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Should teachers risk their lives for their students’ knowledge?

A teacher, Samuel Paty, has been beheaded in a Paris suburb by, witnesses say, an attacker wielding a large kitchen knife and shouting “Allah hu akbar”.

Reports from French news agencies say M. Paty (a history, geography and civics teacher) had been teaching his class about the trial of those allegedly implicated in the January 2015 attack on the journalists working at the satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo (taking place in Paris at the moment). Apparently, he had shown his students the offending cartoons of the Prophet Mohammed that were at the centre of the original incident.

Reports also say M. Paty had warned his Muslim students in the class that he would be showing the cartoons and that, if they wished, they could remove themselves from class if they thought they would be offended.

There are so many legal, ethical and moral issues about this shocking incident that I am struggling to know where to start, but let me clumsily begin by asking some questions about the way a civics (citizenship and current affairs) teacher was doing his job – and I will leave you to think about and answer the questions yourself:

  • Should a civics teacher be teaching current affairs (such as the ongoing trial of journalists murdered for publishing cartoon of a religious figure)?

  • Should a civics teacher ignore or avoid current affairs issues and teach about ethics and values only in the abstract?

  • What is the ethical justification for this?

  • Should a teacher teach any topic that may knowingly cause offence to some (or even all) members of his class?

  • Should a teacher avoid topics that risk causing offence if (some claim) ‘harm’ (emotional and psychological harm) may be caused?

  • Should teachers teach controversial subjects? Which ones?

  • Should teachers avoid teaching controversial subjects? Which ones?

  • Should teachers expose their students to images that some (or even all) may find abhorrent, transgressive and even ‘harmful’?

  • Should teachers protect their students from images or material that some will claim is abhorrent, transgressive and ‘harmful’?

  • Should teachers allow students the choice to be exposed to or protected from such material?

  • Should teachers self-censor their use of material or remarks?

  • Should teachers be courageous in their choice of material or remarks?

  • Should teachers risk their lives for their students’ safety?

  • Should teachers risk their lives for their students’ knowledge?

One last question… the fundamental values of the French Republic are ‘Liberte, Egalite, Fraternite’.

  • Was M. Paty defending those values or was he undermining them?

Alan Newland worked as a teacher, lecturer and head teacher in London for over 20 years and then for a decade with the Department for Education and the General Teaching Council. He now lectures on teaching ethics and professionalism and runs the award-winning social media network newteacherstalk. You can also follow him on Twitter at @newteacherstalk

You can watch his videos on professionalism, ethics and values on YouTube or purchase full access to them at


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