At this time of year I usually speak to thousands of students and trainees up and down the country who are starting their careers as teachers. It’s hugely enjoyable, fascinating and often quite inspiring.
Sometimes new young teachers ask me how to deal with difficult issues that arise in the news. A trainee-teacher, training in a secondary school told me recently how her students had made some very challenging comments and asked some difficult questions about those responsible for the murder of Drummer Lee Rigby in Woolwich.
I suspect she may be getting similar questions about the murder of journalists and cartoonists working for Charlie Hebdo in Paris and the beheading of Samuel Paty and other recent events. She said she didn’t know how to answer them without expressing her own opinions in ways that might lead to misunderstanding or sounding ‘unprofessional’ and even ‘intolerant’. She asked me for advice about how to deal with such issues.
I only wish I could offer some magic wand of instant advice. But education is not like that is it?
Political violence and extremism is rarely out of the news these days and they present particular challenges for teachers trying to allay fears or address the concerns of children and students.
In recent decades the teaching profession – in my view proudly - has been at the forefront of promoting the interests of a multi-cultrutal society including religious tolerance and the celebration of cultural diversity. Now, and not just because of what happened at Woolwich and Paris, there are clear signs that 'tolerance' is on the defensive.
The Teachers‘ Standards in England (September 2012) state that teachers ‘must not undermine fundamental British values, including democracy, the rule of law, individual liberty and mutual respect, and tolerance of those with different faiths and beliefs‘.
All statements of values are problematic of course, and perhaps particularly so where teachers are grappling with the difficult task of integrating their own personal values with a set of professional values such as the Teachers’ Standards – as was the case with the hapless new teacher I met in the secondary school.
The coming together of personal and professional values – especially in a 'liberal' society such as ours - is usually a seamless integration of one with the other. Most teachers will look at the Teachers’ Standards and think they look more like ‘common sense’ than a professional code.
Occasionally though, there is a collision between the personal and the professional.
Some people will look at a term like ‘fundamental British values’ and wonder whether we all share the same definition of that term. Others will look at the phrase 'tolerance of those with different faiths and beliefs' and ask why merely ‘tolerate’, and not ‘celebrate’?
Others - atheists or humanists perhaps - might suggest we should be challenging religious beliefs rather than tolerating them.
Yet others - those with conservative religious beliefs for example - might say: "In order to respect me, you must respect my religion."
Even some teachers believe that ‘intelligent design‘ is a concept to be taught alongside Darwinian science.
Some people in this country think burning books is a legitimate form of political protest.
Should the teaching profession be tolerant of such a view?
A couple of years ago the General Pharmaceutical Council in the UK - the body charged with regulating the professional standards of pharmacists – allowed pharmacists with strong religious principles to refuse to sell or prescribe products (such as the ‘morning-after’ pill and contraceptives) if they felt that doing so would ‘contradict their beliefs’.
Should pharmacists be allowed to put their religious or moral principles before the needs of their clients?
If teaching allowed that, where would we be? If some of your colleagues held the religious belief that, for example ‘homosexuality is a sin’ or that ‘the earth was created in seven days’, you might think twice about whether you could exercise ‘tolerance’ at a peer-professional level (let alone a personal one)?
And what if a colleague finds your political, sexual or religious beliefs - or your atheism for that matter - objectionable and abhorrent? Should they have the choice of refusing to work with you?
I’m asking a lot of questions here… but here’s just one more…
Should teachers be intolerant of those undermining the values of their profession?