Zahara Chowdhury portrait

Written by Zahara Chowdhury

Zahara is founder and editor of the blog and podcast, School Should Be, a platform that explores a range of topics helping students, teachers and parents on how to ‘adult well’, together. She is a DEI lead across 2 secondary schools and advises schools on how to create positive and progressive cultures for staff and students. Zahara is a previous Head of English, Associate Senior Leader and Education and Wellbeing Consultant.

The last few weeks, or perhaps years, feel like a surreal blur when thinking about our global context. From the outbreak of Covid-19 to the recent war in Ukraine, it is now as if we are living through the dystopian and historical literature I once taught through fictional and non-fiction texts in the classroom. As teachers and educators there is an expectation that we not only educate students about these topics, but we must know and be aware of every article and news feed that emerges on a daily basis. In many ways, the recent Political Impartiality Guidance released by the DfE was as much to refresh our responsibilities as educators, but also to reassure teaching professionals too; unfortunately, social media coverage and wider analysis of the guidance seems to suggest the opposite. Our students and colleagues want to learn, discuss and explore current affairs, but how do we do this in light of this guidance and a school climate, where GCSEs, A Levels, limited time and limited resources dominate? 

Much of the specific economic and political facts go over my head (even as a DEI Lead). Equally, my advice to teachers and schools is that you do not need to be a global, political, geographical or economic expert to address these matters. Instead, in order to get political impartiality ‘right’, whilst prioritising curriculum, teaching, learning and pastoral needs, we must remember what teachers and schools do best: we can critically navigate and evaluate the differing perspectives of world politics without being political. We can support students in how to challenge and respectfully discuss contentious topics. We can also help our students learn to be empathetic, acknowledge their emotions whilst being mindful of others too. 

However, this in itself is challenging considering the ‘diversity’ within teacher training and lived experiences too. To help teachers and education professionals, below are some key learning points and explanations that can help schools get political impartiality right; if we are aware of them, we are more likely to create inclusive, safe spaces for all of our students and staff too. 

Media Bias 

There has been an outpouring of sympathy, global empathy, local and community charity and Influencer support for Ukrainian refugees – and rightly so. It has been heart-warming and necessary to see so many come together at a time of intense suffering to protect and support our human race. However, the media coverage and perception of refugee status has been problematic. In many ways, it seems some Western media outlets have usualised poverty, strife, pain and refugee status for particular races and regions but portray it as wrong for Western, white, ‘blue eyed’ individuals to experience the same. The question for teachers that might arise here is how do we explore such controversial media bias without making it ‘political’? 

Aisha Thomas, founder of Representation Matters, asks a pivotal question: what story is your curriculum telling – a question that could not be more relevant in light of media bias, social media algorithms and being politically impartial in the classroom. 

  • Does your curriculum teach success stories from the East, North, South and West? 
  • Does it teach socio economic barriers (and opportunities) in the West, East, North and South? 
  • Is it gender equitable? 
  • Does it elevate the voices of all protected characteristics? Does every member of your class ‘see’ and ‘hear’ themselves in lessons?
  • Is it intersectional? 
  • Is it fair? 
  • Is it truthful? 
  • Does it allow students to question, critique and evaluate the situations independently? 

These are worthwhile questions to bring to the forefront of any CPD training and classroom work you do to strategically address belonging, equity, anti-bullying and teacher/student safety. 

The media sources referenced above also contain bias – pretty much everything we read, see and explore does. However, it is important to explore the language and literacy of a range of media sources so students are able to have critical, mature and nuanced discussions – what every school ultimately aspires to!


Selective Empathy

Selective empathy is when we empathise with a particular group, particular causes and people for many reasons: it is dominant in the news; we relate to it, or maybe it feels close to ‘home’. Whatever ‘it’ is, it somehow resonates so much that we find ourselves becoming socially just, publicly outraged and visibly allying with a particular cause or issue. For example, you may notice that certain members of staff or students visibly ally with some causes more than others, whether that be the war in Ukraine, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, anti-Semitism or LGBT+ rights. 

