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How to deal with cancel culture at school

Block. Delete. Call-out Culture. Woke Culture. Cancel Culture. Several terms we’ve probably heard or are becoming more and more familiar with in recent years. Increased engagement with social media, especially for Gen Z and now Gen Alpha (pretty cool name), means these cultures are now filtering into schools. This has its pros and cons, and we now need to ensure teachers, students and parents are equipped to navigate, what can often become toxic, problematic, political and therefore extremely uncomfortable conversations. The best way to manage the silencing of cancel culture? Bring it into the limelight and talk about it.

What is woke and why does it matter in schools?

We could argue versions of all of the above have been around for many years. Social media and the online world have made it all the more apparent, easier and, all the more toxic. Being ‘woke’ is a trait that gets a great deal of attention and, in my humble opinion, unnecessary criticism; in many ways it is held to account for cancel culture, yet those that blame it have misunderstood it. Ironically, it seems to have been weaponised and made somewhat of a scapegoat for anyone who disagrees with the mere idea of being empathetic, compassionate, determined, considerate, active and aware of diverse, global and different perspectives.

Equally, those who consider themselves woke need to be mindful too. Social justice and socially fuelled activism are admirable, necessary and the world would be a far more difficult place without it. However, I aim to caveat conversations with many young people by highlighting being woke doesn’t make you any better, any more worthy or righteous than the next person.

It is these latter thoughts, that often lead to cancel culture and the impossibility of any form of necessary conversation.

How does this all relate to school? I’ve always said (the reason I started School Should Be) that school is the second home. Contrary to all the white noise in the newspapers, students don’t just learn from a textbook, nor are they assessed within an inch of their lives in school; this is something they too need to be reminded of from time to time. They build relationships, learn boundaries, routines, meet people and in theory, grow and begin to learn to ‘adult’. Yes, some schools and teachers do it better than others, but on the whole, adulting skills are part and parcel of schooling, whether a teacher, student or parent has signed up to it or not.

Now with features of cancel culture, social media and more becoming an intrinsic part of teenage life, it’s more important than ever that teachers, parents and students create time to deal with it in a healthy, progressive and constructive way.

How to deal with cancel culture in the classroom

Listen. One of the greatest tragedies of social media is the noise and constant flow of information. An even greater tragedy is when social media companies, some influencers or those older than Gen Z assume young people (and their teachers) can manage this flow of information. It’s akin to the infamous toddler chocolate experiment, which I know is ‘adorable’ and telling, but also a bit weird. Anyway, I digress.

I have no stats or research to hand, but our increased capacity to see, read and supposedly process such a high turnover of information has decreased our abilities to listen. And, I mean really listen. Not respond, not reinforce, not blindly nod along, or interrupt with whataboutisms and ‘yeah buts’, but to listen. If we display controversial statements on the board, share critical articles and want our students to engage with challenging perspectives, we must force them to set aside their personal views, judgements and opinions and be prepared to listen to varying perspectives. It’s a vital skill to master if they are to ‘adult’ responsibly and with empathy.

Build relationships. Trust, respect and boundaries are fundamental in the classroom. I would go so far as to say teachers, parents and students should spend more time working on their relationships with one another, before the thought of the curriculum even comes to mind. Teachers are professionals. They support and guide students; parents and students must respect that. Establishing a trusting and respectful relationship between all stakeholders can make conversations healthy and constructive, without teachers fearing for their positions (and I don’t use that word lightly). Equally, schools must work hard to ensure their policies, ethos and values reflect the need for trusting relationships with their students and parents. This can really help overcome the toxicity of cancel and call out culture.

Read the room. When you learn to listen, you also learn how to read a room. You learn how to strike up a conversation, how to caveat certain discussion topics and most importantly, who it is you’re talking to. Classrooms are diverse; teachers and students are way better placed to manage ‘chat’ because they are surrounded by so many different lived experiences every working day. By learning to listen, to appreciate and empathise, teachers can create environments where although disagreements will happen, they can be managed respectfully and with patience too.

Avoid generalisations. I know generalisations are useful. They help provide frameworks and skeletons for discussions. In his wonderful book, Factfulness, Hans Rosling writes brilliantly about the need and danger of generalisations in a very neatly summarised chapter (read it). However, everyone has a different lived experience, a different perspective and even truth is intersectional and subjective. Teachers, students and parents need to work hard (and I mean actively work hard) to research, question, consider and avoid the use of generalised literacy and terminology in the classroom. We need to work hard to support students in discussing with nuance, sensitivity and a critical perspective. This is intrinsic to their academic success too. Things will get heated, yes and there will be an overwhelming level of questions – but every single one will engage and learn widely.

Discuss. I’ve recently signposted the limitations of the teaching standards in several conversations and pieces of writing. Of course, discussing political viewpoints in the classroom is problematic and can leave teachers and students in vulnerable positions. However, it is possible to maintain ethical, mature and valuable discussions without resorting to ‘politics’ (although, arguably, everything is political). Enable student voice as much as possible through carefully navigated discussion. Teach students the skills of discussion; introduce them to useful social media accounts that can help them with this too (@so.informed, @adamgrant and @blairimani to name a few).

Don’t engage. A lesson for students: you’re not going to agree or like everything or everyone. You can discuss, but you don’t always need to spend time convincing others to agree with you (although it can be fun). More importantly, don’t be self-righteous or unkind.

If you don’t agree and the discussion is over, take responsibility and don’t engage. Don’t post hate on social media. Don’t send silly messages. Don’t make condescending comments. Don’t intentionally or unintentionally wind other people up. DO NOT BULLY. Move on and focus on doing better yourself. That’s all.

Be humble enough to not cancel others

I get it, there are many truths that aren’t up for debate. Human rights and social justice cover a lot of ground here.

Kindness and empathy trump pretty much everything (the irony of me generalising here). Equally, it is important to let all students know we don’t all have the same level of empathy, kindness, lived experiences or education (yet). I’m sure the world would be a pretty boring place if we did.

For now, we just need to focus on creating a culture that doesn’t give in to the binary and often exacerbated media headlines and infographics, which do the world no justice at all. Instead, a culture that creates empathy, patience, resilience and one day, equality.


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