrorist.”

Beth says that Tanenbaum gave her the tools and confidence to handle this delicate situation.

Beth explained to David that turbans are worn by people belonging to a variety of religions and cultures. His actions were based on a stereotype – and possibly hurtful to his fellow students. “Most important,” she told him, “is that wearing a turban doesn’t make you a terrorist.”

After sending David on his way, Beth mentioned the incident to Stacy, also a teacher of David’s. Stacy admitted that David got the idea from her. Stacy saw David putting his jacket on his head and said to him, “Take that off. You look like a terrorist.”

According to Beth, Tanenbaum’s training was, “the first time I sat in a room with other teachers to talk about issues around religion that come up in my classroom. People shove it under a rug. It gave me courage to talk to that kid. I wish that my colleague could have had the training so she wouldn’t say something like that.”

Too many of our teachers aren’t prepared to address the unprecedented diversity in their classroom, particularly religious diversity.

Even teachers who understand cultural diversity are often uncomfortable discussing religion, despite the many ways religious prejudice, misunderstanding and fear can contribute to bullying and violence. Tanenbaum reduces bullying and prejudice by preparing educators to act when difficult situations arise and by teaching them how to incorporate lessons of respect into their ongoing curriculum.

(Photo credit: Thomas Ricker, Flickr)