The original theme of my February Blog was planned some time. However, I have felt compelled to reflect upon the events of the last few days in the Ukraine and, together with so many others, offer my thoughts on how this can be considered by our schools.
When I was a trainee teacher, my first placement school was a Roman Catholic high school in Liverpool. My head of department, and mentor, had the initials “JC” and irreverently referred to himself as “the second most important JC at the school, but I’m the only one with initials on the timetable”! As we planned my first series of lessons for my Year 8 class, he told me they were studying a unit of the national curriculum entitled “The Making of the United Kingdom”.
A key aspect of the unit focussed, quite naturally, on Henry VIII and the Reformation (the breaking away of the Church of England from Rome). “JC” wanted me to tread carefully, delivering the unit with integrity and objectivity, yet understanding the context of the students and the Catholic school I was teaching in. He sat me down. “OK, Mike. This is the bottom line: Martin Luther? Good Catholic (he went on to reference to Luther’s condemnation of the sale of indulgences and the excesses of the medieval papacy which many modern Catholics would concede as requiring reform). Henry VIII? Bad Catholic (then articulating Henry’s pragmatic and cynical use of church powers for personal gain). Got it? That’s the only thing you need to know, Mike. Any problems, let me know.” Having processed all that, I set out to teach the module.
Teaching historical events, even those with consequences today, is far more straightforward than teaching events of great magnitude that we know will become “historical” but occur in our own times. There have been numerous events in my three decades of teaching that I could reference here, but perhaps the most obvious and profound example would be the September 11th attacks on The World Trade Centre and The Pentagon in 2001. Teaching in a culturally diverse school, our approach needed to be one of abhorrence towards the perpetrators together with great sadness for the victims, but a clear acknowledgement that our school community is a harmonious one and must remain so.
With regard to the recent events unfolding in the Ukraine, and all such events of magnitude, my reflections would be as follows:
First, that some children will be afraid about the consequences for them and their immediate families here in the UK. It can be difficult for them to rationalise and contextualise complex geopolitical situations, and they require our reassurance – in as much as we can offer it.
Schools can be a place of harmony and sanctuary. We are affected by the world and its divisions, but we remain communities with joy and care for each other at our heart.
When our children ask questions of us, we should recognise that they are curious – which is good – and that they trust us to answer them honestly and sensitively – which is also good. In that context, we need to ensure as adults that we understand those events sufficiently that we role model the qualities of active citizenship we seek to impart into our children. It is also honest for us to frame our answers in the humility of our own limitations, however. Children sometimes think their teachers know everything. For them to hear from us occasionally that we do not is no bad thing!
In an Information Age, we should encourage children to triangulate information from a number of sources, and that those sources need to be as reliable as possible. Our students’ favourite YouTubers may have views on a seismic event, but our young people should not give those views any more credence than their own unless they have good reason to. There is plenty of propaganda and ‘fake news’ out there too. With war, there always is. Concluding this point, there will always be conspiracy theories and “edgy” opinions that are often seductive to some young people who baulk at conformity to any perceived orthodoxy of view. But the “edgy” theories of holocaust-deniers, alien abduction victims and flat-earthers are only seductive because they are on the margins. And they are on the margins for a reason.
Finally, as educators we should be able to distinguish that our requirement to be “apolitical” does not mean the need to be morally ambiguous. Sometimes the marshalling of undisputed facts makes it clear that a situation is not “evenly balanced”, and that all sides of a debate deserve equal ‘air time’ any more than flat-earthers should get time in our geography lessons or alchemists in our chemistry laboratories. Some situations are clearer than that:
We work in an exciting and changing world, which sometimes doesn’t just wait at the school gate but comes into our classrooms whether we like it or not, and whether we feel ready or not. Our over-riding priority is always the wellbeing of our children and their families. From there, we can help them understand that world. I am always in admiration for all those who work with sensitivity and strength in equal measure to ensure those ends.
As always, thanks for reading.