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Responding to challenging remarks and incidents

If you are a new teacher you are about to be confronted by a range of remarks and incidents that will present an intense challenge to your ethical and even moral values.

One day a child in your class might say: ‘I don’t like Muslims.’

We all have a right to ‘free speech’ but there are limits. We must not abuse, threaten or incite violence – that’s not only offensive in a civilised society, it’s illegal too. But is saying ‘I don’t like Muslims…’ an allowable thing to say?

In the interests of being forearmed when these incidents do occur, let’s rehearse an argument…

Ask yourself: Has the child abused, threatened or incited violence in their stated remark: ‘I don’t like Muslims…’? No, at least not in the strict way the law defines those terms of 'abuse, threats or incitement'. While they may have expressed an opinion that is odious, bigoted and morally unjustifiable, it is not a remark that falls outside the legal category of ‘free speech’.

I have stated elsewhere that in a free society there is nothing so foolish a fool should not be allowed to utter. In demonstrating that we are indeed a tolerant society we must tolerate the expression of opinions and beliefs that we fundamentally disagree with (given the legal constraints I have already indicated). However, it is our moral duty to challenge such speech and our ethical duty to educate children to reflect.

Such a child has however, expressed an opinion likely to be deeply offensive to the great majority of the population. So, in my view, the appropriate response to the child is not to say, ‘You mustn’t say that…’ or ‘You cannot say that…’ because the child will ask: ‘Why not?’ either audibly, directly or more likely (to avoid conflict with you) inwardly to themselves.

Given that you have tried to establish the fundamental value of ‘free speech’ in school (within the limits we have noted) the child’s question ‘Why not?’ is therefore justified. It is a challenge then, to provide a justified response given the scope of ‘free speech’ you have already outlined and endorsed.

The appropriate response is to continue to engage the child by challenging the remark with questions that will get her (or him) to reflect on her own moral justification.

You should avoid confrontation of course, not least because you are likely on the face of it, to lose. Avoid a judgmental and moralising tone - most children soon tune-out. However, put her argument, such as it is, to the test. Ask: ‘Do you accept mutual respect is a good thing? If you accept that, how can your statement: ‘I don’t like Muslims’ be compatible with your values?’

Try it next time something like this happens.

This is an extract from Alan Newland’s book: ‘Becoming a Teacher – the legal, ethical and moral implications of entering society’s most fundamental profession’ – available this month with a 20% discount with the code ‘becoming20’



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