Out of all the things that can go wrong in a classroom, most teachers would agree that having your students engage in racist, homophobic, xenophobic, sexist or generally bigoted comments, are generally among some of the worst…

Aside from maybe throwing a chair at your face, whilst directing one of these comments at you. That would be worse.

However, I’ve very recently come to the realisation that I’m looking at this from the wrong viewpoint, and that actually this is a gift – it’s something to embrace – an opportunity to inform and challenge opinions.

I work at a secondary school in Yorkshire, England and before that, I worked in a primary school in a similar area. I’ve lived here all of my life. My students come from predominantly white, ‘working-class’ backgrounds.

I love Yorkshire folk. They’re profoundly proud of their roots. They can be so warm and friendly. Their dry sense of humour is second to none. Typically, however, they’re often afraid of anything that’s different; they order chips on holiday and gasp when they see someone who is ‘black as ace o’ spades!’

When I say this, I am generalising mainly about the older generations – the parents of my students; those that grew up without the internet.

I do think that an increasing number of our students are becoming more open-minded and tolerant; thanks in part to schools trying to tackle this; and also as a result of the internet allowing them to explore cultures, places and people that they would never otherwise have seen, right from their fingertips. However, you only have to listen to a few conversations at break or lunchtime, to know that racism, homophobia, sexism and intolerance are still a massive problem. It’s almost an acceptable part of the culture in Yorkshire – like binge drinking – only it’s not acceptable and potentially just as harmful.

Luckily, these bigoted and ignorant opinions are mostly not their own. They’re simply repeating what they’ve heard at home, like many kids do.

In lessons, pupils don’t tend to share these views. That’s because they’re told that racism and homophobia are wrong, and that incidents such as these will be treated ‘extremely seriously.’ Of course this is the right message to send – these incidents should be discouraged – but it also stops reasonable discussion and our ability to change minds.

Recently, in a year 7 lessons, my class were watching a clip that focused on a Muslim school boy from Bradford. Someone asked him, “Where are you from?” Before he could answer, one of my trickier pupils shouted out, “Africa!” I sent him outside and asked him to explain to me why what he had said wasn’t accurate; how it could be offensive; how the Muslim school boy was actually a lot like this pupil, only he knelt on a prayer mat 4 times a day.

If he had never spoke out, I wouldn’t have had that opportunity.

When it comes to comments of this nature, we need to take the time to have a conversation with our students. Considering what they might hear at home, or see shared on facebook, and even more so at present with the EU referendum looming and endless talk of illegal immigrants and swarms of refugees and polish workers talking British jobs; we have to explain WHY ignorance is unfair and inaccurate. In some cases, we need to give them the real facts and let them come to the right decision for themselves. There’s no use in belittling the views of children’s parents – that will only encourage them to ‘stick to their guns.’

It can be incredibly daunting for teachers to deal with these issues within school, and I’m sure that many do shy away from these discussions through fear of the response they might get. But at the end of the day, if WE don’t talk about the ISIS attacks in Paris, or the mass shooting in Florida, or the sad plight of so many sad refugees in Europe, or the recent, horrific murder of MP Jo Cox only this week, then someone else might!

With so much fear-mongering and sensationalism in the press of late, it is even more crucial now that we give our students balanced, factual and unbiased information. While they might continue to hear the wrong message at home, at least then we’ve given them the tools to question and challenge these views, and the power to think for themselves.