I support Teachers for Refugees expressing their opinion (with certain caveats about respecting others' rights to hold conflicting opinions) and not just because I am appalled by the abuse of refugees in offshore detention; but I am not surprised at them having their roles questioned and challenged in the media over the past week, especially by the sensationalist Murdoch Press and our politicians who continue to fail the moral test of how to treat refugees.
And as much as these attacks on Teachers for Refugees are politically motivated, there is an interesting question to be considered.
Should teachers be apolitical?
At face value a lot of people might say yes. The role of the teacher is imparting knowledge to receptive minds who trust that what their teachers are telling them is the truth. To use such a role to push a political agenda could be seen as an abuse of trust. Of course TV news programs and religious leaders also enjoy the trust of many, yet Sonia Kruger can make inaccurate racist statements on air and the Australian Christian Lobby is unrelenting in its public homophobic press releases.
Two (or three) wrongs don’t make a right though and the failure of mainstream journalism and the church do not in themselves justify teachers expressing a view on political issues. But it’s not always possible to avoid certain contentious issues. It is both difficult and incomplete to discuss the dangerous identity politics of Hitler or Milosovic for example, without making comparisons to similar contemporary examples such as Trump and Hanson. There is also the fact that issues such as offshore detention are not going away and are featured regularly in news media. When students hear things in the news they will often ask for more information and clarification.
As their job, teachers are charged with teaching their students about fairness and morality, as they teach them the behaviours expected in modern society. We teach children that it is wrong to hurt people, that it is wrong to bully people and that it is wrong to discriminate against people. Jane Elliot’s Brown eyes, blue eyes lesson on American racism in the 1960s is a celebrated example of a teacher being political. Let's not pretend that in this day and age all we want from teachers are emotionless zombies who only provide factual information to students without context. That is not modern teaching.
Perhaps one of the most confronting things for many parents is the idea that their child will come home and say something like, “My teacher says you are a racist,” because they have different views. This would absolutely be inappropriate, but I would be surprised if it were to happen. Good teachers don’t expect their students to believe everything they do and they certainly don't attack parents' views in absentia. They can on the other hand, have an opinion and expect students to form their own opinions. Consider how many political opinions you currently hold that were shaped by a particular teacher. I would suggest it is a pretty low number. Good teachers encourage their students to question what they are told, consider the evidence and form their own opinions- an increasingly crucial skill in an age where factual unbiased news reporting is becoming a thing of the past. They invite their students to consider evidence for alternative points of view in order to form their own opinion.
When the news media comes with an agenda, it is a teachers' obligation to ensure students understand the full context. To pretend these issues are not something students need to know about is to ignore a significant aspect of the society they live in and should know about. Moreover, not helping students put media hysteria into context is to leave them vulnerable to the exploitative lies of Pauline Hanson and her ilk.
Parents, don't be afraid. Teachers are certainly not employed to brainwash students but there has been no suggestion of this. They are just putting their opinion on piblic record. They certainly don’t need to be apolitical. I would argue that good teachers can’t be. We bring our values to how we teach and Teachers for Refugees are just more open about what their beliefs and biases are so their students can consider what they say in light of this.
I should really look into getting a tee shirt myself.