Teacher Wellbeing: Current events are crazy…but summer is still beautiful.

Yesterday was some day. Even by recent standards, waking up to news of tragic events in Nice would be shocking enough, but throw in a military coup in Turkey too and it’s beginning to feel apocalyptic.

Things are beginning to feel very unstable and unfamiliar, and a little frightening. I can feel something in the air; a group tension growing increasingly thicker…waiting for the next upset. Will this next one be worse? Will it be close? Will it hurt them or their loved ones?

But… we are still here. There is still some normality; there is still a great deal of goodness and hope all around us.

For many children and teachers, it’s the first day of summer holidays – a day when we wake up and we really hear the breeze outside, and birds chirping, and the soft hum of cars on the road, and the sense that summer is finally here with all wonder that it brings.

I can feel that in the air too.

3 things teaching gift

A treasured gift from a wonderful trainee teacher years ago.

Of course, it’s okay to be upset by current events; it’s okay to feel a little scared; it’s okay to nod along when your cantankerous elderly relatives moan that ‘the world is going to hell in a hand basket.’

But don’t be consumed by it.

When you’re learning to drive, your instructor always tell you – look at where you want the car to go. Because wherever you look, that’s where you’ll drive. If you stare intently at the hazard ahead, gripped with panic, you’re going to drive into it and crash. If you look at the road ahead but keep the hazards in sight, you might worry a little as you drive, but you’ll get to where you’re going in one piece.    

The only solution is to look at the road ahead; to keep driving.

The only way to fight hate is with love and hope.

I’ve no doubt that the road ahead is going to be bumpy – at points it might be bloody dangerous – but that doesn’t mean we can’t wind down the car window and listen to the birds singing, and feel the warmth of the sun as we drive on.

Talk about terrorism… or someone else will.

Editor’s update (20.11.17): When I wrote this less than a year and a half ago, I had no idea that this terrorist attack would become one of many. As I review this now in November, 2017, I’m incredibly saddened to think that tragic events such as these have almost become ‘the norm.’ At the same time, I am ever more resolved that schools need to tackle this head-on so that students are properly informed. I was reminded a few days ago of a quote from Maya Angelou that rings true here: “Hate: It was caused a lot of the problems in the world, but has not yet solved one.”

Waking up to news of the latest terror attack in Nice, France is so sad. For BBC live news, click here.

The fact that these attacks are becoming more frequent; that we’ve all woken up to different terror attacks more and more often over the last few years, doesn’t make it any less shocking.

Or sad.

It breaks my heart to listen to a teenage girl from Nice, describing the horrific scene on Bastille Day, and going on to say that she will have to think before she goes out now.

As a teacher, it’s becoming increasingly difficult to stand in front of my students and discuss events such as these, both initially as things happen but also the follow-up when the hate-speak begins.

I’m so sad that this generation of children have to play out their childhood to a chorus of mass shootings, death, hatred and horror.

Even worse, I know a lot of teachers won’t even mention this, because they don’t know how to, without stirring up discussion that they’re unwilling to confront. They don’t understand it themselves.

The result of this though, is that pupils will develop their own uninformed opinion about these attacks and those behind them, or more likely, just pick up someone else’s, allowing terror, hate and fear to grow on both sides.

Though many schools have worked hard to include chunks of information about ‘British Values,’ holding assemblies about refugees and racism and bigotry… I just don’t think it’s enough.  I’m thinking we need some explicit teaching based on these attacks; as difficult and unpleasant that might be; as much as it might bring out the worst in some children; as much as it might even lead to upset. To ignore the topic is far worse.

Those encouraging hatred have upped their game: so then must we.

The gift of intolerance in the classroom.

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 teach in Yorkshire and I’ve lived here all of my life. In both primary and secondary education, the students I taught came 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, though, they are 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.

As for our young people, I find that an increasing number of 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. 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, when you do hear bigotry, hatred and ignorance, you can usually tell that these opinions are not the students’; they’re simply repeating what they’ve heard at home.

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 in the current Brexit-Trump political climate; 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 if WE don’t unpick the latest terrorist attack/mass shooting/refugee crisis, then someone else might. 

With so much fear-mongering and sensationalism in the press, it is even more crucial now that we give our students balanced, factual and unbiased information. For those who continue to hear messages of fear and hate at home, at least then we’ve given them the tools to question and challenge these views. To my mind, there’s no greater weapon against the problems of today, than having the ability to think for oneself.