“Is it OK for me to put students right when they say something unacceptable?”

“Should I express my political views in class?”

The worst moment in my teenage years was when my parents had invited some family friends. All the members of their family came, including Wayne, the daughter’s new boyfriend. When Wayne came through into the living room he blurted out: “Who’s that bit of chocolate on the sofa?”. It was Adele, my Jamaican girlfriend. There was silence for a couple of seconds and then everyone was offered drinks. No one said anything to Wayne, not even me, I was too embarrassed. 

Two of the worst moments in my teaching life took place in IT companies in Pisa where I taught in house. In the first, a new student arrived in my class. He was on a trial period before being fully employed by the company. Within five minutes he had made some racist comment about a Black person who appeared in a photo in the coursebook. I told him I didn’t appreciate such comments and he just laughed. After the lesson I went to see the boss. He was sacked right there and then. This time I had done something, and although I felt bad for the young guy, what I had done felt right.

On another occasion, in the other company, a multinational with around 5000 employees, we were having a conversation class. The group was made up of students at an advanced level, but from very different positions in the company hierarchy. During the discussion, a group leader referred to one of his group members as ‘the blonde’. She didn’t seem to fazed by it, she was obviously used to it. I told the guy that this kind of behavior would not be tolerated in the London or New York offices, and I told him to leave the class. He did.  Again, it felt right.

In both cases, I wasn’t worried about my position as the English teacher, as I knew both of the CEOs very well – we had similar values with regard to such issues. But what my two actions did was to spark off conversations at the office regarding racism and sexism. It seemed like I had brought up issues that others had been afraid to mention.

Much more recently I had a spat with a fellow teacher on LinkedIn. She had objected that my discussion books were not impartial politically. I replied that she was absolutely right. She then told me that politics was something that teachers should not be involved in, and that she had recently helped a student write an essay in which he expounded Trump ideals. I told her I would have intervened. She told me I was wrong. 

What do you think?

Should teachers ‘put their students right’? Should teachers express their political viewpoint?

Take part in the discussion

Adrian Wallwork