When Political Waves Hit Schools, Teachers Can Be Bastions of Calm and Safety

When shock waves from political events hit schools, children and parents can be left feeling adrift. In the wake of impassioning events such as the US election and our recent UK referendum on leaving the European Union, societies can feel fractured and bruised, and respond in less than productive ways. Hate crimes have soared in the UK in the aftermath of a campaign that unleashed uninhibited language and racism alongside grievances, and this is beginning to be seen in the US too.

So how can you take care of your school community? Hand wringing is not enough, nor is just staying calm but doing nothing. Ironically, a 1939 slogan created to calm the population in war reappeared here recently in a particularly British mix of grit and teacups. ‘Keep Calm and Carry On’ appeared on mugs, posters, novelty items and tea towels. But you will not find your solution in a coffee mug!

First, it helps to get your priorities sorted out – this can be hard to do when emotions are involved but there are some fundamentals built into the system, including anti-discrimination lawsSchools are responsible for the safety and wellbeing of their students and their staff. Calmly reassure students, staff and parents in writing that in ‘our’ school everyone is valued and respected. In line with that, you ask that everyone be aware of their language and behaviour towards one another. Dilute panic and fear, grow and reward kindness and respect. Teach about difference from the earliest age and portray it as richness

Then, use these 10 useful questions for administrators to assess the impact of the anti-bullying and anti-discrimination work of the school:

  1. What strategies are being employed to reduce bullying and racist incidents through bullying prevention, curriculum programmes, peer support strategies and wider initiatives across the school?
  2. Is there evidence that these strategies are having an impact on the school?
  3. Which groups are most vulnerable in this school?  Are any groups disproportionately experiencing bullying or hurtful discriminatory incidents in the school?
  4. What does a comparison with county and district data reveal about this aspect of work?
  5. What targets have been /need to be set to move interventions and equality goals forward?
  6. Are there patterns in the targets and nature of the bullying/harassment incidents in the school? Online spaces where they congregate to insult others? Neighbourhood issues?
  7. What is the school doing to protect staff from bullying and racist incidents?
  8. Have all staff received training this year to update them and develop their understanding and skills? Do they understand your incident recording system?
  9. About 28% of students tell us that when they report an incident to their school, the problem stays the same, while a further 6% say things get worse! This erodes trust in the school and the behaviour may go unreported. Survey your students.
  10. What does the feedback from pupils, parents and staff reveal about the impact of the school’s anti-discrimination work? If it is not working, try another approach.

Strategic Planning

This means weaving equality work into the curriculum seamlessly as you address: rights, bullying, harassment, discrimination, online safety, healthy relationships, handling conflict and rules on behaviour is crucial during this period. Make sure it is age appropriate and relevant to your local community.  It is never an add-on, but a fundamental building block of your school ethos.

Student Involvement

Above all make sure there is pupil involvement – if they don’t ‘own’ it they will be less receptive to pitching in. Use drama, art, music, raps, digital skills and engage them in designing slogans, logos, T shirts and plasma screen messages. Formal debates are an excellent way to represent democracy and safely explore different views.

Reporting

Ensure there are many discreet routes for students to report a problem. Students do not want to be seen telling a teacher.  Beware of risks of retaliation when taking action. Work to challenge prejudiced attitudes among the wider group. Train peer leaders or mentors. Set up text numbers, email addresses, worry boxes. Monitor the situation and follow up later.

Have safe discussions with ground rules well established

Young people need safe spaces to explore their views. Some may be very emotional while others may be merely repeating what they have heard. Some may be fearful or in shock, others crowing and confident. So set the ground rules, no name calling and no names mentioned. Take it in turns to speak, listen to others respectfully. This is not the thought police, but a safe respectful space in which we can explore ideas and learn.

Lesson Plan Ideas

Lead group discussions on stereotypes and prejudice:

  • What is a stereotype? Is this word OK?
  • Common excuses –‘ It’s not racist, it’s only a joke…’
  • ‘I wish my teacher knew’ cards
  • Growing concerns about extremist postings on the internet

Enlist some sports stars and other popular figures:

Racism is something created and anything that has been created can be undone.

—Samuel Eto'o, the most decorated African player of all time

Where does hatred lead? Look back:  

January 2015 marked the 70th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz Birkenau. 2015 was also the 20th anniversary of the Genocide in Srebrenica, Bosnia. The theme of the year focused on memory. There is a memory-makers project in which survivors are interviewed and artworks created to interpret their memories. This is a moving artistic and short animation of one of these and this is a short film about a young girl who survived by hiding.

Further Resources

Books

Films

  • Glory (1989) 15 CERT
  • The Color Purple (1985) PG CERT
  • To Kill a Mockingbird (1962) 12 CERT
  • Ae Fond Kiss (2004) 15 CERT
  • Palindromes (2004) CERT 15
  • Invictus (2009) PG13

Webpages

Adrienne Katz has worked in bullying intervention programmes in England since 1998. She is the author of three books on cyberbullying and e-safety and is a director of the Bullying Intervention Group (BIG) which runs an award for excellence in bullying intervention. For seven years she worked in a government programme to deliver anti-bullying training, challenge and support to local government, schools and services. Adrienne directs the Cybersurvey through her consultancy Youthworks, this is now in its 9th year collecting young people’s views on their digital lives. She is working on research with Dr A. El Asam at the University of Kingston looking at how to keep vulnerable young people safer online.