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Richard Warren: Teachers must nail their political colours to the mast

Richard Warren, a secondary school English teacher in the South West, writes:

Joe Nutt recently argued on this blog that teaching needs to become apolitical. The profession is in thrall, he suggests, to a cohort of ideologues. Teachers, he suggested, have crippled the state education system, holding it to ransom with their out-dated Marxist dreams. Without a ‘Damascene moment’, the profession will stagger from bad to worse; it is time, Mr Nutt believes, to remove politics from the classroom.

I disagree.

I don’t know about anyone else, but my school’s staffroom is strangely bereft of Marxist posters rallying us to join the rise of the workers. Instead, the walls sport data sheets about A*-C percentages, blown-up copies of the school’s behaviour management escalation ladder – and several posters for the Teacher Support telephone line. These seem to sum up teaching today; a demoralised and stressed workforce, quietly facing rising challenges in the classroom, while chasing targets imposed by those on high.

Are we ideologues ramming spurious political theories down our students’ throats? I don’t think so. I don’t know where we’d find the time.

Let’s get something straight. I’m a Leftie. I believe in good-quality, state-funded public services – and the taxes that are required to pay for these. I look with trepidation at an education secretary who is seemingly on a one-man mission to denigrate the state education system which he is meant to be nurturing; and I fear, in my most paranoid Leftie moments, that post-2015 there will be a wholesale move to privatise the entire state sector.

Yet I never let these fears come across in the classroom. I still cling to the ideal that teaching is a profession. I am, therefore, a professional. I turn up to work each day not, as might be suspected, in my sandals and knitted cardigan, but in my suit – in line with my school’s business ethos – and deliver the curriculum in the best way that I can. My personal politics have no place in my classroom.

I have worked with colleagues of all mainstream political hues – and never have I thought that any one of them might be trying to inculcate their classes to a particular political perspective. Joe Nutt’s call for teaching to become apolitical is designed to pander to the fears of the Right, who view teaching as a last bastion of Marxist nutters. This is simply not the case. It is a fear based on the ghosts of teachers past, bogeymen that right-wingers can scare themselves silly with.

The reality is that every good teacher knows that they are in a privileged position of trust. Inevitably there will be the occasional teacher who is a paid-up member of the BNP, or who revels in joining the anarchists during a G20 protest, but these are few and far between.

Every good teacher, regardless of their own political stance, understands that their role is not to create a cohort of acolytes, but instead to encourage students to think for themselves in preparation to become fully-functioning members of society.

And therein lies the rub. The problem we face today is not that teaching is too political, but the opposite. Teachers reflect the wider society from which they are drawn – and that is a society which is increasingly disengaged from the political system.

I have been brought to despair again and again when colleagues have proudly declared their intentions not to vote in local / European / general elections. I’ve found myself left incredulous when educated, independent, successful colleagues have declared themselves to have no truck with feminism. I’ve seen pupils who have expressed extreme racist or sexist views go unchallenged because their teacher is afraid of being seen as curtailing their freedom of speech.

I’m afraid that Joe Nutt and all those like him are desperately out of touch with the realities of the educational establishment. Unless we teachers re-engage with politics, how can we expect the students in our charge to want to do the same? It’s time for teachers to nail their green, grey, red, yellow or blue colours to the mast and stand up to be counted. We should not dictate to our students what to think – but we must show them that thinking is allowed.

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