Being selective in how and with whom we empathise in a globally diverse society is problematic. In many ways, it can lead to ‘whataboutisms’, alienation and further antagonism. If we are really committed to creating a diverse and inclusive world where protected characteristics need not exist and everyone feels a sense of belonging, we must approach all areas of DEI consistently – with nuance and transparent, shared values. Schools, teachers and students will need to ask themselves how they are creating safe, equitable spaces of belonging regardless of geography, economics, beliefs and values. Individuals with and without protected characteristics, individuals from marginalised and non-marginalised backgrounds need work together to create a sustainable culture for DEI. Equally, centralising ‘lived experiences’, the intersections of society and people who often fall victim to decisions and events beyond their control are who we need to ally with – they need our voice and their voices amplified. This is not political, that is just empathy and being human. 

However, acknowledging our empathetic responsibilities can feel jarring; it can make some feel uncomfortable, critique ‘woke culture’ and more. Some may feel they are able to unapologetically selectively empathise – why should it matter that I empathise with one cause more than another? Why does it matter that I share my outrage for the war in Ukraine but not Syria? The answer to this question requires some introspective work: 

  • if we felt uncomfortable advocating for the rights and safety of Palestinian citizens in the Spring/summer of 2021, but little discomfort advocating for the safety and rights of Israeli citizens (I am using citizens and geography intentionally here as this is not a Semitic discussion), we must ask why? Does this discomfort or lack of responsibility enter your sphere of allyship with Ukrainian refugees? If not, why? If yes, why? If you feel your heart pang when you see your child or your students in a young Ukrainian child, but not in a Palestinian, Afghan or Syrian child, question why? If you are collecting charitable donations for Ukrainian refugees but this did not necessarily feel as urgent or necessary last summer again, question it. Do you find supporting and understanding the barriers faced by the LGBT+ community more accessible than anti-racism? Why? 

These are difficult questions. They are challenging, jarring and some may choose to dismiss them immediately. I encourage you to work through the discomfort and potential feelings of offence. This is not a criticism, unnecessary ‘wokeism’ or misplaced social justice work; this is a call to critically address and navigate feelings of empathy. Empathy is a skill that needs to be nurtured and learned. Allyship is a set of actions that need to be consistently practiced and addressed. This is only possible if we are always sitting and working through our discomfort. It does not need to shake our core values and beliefs – instead, it reinforces that our core values and beliefs are wholly inclusive and respectful of all human life – not selective. 

 

Intersectionality 

The last 3 years isn’t a movie set in the past or a book we might be currently studying in lessons. It isn’t a case study for exam boards (yet). It is the lived experience of all of us. There are intersections to recognise, people to listen to and an opportunity to learn about globalisation, economics and geography in real life. Ask students what changes they’ve noticed: Chanel, Netflix and more no longer trading in Russia- what does this actually mean for the global economy, but also the different intersections of society? Create opportunities to learn about the intersections of economics and business and what the world will look like beyond this war. Ask students to question the impact of certain decisions and suggestions they see (and potentially support or refute) on social media. This can help overcome the fear and uncertainty associated with the current global climate – along with create opportunities for young people in a new and equitable manner. 

Explore global inequality and diverse perspectives – why and how is the current world a result of a past world? There are multiple answers to explore here. This is where history, PSHE, RE, Geography, Economics, Philosophy and Politics can take precedence on the curriculum. Consider the questions and ways in which these topics are explored in their relative subject areas and how other subject areas can adopt their approaches. How can we make changes or additions to curriculum areas to explore wider perspectives? 

Intersectionality is in effect, the very key to the success of every student, regardless of their background, protected characteristic, lived experience and more. An appreciation and amplification of nuance within our schools, society, student and staff body will create a culture of belonging and there is plenty of research to suggest that ‘belonging’ leads to success. 

It is possible to remain politically impartial and work within a rich and valuable teaching environment. If we take a proactive, diverse and critical approach to current affairs we will be able to overcome the fear and discomfort associated with discussing ever-changing global and social climates. And, ultimately, we have the power in a classroom to create trusting and safe spaces for our students, communities and professional bodies – something that often goes amiss in the ‘politics of social media!

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