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I'm not 'neutral' in my classroom and I don't think you should be either

| January 29, 2016
Image: pixgood.com

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I have a lot of conversations in my job.  It comes with the territory; I'm a teacher, and if it was a successful day, I've had meaningful exchanges with lots of people, whether they are students, other teachers, parents, or my administrators.

I had a conversation recently with a senior teacher at my school. He is someone I have a lot of respect for and who has a lot of rank and influence in our school community because of his hard work and tireless dedication to the students and teachers within it.

We were talking about an ongoing debate among our staff and students about whether or not our school culture needed to change. Some people felt a recent school event ended up a little out of sync with the values and ideals that the school was trying to promote, while others thought it was a non-issue and that people were getting worked up and stirring up conflict over nothing.

"I hear that some teachers are actually talking about this in their classrooms," he said, "and I think that it is hogwash for teachers to be promoting their own views on the topic among their students." 

The sentiment he expressed is one that is common for schools and educational institutions in our province and one that is echoed in many other classrooms across the continent. For issues and topics that are contentious, conventional wisdom and expectation is that teachers do their best to be non-partisan. 

But when my colleague, whom I respect so much, made this statement, it left me with some questions that continued to eat at me over the next few weeks.

What would it mean to be "neutral" on Japanese internment in the 1940s or Indian Residential Schools before the mid 1990s? What does it mean to be "neutral" on issues of informed consent or sexual assault? What does it mean to be "neutral' on climate change or discrimination or violence against Muslim Canadians today?

It took me almost a month of reflection to really understand why, but the call for teachers to be indiscriminately "neutral" on controversial topics is anything but neutral. When it comes down to it, schools, and the communities that surround them, are not neutral places. They are places of established norms, culture and ideas, and for better or worse, being neutral in a place where established ideas and power drive what happens is a tacit endorsement of the status quo and what already dominates.

In fact, it is bizarre for schools to encourage teachers to be neutral on contentious topics when schools as institutions actively take sides on issues, promote certain viewpoints and values and advocate for their teachers and students to do the same.

My school (thankfully) is not neutral on the belief that LGBTQ students have the right to learn and live in environments free of discrimination, harassment and bullying. It actively encourages teachers and students to embody and support this belief. We have school goals on positive leadership, integrity and social responsibility that transcended our day-to-day classroom lives into everything that happens at the school -- and most other schools have the same.

There are certain things that I am definitely not neutral about as a teacher. When issues of bullying, sexism or racism come up in my classroom, I address and explore them. That doesn't mean I tell my students what to think, but I do ask them how their actions or views align or misalign with their values or the values the school promotes -- and people's values are not neutral. 

Our values are different from our dogmas. Our values are the guiding principles that underscore how we want to be and act in the world. Our dogmas are the beliefs or rules we cling to, whether they actually reflect our values or not.

Almost every school in Canada and the U.S. would say (or like to say) that they promote the values of care, liberty and fairness. For most of us, these are values that our families and communities also endorse, that bind us together, and give us direction in how we want to live, act, and shape our world. The tension comes when we ask students to consider how a controversial issue relates to these values and the conclusions they come to conflict with their family or the school's dogmas.

But looking at how what we do and what we teach relates to our shared values is something teachers should do whether it leads to conflict or not. In the past we have neglected to do this and things have gone very wrong -- horribly wrong.  The values we expressed were out of step with our actions and we have a responsibility to try to make it right, and to try to make sure it doesn't happen again. Recognizing if our values line up with our school or community dogmas helps us see if they need to change or be rethought. 

Although it has been primarily sold as a way to ensure student intellectual freedom, teacher neutrality doesn't do that. It creates a culture where it is acceptable for students to opt in and out of important conversations if they are difficult or challenging; it promotes passivity, not engagement.

I don't want my students to be neutral people. I want them to be informed and engaged citizens. I want them to vote, to have an opinion, to be able to work together with other people and to recognize their shared values and interests will build a better world than was there yesterday. We are at a time in our collective history when doing this is more important than ever.

Many teachers purposely put kindness at the centre of their teaching and their work. Kindness is not neutral. Neither is hope.

Ryan Cho teaches at Terry Fox Secondary School in Port Coquitlam and has been involved in experiential and social and environmental justice education in B.C. for many years.  Ryan serves on the BC Teacher's Federation Social Justice Committee on Anti-Poverty and writes regularly on a variety of topics.

 

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