I cried in front of my Year 8 religious studies class the other day.
It’s not the first time it’s happened, and I’m pretty sure it won’t be the last.
One of them asked a question that I’ve had a lot since teaching RS.
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A question about the Adhan – the Islamic call to prayer. That question goes something along the lines of “Isn’t that what terrorists say?” and, from that point, the lesson takes another turn.
It's an important question if we’re to stem the tide of misinformation that our students are exposed to.
So, why did I end up crying? One of my best friends, when I was at school, was Nick Alexander. You may have heard of him.
He was the only British person to die in the attack on the Bataclan music venue in Paris in November 2015. The question was asked on his anniversary.
Talking to students about terrorism
It is vitally important that, as teachers, we are prepared to discuss these situations and our responses to them.
My entire teaching career has had the shadow of terrorism over it.
The 11 September attack happened on one of my observation days before I started my PGCE; the first school I taught at lost students in the Bali bombing; and then I lost a friend myself.
But how do we even begin to approach these issues in class?
- When these issues arise, you need to have the confidence to ignore the lesson plan. I was teaching a Year 7 class when the news started to come through about the London bombings in 2005.
Most of their parents worked in London. It was my job to be a reassuring, calming presence. The apostrophe could wait.
- Younger children may ask questions that make you feel awkward. They may parrot opinions that you consider quite offensive. In these cases, it’s important to reply moderately.
Often students have absorbed incorrect information via social media and other channels. A calm statement of the truth is usually more effective.
- Be prepared for the big questions. Perhaps this is more likely in my role as an RS teacher, but “why do bad things happen to good people?" is always a tough one to respond to.
Things to consider discussing could include the idea of looking for the helpers, and that love is stronger than hate.
- Consider the composition of your group and be prepared for potential flashpoints in discussions. I have very diverse classes, but the students often have incorrect assumptions about the culture of other members of the group.
- I firmly believe in the inherent goodness of humanity but sometimes it may be necessary to refer a student’s comments to your safeguarding lead in order to protect them and others. If you find something concerning, refer it.
- Discuss what people do next. Manchester came together as a city in a positive response to the attack there. Nick Alexander’s family started a charity in his memory to use his passion, music, to bring people together and to provide opportunities to people who may not have otherwise had them.
- Be human. I cried in front of my class. I explained to them why. None of them think any less of me for showing that grief is a perfectly normal emotion and something that stays with you.
Heidi Drake is an English and RSS teacher at Colchester Royal Grammar School in Essex