Uncomfortable Conversations in the Classroom


The last couple of weeks have been extremely challenging. The tragic news of Sarah Everard’s death, the awful news of the attack in Atlanta all within a few days around International Women’s Day have left the entire world exhausted and speechless. The power of social media shows us the level of awareness, support and information there is to help not only women, but all of us work towards an equitable future. Platforms such as Zenerations, The Conversationalist and so many more have cut through the noise of social media and created spaces where real, nonbiased news is presented on an even larger platform that is always criticised for its lack of regulation.

Equally, where there is no ‘switch off’ button for scrolling on social media, the anxiety and uncertainty around this level of information exposure can feel somewhat overwhelming.

Whilst we absolutely need to know all of the information and need to act in some way to challenge the complete lack of humanity involved in these attacks, we also need to learn and be aware of how to manage our own feelings and emotions associated with them too.

In her book, The Art of Doing Nothing, Jenny Odell discusses the power, protest and privilege that can be sought in switching off and stepping back. In a pandemic world where everything ‘should’ have slowed down, we have almost sped up to a level which some might argue is to the detriment of our mental health – especially the health of young people. So, how do we manage this? How do we continue to have uncomfortable and challenging conversations with our young people, if, as adults, we too are exhausted emotionally, by the disillusionment caused by our present world?

Recent events reminded me of the emotion and outcry around the death of Stephen Lawrence and 9/11. I was a very young person and the lack of social media meant my knowledge and own anxiety was confined to TV, newspapers, my own research, and…school.

For me, the classroom is effectively one of the safest and healthiest spaces to have these conversations – if teachers and schools are willing to enable them. It is more important now than ever that we work through our sense of discomfort as teachers to create an equitable, fair, kind and compassionate world. Here’s how:

DO NOT SHUT DOWN THE CONVERSATIONS

The UK Teacher Standards advise that teachers are not to share or discuss personal beliefs in the classroom. Given the current social climate filled with fake news, freedom of speech and alarmingly unregulated (or not regulated enough) social media platforms, I can’t think of anyone better but teachers and professionals to support and equip young people with tools and dialogue to maturely manage such uncomfortable topics.

A classroom is an opportunity to create healthy discussion and debate – and to teach lessons in compassion, listening and empathy.

As a teacher, I was ‘taught’ to shut down these conversations. I would urge teachers to engage in them as we can absolutely have safe and ethical discussions without compromising the value of the safe, classroom space. The thing is, if we shut them down in what is the safest space for so many young people, it feels like we are doing them a major injustice.

LET THE UNLEARNING PROCESS HAPPEN IN THE LEARNING ENVIRONMENT

The term, unlearning is becoming increasingly popular as a way to define our global need to break through the injustice that has been learned through a history of imperialism, racism and prejudice in all areas of society. After the home environment, the second home most students experience is school. When it comes to equality, equity, inclusion, anti-racism, anti-prejudice, judgment and kindness, all can be learned in the classroom.

Unfortunately, as our society stands, there are too many communities and environments that do not have the resources or opportunity to enable this type of learning. School does. School is filled with (or, should be) ethical and moral professionals.

Children are innocent and vulnerable. It is the duty of teachers (before any exam) to nurture students with learning that helps them unlearn systemic stereotypes and judgement that in no way serve society – except white supremacist rhetoric.

CREATE A SAFE SPACE TO EMBRACE CHANGE

We all have the anecdotal meme of a teacher standing at the front of the classroom, covered in chalk, surrounded by piles of marking, whilst the students are texting under their desks, mocking the classroom environment and counting down to the bell. This doesn’t need to be how we see or experience school.

Ultimately, teachers are second to parents. It’s a MASSIVE responsibility, burden and privilege. Like parenthood, the job is thankless yet fulfilling all at the same time. By extension, teachers HAVE to embrace change. Practice and approach should change year upon year because students and the world changes year upon year. What works for one set of students will not work for another – and that includes the way we approach a conversation.

It is important we are transparent with students and tell them that certain conversations will be uncomfortable for some and welcomed by others. It’s not necessary to agree with each other – but it is necessary to create a space where everyone feels safe and comfortable to ask questions, face their demons and learn how to be a good person. This is only possible if students know their teachers are open-minded, happy to chat, and able to learn WITH them.


CENTRALISE DISCOMFORT ON THE CURRICULUM

Curriculum and syllabus structures can make it seem there is no time or space for conversations around anti-racism, prejudice, money, sexism and the injustice we are surrounded by. In effect, although there is much richness in the curriculum, there is an argument that it is one very toxic echo chamber churning out archaic Westernised rhetoric – and this is not the fault of the teacher. In fact, schools and teachers have more power than they might think to adapt lessons and change teaching tact to incorporate more of what they want than what they think they should. As an English teacher, my subject lends itself to the discomfort; two-thirds of my lessons were spent discussing the uncomfortable or certain nuances…and grades were not at risk. In theory, the curriculum can be pretty basic and rote – which, if we want to create space and time for the difficult conversations -is a blessing in disguise.


LEARN WITH EACH OTHER AND BE VULNERABLE

The richest classroom culture is created with compassion, vulnerability and trust. It is important that students and teachers, when establishing relationships and boundaries, show their vulnerable selves along the way. Building trust with one another does not come from the dramatic facade of Ms Trunchball and Matilda, often associated with being a teacher and student in the classroom; it comes from honesty and sincerity.

  • what did you think of…?

  • I’m not sure…what do you think?

  • Some of you might feel…and that’s ok.

  • Is there a right and wrong here?

  • Surely you don’t think that! You do? Fair enough.

  • I don’t know about you, but I feel…

  • Sometimes we just have to accept…or what do you think is acceptable?

  • It’s not ok to…but it is ok to…

Engaging in balanced, nuanced debates and treating the classroom not as a hierarchy, but as a peer-centric environment for both teachers and students can create a wonderful, safe environment to have all discussions, uncomfortable or otherwise.

Whilst social media is a wonderful tool. It is also filled with information and comments, not necessarily discussion. The school environment has an opportunity to harness this tirade of information and teach students how to have uncomfortable conversations in a comfortable manner – I can’t think of any place more purposeful or refreshing in a world filled with uncertainty.