On Christmas Eve in China in the midst of noisy outings with friends and the boom of firecrackers, people give gifts of apples. Why apples? Because the 苹 ping in 苹果 pingguo which means apple is similar to the 平ping in 平安 pingan which means peace. And Christmas Eve in China is known as 平安夜 pinganye or Peaceful Night. Just hearing that phrase, a sense of soothing washes over me. “Peaceful night, holy night, all is calm, all is bright,” they sing in China.
David Smith and Barbara Carvill might say our primary job as language teachers is to help students become good hosts and strangers at home and abroad. Chinese teachers might summarize their ideas as helping learners build harmonious relationships. Don Snow might use the word reconciliation to describe our primary purpose as language teachers. Let’s go down this path of harmony and explore how teaching, in particular language teaching, can be an act of making peace.
Teaching is seeking peace between you and your students. Whether they’re refugees who move into your neighborhood, clients who come to your school to learn a language for study or travel, or students who fill up your classrooms in a far off land, teaching is holding out your hands to them with an offering of peace.
As you help learners develop language proficiency, you’re building a bridge of communication between them and you. You’re also opening the door for them to connect with people around them by building their own bridges of communication and peace, or as the Chinese would say, harmony.
As you engage learners in communicative activities and your mouth closes while theirs opens, you listen and learn, change and grow. As you take them below the surface of remembering and understanding and into the deeper realms of critical thinking and even the moral dimension, one learns from another and then another from another. Eventually, all, teacher and students alike, realize their view of the world has changed, and it’s no longer mine and yours but ours.
As you invite students into your life outside the classroom, and they experience your holidays and family get-togethers, your hobbies and passions, you warm them up with friendship and family. More importantly as you willingly step into their shoes, taste their strange food, try their dances that feel awkward on, and attempt to say, act, and even think their way, you wrap them up in a cozy blanket of respect and honor. And in doing so, you may heal deeply marked and old wounds, memories of being ignored or forgotten, of loneliness and hurt, of war. How is that not making peace?
The better you know your students, the deeper you care, and the deeper you care, the more likely you are to become their advocates. Even if they don’t need your help, a family member or neighbor may. Or it could be someone back home, and you offer peace by standing tall for justice alongside them, refusing to be indifferent to the one imprisoned for her faith, to women kidnapped or killed simply because of their gender, to children trapped in sexual slavery. Or maybe it’s the forgotten in their society, and you reach out to clasp hurting hands while lifting yours in prayer. Like the Israelites of old, we teachers, not exiled but partaking by choice in a distant land, seek the peace and prosperity of the societies from which our students come and petition the Master Teacher on their behalf.
Then, we go home and tell our mom and dad, sisters and brothers, spouse or friends what we’ve learned, how we’ve changed, what’s in our hearts. As they too begin to understand, one more misconception is gone, another wall torn down.
Peacemaking seems impossible, right? Especially in a world as broken as ours where selfishness and hate reign and wars rage in every corner every minute, or so it seems. Impossible indeed if it weren’t for the peace that transcends all understanding, peace so unlike what the world has to offer that it’s almost indescribable. It’s the unexpected quiet in the midst of a raging storm, the reforging of bridges hopelessly burned. It’s resurrection, the inexplicable point when darkness and death transform into glorious life. “Peaceful night, holy night, Son of God, love’s pure light.”
David I. Smith & Barbara Carvill (2000), The Gift of the Stranger, Eerdmans.
Donald B. Snow (2001), English Teaching as Christian Mission, Herald Press.