When I was studying my A-Levels, I had a Government and Politics teacher who prefaced his first lesson with us by saying
“I must make no apology for the fact that I shall no longer be saying the words Margaret Thatcher this year. From this point onwards, when I speak of ‘The Bastard’, I am referring to Margaret Thatcher.”
He explained to us that this is his own political standpoint and he explained his reasons for feeling this way. From his perspective, you cannot teach politics to A Level students without bringing your own insights and passions to it. He taught the full curriculum and we received it in the knowledge that he was a product of the People’s Republic of South Yorkshire.
For me personally, this worked well, but I can see the problems with it. Teachers have an intellectual authority and for pupils with little political nous or engagement but a desire to learn more, they will always tend to err towards taking the teacher’s viewpoints as their own unless other standpoints are presented.
I am not celebrating the way he did things, although for me personally, I quite liked it. The class developed a political awareness of its own, and individuals took their own standpoints on things, many of which differed from Sir’s. For me, as a pupil, I preferred him being very upfront about his bias, and I enjoyed exploring the issues we covered with an ideological tour guide to nod with sometimes, and to argue with sometimes.
Of course, our Teaching Standards are quite clear about the impropriety of bias in many circumstances.
ensuring that personal beliefs are not expressed in ways which exploit pupils’ vulnerability or might lead them to break the law
I think this is all well and good – children need to be presented with the panoply of viewpoints, and have a right not to be indoctrinated by some one directional beam of ideology. To give credit to the aforementioned politics teacher, he did give the full coverage of ideas, but he did not shy away from elucidating on which ones he personally connected with.
In the primary school, this is different, of course. I could tell them off for using the word ‘gullible’ – telling them that it has been removed from the dictionary, oh my god hadn’t they heard how embarrassing – and they would nod along. I could tell them that whilst the moon isn’t made of cheese, there are traces of Leerdammer in some of the largest craters. I could tell them that Nigel Farage is a shape shifter. They would probably believe it and consider it fact. (See all my billions of anecdotes about Onklids).
In the primary school, there is a bit of a dilemma, in these Trumpian times of social division, distrust, hate politics and Islamophobia.
Children need to engage with what is happening in the world; they see snippets of the news, they build their perspectives on a platform of half-truths, conjecture and opinion. They need teachers to help them to come to reasoned judgement, irrespective of what these judgements actually are.
But with young minds being so intellectually malleable, teachers need to be phenomenally careful in what they say. Whilst our own political identities may have taken an absolute battering – as is the case for most of us teaching in diverse communities I would think – how justified are we in airing these viewpoints with pupils?
The voice in my head says that
“Perhaps we just need to be fiercely objective and neutral in our treatment of world events”
but then another voice nudges this voice in the face and says
“Yeah but neutrality in the face of the politicisation of hatred is about as useful as an armband in a tsunami.”
so the other voice replies
and the other voice blushes and says
“Aw fanks. Does this mean I have won?”
and then the other voice remembers itself and says
“Yeah but we are exploiting our position if we direct pupils towards a political standpoint that reflects our own”
and then the voice that did that good metaphor says
“Well perhaps this is more than just a question of political standpoints. When you look at the Part Two: Personal and Professional Conduct document, as well as talking about personal beliefs it also says about the need for teachers to ‘show tolerance of and respect for the rights of others’, to 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’. So yeah, perhaps being Jimmy Neutral here is actually undermining our role as teachers to stand up for what is right and proper. As Western societies flirt with the politics of division, wrapping up a distrust of minorities in its package of moral retreatism, perhaps neutral teachers would only exacerbate the decline. Perhaps as teachers we need to be speaking louder, prouder and more clearly in support of social cohesion, of the need to protect our liberties and of the need to stand with our Muslim brothers and sisters as they become Public Enemy Number one.”
and then the other voice says
“Yeah it’s complicated shall we get coffee.”
My internal voices took over there and perhaps finished this post off.