Years ago, I was teaching ‘The Second World War’ as part of the History curriculum with my class of ten and eleven year olds in Hackney, east London.
We were doing some lovely activities to help the children understand more about that era and the privations of war. We prepared meals made from ‘rations’; we dressed-up in 1940s clothes; we invited the then elderly local residents into school to listen to their live testimony of evacuation as children from London to various parts of the country.
I was also reading daily extracts from ‘The Diary of Anne Frank’ – the story of a Jewish girl whose family had gone into hiding from the Nazis in an attic above the warehouse in Amsterdam where her father ran a business.
The children seemed to be loving every minute of it.
Then after about two weeks, one girl – I’m going to call her Sarah - came up to me and said:
“Sir. I don’t want to read the Diary of Anne Frank anymore…”
“Why not, love?” I asked.
“I don’t like Jews,” she said.
I tried not to show how disturbed I was by what she’d said. Perhaps I’d been naïve. I was in a school in east London that had a very mixed demographic - kids who were white, black and Asian; kids who were traditional ‘East Enders’ as well as of African, Caribbean, South Asian and Chinese heritage; kids who were Christians, Hindus, Muslims and being the East End of London, some Jewish too. There was even a girl of mixed-Jewish heritage in the class who was best friends with ‘Sarah’- the girl who made the remark. So her comment came as a very rude awakening.
Incidents like this will come to you too. Sometimes they are not only shocking, but they’re surprising as well, in the sense that - like Sarah - they’ll come from kids you’d least expect. They also might happen just at the moment that is most inopportune – someone drops a bombshell just at the point you are too busy to deal with it in any satisfactory way.
But respond to these incidents we must.
You may be so shocked that you don’t know what to say immediately. You may need time to think about it. The remark may be so odious that you are left speechless. You may judge it’s best to deal with the matter at another time and place. Such an incident might come in the middle of a lesson when you’re trying to prepare your class for an imminent SATs test or GCSE exam. You simply can’t drop everything to deal with it there-and-then, even if it is a potentially inflammatory issue.
Postponing your response until you’ve collected your thoughts (or your composure!) is a perfectly legitimate thing to do. As long as the child in question and the rest of the class know that you will definitely return to dealing with the issue at some point – that’s fine.
But return to it you must.
If you do have time to respond at that particular moment, what might you say and do?
The first thing you might do is challenge the opinion or the attitude and ask: “Why?”
But the tone you use in asking that question is absolutely crucial. If you say: “Why do you say that?” in a way that sounds defensive or displeased, or worse - annoyed or angry – then you’ll probably alienate the child.
You may even be inwardly angry, but if you were to say: “You mustn’t say things like that! It’s very naughty…” or “It’s wrong to say things like that…” you’ll fail to engage them and the child will simply walk away, bringing an end to any meaningful conversation. So your tone – however offended or cross you may feel underneath - is crucial in maintaining the child’s engagement.
However, I did ask ‘Sarah’ why she said what she’d said - because I really wanted to know.
I said to her, in as kindly a tone as I could muster:
“Why do you say that, love?”
Now, just pause for a moment...
What do you think her answer was? You’ve probably guessed it already. It’s predictable isn’t it?
She replied: “My dad says the Diary of Anne Frank is a lot of Jewish propaganda.”
Incidents like this are never easy. I can assure you that you will make lots of mistakes in the way you deal with them. But as I said - deal with them, we must – however complicated the issue seems to be.
If you brush it off and say something like: “Oh, don’t be silly. Go and get on with your work…” or “We don’t have time to discuss that now – we’re busy trying to get you through your SATs tests or your GCSE exams…” then you have failed to address a crucial moral issue.
Clearly, there is a conflict going on in the mind of a child who says something like that – and the fact she is prepared to share it with you is mark of two important things:
first, that she wants to resolve the conflict within herself and secondly, that she trusts you enough to bring it to you to help her.
If she didn’t feel conflicted about it, she wouldn’t have approached you with what she knows is a highly controversial, offensive and potentially inflammatory remark.
Failing to engage her and the issue is, in my view, an abdication of your ethical duty as a teacher, not only to that individual child but also to the rest of the class – some of whom may have overheard the remark and are sitting there waiting to see what you are going to do about it.
They know intuitively that if you fail to challenge an issue of prejudice and bigotry like that, you cannot perhaps be ethically trusted to challenge other issues of morality or injustice that will inevitably arise.
The children deserve to know where you stand.
As I’ve said, you may be too shocked or too busy to deal with it at that moment – especially as a young and inexperienced teacher. If that’s the case, then say something like:
“Look, I can’t deal with this right now, we’re too busy. But I want to talk to you about this later. I’ll listen to what you have to say, but I can’t do it now because we haven’t got time. OK? So we’ll talk at the end of the lesson… (or at lunchtime or at the end of the day).”
Then you can discuss the matter without the danger of other kids inflaming the situation.
In my view, in a liberal and democratic society where ‘free speech’ is valued, there is nothing so foolish that a fool should be prevented from spouting as long as it does not abuse, threaten or incite people to commit acts of violence.
Even people like ‘Sarah’ (and her father) are entitled to make foolish - even bigoted and intolerant remarks. What they are not allowed to do, as I said, is abuse, threaten and incite violence.
As teachers however, our ethical duty is to challenge remarks that reflect intolerance and bigotry. In making the challenge, you will certainly make mistakes. Go ahead and make them. Learn from them.
The only unforgivable mistake in dealing with issues like this is that you don’t have the courage to challenge them.
Getting back to dealing with 'Sara' - I didn’t want to say anything that would add to the conflict (and perhaps turmoil) Sara was clearly feeling.
So I said to her:
“Look love, I’m not going to come between you and your dad. Your dad loves you and you love your dad. I’m not going to come between you. If taking the Diary of Anne Frank home is causing a problem then you don’t have to take it home. Just leave it here in class at the end of the day. But in class,” I said with a gentle but increasing firmness, “we are all going to read the Diary of Anne Frank – and the reason we are going to read it is because we’re doing the Second World War. This book is a true story. It will tell you a lot about the Second World War. It will also tell you about a young girl, not much older than you, who suffered terribly for no other reason than for who she was. And there’s a lot about life we can learn from that story. So - in class - we’re going to read the Diary of Anne Frank.”
That’s me, as a teacher, defending fundamental values when they are challenged and come under attack. They are challenges I am ethically bound to respond to as a teacher (and in my view, morally bound to respond to as a fellow human being).
Those challenges will come to you, too.
Whether you think those fundamental values are 'British' are not, whether you think they are universal or humanitarian - it doesn’t matter. If you’re not prepared to defend those values when they come under challenge and sometimes even under attack from the children we teach, then in my view, you are abdicating your ethical responsibility as a teacher.
Alan Newland worked as a teacher, teacher-trainer and head teacher in London for over 20 years and then for over a decade with the DfE and the GTC. He now lectures and writes on professional values in teaching and runs the award-winning social media network newteacherstalk. You can follow him on Twitter at @newteacherstalk.
His new book: ‘Becoming a teacher – the legal, ethical and moral implications of entering society’s most fundamental profession’ will be published by Crown House Publishing this summer and can be ordered here.