Zahara Chowdhury portrait

Written by Zahara Chowdhury

Wellbeing and education coach. She is founder of a new digital platform for students, www.schoolshouldbe.com and www.zenworkhub.com supporting professionals with their wellbeing.

In years to come, I’m pretty sure Oprah’s interview with Meghan and Harry will feature on the curriculum in some way: history lessons on the monarchy; English lessons on the impact of digital media; Psychology lessons on trauma; PSHE lessons on familial relationships. At the moment, especially in light of Piers Morgan’s resignation from Good Morning Britain, ‘freedom of speech’ is again up for debate, probably the biggest debate on the matter since Trump was removed from Facebook and Twitter. It’s uncomfortable, yes. But, I see it as an opportunity. It’s an opportunity to positively engage with the Teacher’s Professional Standard regarding the expression of personal beliefs. By speaking their truth, their lived experience, Meghan and Harry have shown young people that we can have personal, uncomfortable conversations around race, equity and the status quo with grace and integrity. And, if I was still in the classroom, I would see it as the best environment to teach young people how to have these personal discussions with dignity, compassion and empathy. 

 

After watching the interview a few Mondays ago, I went to bed thinking, how brave and how graceful. I had listened with compassion, empathy and welcomed what seems to be a turning point in the expression of lived experiences and truth. Tuesday morning, I turned on the news, and it felt like I’d watched a completely different version to the journalists before me. In many ways that’s a good thing, opinions differ and that’s how we learn.  However, a rising and ongoing problem with social and digital media is a lack of knowledge around how to manage a discussion. I’d like to think the majority of people know how to frame an ethical, written response whether that be in the form of a tweet, comment or direct message. But the overwhelming rise of keyboard warriors, online bullying and trolling is doing more to polarise our society than unite. What’s worse is that students are surrounded by it 24/7 on their phones, iPads and on the TV – more often than not without context or an understanding of how to think about it. Unfortunately, Facebook and Twitter have yet to introduce some form of workable regulation to prevent the rise of anxiety, fear and mental health (we all know they can do more and should do more). Until they do, I think school and the classroom are the best place to nurture an environment where students can have these open, uncomfortable conversations in a safe and equitable environment. 

 

How do we do this? How can teachers have uncomfortable conversations around race, equity and truth in the classroom? 

 

Looking back on my time as a South Asian, Muslim, female head of department, leader, teacher, manager, mother, daughter, sister, I always shared my identity in an honest way, to give my students perspective and context. I shared stories and my viewpoints framed by who I am and my lived experience. This then gave my students the confidence, the model to share their own truth. Modelling is key here, and dissecting Meghan’s approach (ever an English teacher!) to sharing her truth is a lesson in how to share your truth with context, integrity and reason. 

 

Managing those stories and lived experiences is a challenging and scary responsibility for a teacher. The amount of times I ended a lesson, heart racing, from the classroom worried about a parent calling, a colleague challenging my approach on discussion is insurmountable! Equally, I walked away fulfilled. I’d created a safe space that gave students the confidence to share, challenge, agree and disagree with one another. Did it always end well? No, of course not! But it always, eventually ended with respect. That doesn’t happen on Facebook, and I’m not sure it can. If we integrate compassion, listening and equity into our school ethos and classroom culture – just like Oprah! – we can absolutely have moral, ethical and difficult conversations around race, status and the world to make learning that little bit more purposeful. 

 

What is there to discuss? 

 

Meghan and Harry made it abundantly clear on the differences between the institution and the family, and I came away from the interview thinking how multifaceted the dynamics of the Royal Family are – as a job and as a family member. This is a discussion I would love to have in the classroom. 

 

The differences in British and American culture shined through Meghan and Harry. Meghan quite rightly spoke about the change in environment, politics, her identity as a career woman almost changed over time. Harry said meeting Meghan helped him realise he was trapped in a system. Discussing these issues with compassion and empathy can teach young people so much more about ‘real life’ than any careers lesson. 

 

Is it ok for a white man to so out rightly defame a woman of colour? Or maybe people in class don’t think he was defaming at all? What is there to learn and unlearn here? Use the works of Rachel Cargle, Dr Shona and even Edward Said to start a conversation. 

 

With all of these topics, it’s important to teach students that we are all entitled to an opinion, but not one of hate and plain nastiness. The presence of compassion in discussion is quite possibly what marks a successful and valuable conversation. 

 

Will we, as professionals, make mistakes? Of course! Will we come across barriers at school? Absolutely. Should that silence or limit the space for these conversations? No. If the dynamics between digital media, TV, the Royal family and Meghan and Harry’s transparent honesty have taught us anything, it’s that we need to share our lived experiences. More importantly, we need to work together to create a global community that enables them. And, I think the classroom is the best place to start. 

Supported by