Responding to Prejudiced Opinions in the Classroom

This article is written by Andy Bloor, Senior Lecturer in Initial Teacher Education (ITE) and Special Educational Needs and Disabilities (SEND) and Programme Lead for iPGCE at the University of Derby Online Learning. He has over 20 years of teaching experience in Primary and Secondary education, including working in Pupil Referral Unit and as an Advisory Teacher for Behaviour across 21 schools in West London. Andy has spent the last seven years in Higher Education, the last six of them as the ITE Lead in SEN at Canterbury Christ Church University.

A strong school ethos underpins every aspect of school life, but how do trainee teachers respond when prejudiced views that contradict this vision are posed by a student because they have heard them outside the classroom? Andy Bloor, Senior Lecturer in Initial Teacher Education and Special Educational Needs and Disabilities at the University of Derby, explores the different ways to reply.  

It’s a difficult question to answer. What we can’t and shouldn’t do is something that sets us up in direct opposition to the parents and carers. Here we provide cognitive dissonance (where two or more contradictory beliefs) may be too difficult for the child to resolve. So how do we challenge objectionable views when presented with them, without undermining those at home? One approach I have advocated in the past is to say “Yes: some people do believe that; but in our school community, what we believe is…”

This does produce some cognitive dissonance, but does not outright damn the person expressing the view. Now however, we face this on a larger scale, where we have world leaders such as the current Prime Minister using homophobic slurs and President Trump offending black and ethnic minority heritages, so how should we, as teachers, respond?

Ignore it

Essentially, we have three possible responses: first, we can ignore it. This is by far the easiest reaction in that it is a passive position and does not dignify such comments with a response. The inherent danger though is that our silence makes us complicit with the views being expressed. 

Rationalising and normalising

The second is to try rationalising and normalising the response. ‘This is a world leader, and they say this’ can easily lead to ‘This person is a world leader, thus what they say is often right’ as the inferred next step here though.

Many commentators are saying that we are not in ‘normal’ socio-political times and we need to keep reminding ourselves that this a new world of popularist politics, where political parties can refuse to issue a manifesto before an election and an actor who plays a prime minister can get elected to the office in real life. We are certainly in unchartered political waters.

Challenge

The final response is challenge. To do this can be tricky and must be handled carefully; in the same way as we are careful not to damn the parent who expresses views that are objectionable, so too we must be careful with the political figure. Fear of challenge though is something that as educators we must face head-on. I believe we have a duty to show children the way in which some of the comments and actions are deviating from the norm and from what the majority feel is acceptable. We can explore, for example homophobia in the context of the Stonewall riots, and compare racist comments to the lives of Rosa Parks, Nelson Mandela, Martin Luther King and Mary Seacole.

From Plato to Rousseau; from Russell to Freire the emancipatory power of education is inescapable.  Popular media representations of education - from Robin Williams inspiring through literature in Dead Poets Society, to Sam Seaborn in The West Wing describing education as ‘the silver bullet’ – have often emphasised the transformatory power of education. As educators, we know that we can make a significant difference in all that we do daily. We know that to many children we are role-models and if those role-models seem to be out of step with a society that seems to be implicitly endorsing prejudicial behaviour in some of the highest offices in the land, then maybe that is more than simply acceptable to challenge this behaviour; maybe it’s necessary.