The world’s longest continuous armed conflict could soon come to an end, and educators are leading the way to transform a public school system ravaged by war into a “territory of peace.” Where is all this happening? The answer: Colombia. After six decades at war, and after four years of intense negotiated talks, the government of Colombia and the FARC rebels have declared a truce and signed a peace agreement. (On October 2 Colombians will go to the polls to vote on the agreement.)
Colombian teachers have been direct victims of this violence. More than 1,000 unionized teachers have been assassinated, many hundreds more threatened and exiled. Their schools and communities have been devastated by a war that has claimed more than 220,000 lives, and generated close to 5 million refugees.
But today, Colombian teachers–members of a profession in which hope is part of the DNA–are preparing to build a new country where peace is possible, where a new generation of students will grow up with books instead of bullets. The Colombian Federation of Educators, FECODE (in Spanish) is leading the way with a project to transform public schools into “territories of peace.”
About 70 percent of teachers in Colombia are unionized, and recently leaders of education unions from Latin America, the United States (yes, NEA was there) and Education International, went to Colombia to support the campaign for peace and reconciliation and FECODE’s initiative to transform schools into “territories of peace.”
What does this mean? How does it all come together? Thankfully FECODE shared some of their materials with NEA. The materials may be specific to Colombia, but the call to transform schools into peace zones, where respect, inclusion, and students “brimming with happiness” are a part of the educational experience, is an invitation to all of us.
Schools as Territories of Peace
In order to visualize and project schools as places where a culture of peace will be created, we must recognize the context in which the armed conflict is generated. This has to be based on acceptance of history, acknowledgment of all that has occurred, and recognition of the social, economic, cultural and political arrangements and networks which maintain this conflict. Education is indispensable in creating a universal culture of peace.
What is a school as a territory of peace? Does it make sense? Why do we speak of a school as a territory of peace? With whom and how do we build schools as territories of peace?
These questions lead us to imagine and build a school that is creative in developing critical thinking, in developing citizens who are engaged in political, social, cultural and pedagogical issues. A school that recognizes the victims of violence, that builds peace based on inclusive democracy, social justice, human dignity and a school community that researches and learns alternative ways to resolve conflict with the “others,” not at their expense.
Why do we need to speak of our schools as territories of peace?
- We have to recognize the role they have played and the history of schools in the midst of war and violence. How our schools have suffered, and survived. How educators have risked it all so that in the midst of armed conflict education isn’t forfeited, hope is not lost. We need to learn from history so we don’t repeat it.
- We need to do this so that our schools will cultivate new generations within a mindset and a culture of peace.
- The school then becomes the heart of an educational project to transform our culture into a living democracy, with social justice, human rights and human dignity.
The school as a territory of peace is an alternative to a unipolar worldview, where education is ruled by standardization, isolation and the failure to offer context. It’s an alternative to the subjugation of education to a corporate and business mindset which leads to a stratification of the school system, disparities between the education experience of rich and poor students, privatization, commercialization of learning, and the deterioration of public education.
The school as a territory of peace creates the possibility for educators to build a pedagogical community that values critical thinking, that allows teachers to impart an education that liberates, an education for a life with dignity. It creates an environment based on strengthening public education, where education is a fundamental right for all. It supports and values the education profession.
Educators are the key. Grand ideas are nice, but they can only be built by specific men and women.
Schools as territories of peace must become part of public policy. The state has a pending debt to settle with Colombian teachers, their communities and the public school system. Therefore, the state must:
- Improve the working conditions of educators, recognizing them as the intellectual, moral and political actors of pedagogy.
- Recognize the relationship between the school and surrounding community in peace-building.
- Democratize schools so that they can thrive, recognizing that flourishing schools are in the best interest of the state, society, students, families and educators.
- Strengthen public institutions so that education as a fundamental right, a common good and a universal human value can become a reality.
We the teachers of Colombia dream and strive every day to have schools full of joy, of hope for a new country where we are not afraid when our children or grandchildren go outside, where boys and girls and young people are not afraid. That’s why we share the words of Paulo Freire (2005): “We dream of schools that are seriously dedicated to quality teaching, but, by being dedicated, serious and competent in teaching, are schools brimming with happiness”.
Executive Committee, Colombian Federation of Educators. Bogotá, D.C., September, 2016