4 ways to avoid cultural complaints over English texts

As an international school teacher, you need to be aware that literature that is acceptable in the UK can cause offence

Tim Hawkins

International schools: How to avoid cultural complaints when teaching English literature

Great literature is meant to challenge. It is meant to stir emotions and passion within its reader, opening them up to all kinds of new experiences through the interpretation of the symbols contained within.

However, when working with certain texts in the classroom, international teachers also have to be mindful of cultural and religious boundaries.

This is not something you learn overnight, but after seven years in the Middle East, I’ve think I’ve just about got my head around delivering a broad, balanced and challenging English curriculum. 

However, the golden rule is never to fail to underestimate the ability of the curveball to trip you up.

International schools: Avoiding cultural complaints when teaching English literature

With that in mind, how can you best ensure that you can teach as required, without causing unnecessary offence?

1. Don't assume 

Firstly of all, it’s never a good idea to assume that just because your course – GCSE, IGCSE or A level – is approved by any given ministry of education or governing body, there’s carte blanche to deliver texts without sensitivity and integrity.

George Orwell’s 1984 has been a staple of the Cambridge IGCSE but has sections that deal with heavy themes, from rape to torture – so how do you know if these are suitable to discuss in class or likely to cause a problem?

Most schools with a strong cultural or religious body of parents provide a liaison officer – a go-between for you, pupils and the community.

If you want to be covered in what you are delivering, especially outside of A level or GCSE, it is vital to use them; not just to approve the text themselves or act as a sounding board, but to make sure you have effectively covered your back against complaints from upset parents.

2. Talk with senior staff 

With the delivery of examination texts, although you should be covered from complaints by the very fact that they are examination texts, it is essential to have a strong senior management team on board.

I’m lucky that two members of my SLT are English teachers so thoroughly understand the literature curricula and have an understanding of the nuances required to deliver it.

However, if there’s not an understanding of the text being delivered, perhaps an informal meeting to explain to a senior manager which potential cultural sensibilities may – and the keyword here is may – be upset is prudent.

I would hope that most schools’ senior management would prefer to be forewarned about themes that may trouble some of the local community, rather than being broadsided with complaints to deal with.

3. Use your liaison officer 

But the harder problem to deal with is those texts at key stage 3, primarily because texts aren’t covered by the exam caveat. Some schools operate among very conservative areas and whereas a text may be considered suitable for delivery as a result of it being part of an examination syllabus, there may not be the tolerance at KS3.

Again, this is where a good community liaison officer or senior manager will earn their money; not just for spotting potential cultural pitfalls (such as Harry Potter and witchcraft; Guantanamo Boy and alcohol) but will also be versed in the unwritten rules which can be bent, rather than broken.

The best advice is not to think of this as a vetting process, more as a "covering your own back" necessity.

4. Utilise library knowledge

Good school librarians are also excellent at helping English teachers to select books that are suitable for a school’s student community and – along with similar caveats – should be used by English teachers more.

A two-way conversation with a good librarian, specifically one who knows the local community, can be mutually beneficial in picking out engaging and culturally appropriate books.

Ultimately, opening a dialogue between all those involved – the community, senior management, cultural liaison officers, librarians and, most importantly, the students – is the golden rule and while it may feel like creating meetings just for the sake of having meetings, in the long run, as teachers, we will be ultimately thanked for doing so, with potential literary problems headed off at the proverbial pass.

And while it may feel time-consuming to have to check that we can teach Macbeth with people outside of our classrooms, as expat teachers we should remind ourselves that we are guests in another country and should act with the respect and integrity our profession demands.

Tim Hawkins is head of English at an international school in the Middle East

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