As always, I am welcoming my class into the room with a smile and getting them ready to learn.
Me: Good morning! Lovely to see you all. Come on in.
Pupil 1: Sir! I saw you at VegFest on Saturday
Me: I’m sorry, I didn’t see you. You should have said hello.
Pupil 2: What’s “VegFest”?
Pupil 1: A Vegan festival
Whole class chorus: “Sir – are you vegan?!”
What is a teacher to do?
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As teachers we often walk a fine line. We know that relationships are important in the classroom. We want to be warm and friendly, but without being their friends.
To be friendly means to give something of yourself. The answer to “Sir, are you vegan?” could be “None of your business,” but I’m not sure my relationship to the class will be well served by it.
I could try, “We can talk about it later but not now” but then the question remains lurking there, a distraction from what I am about to say next.
Vegan and proud
The problem is. I know the answer “Why, yes I am!” is simply going to open another can of worms (not that vegans believe you should lock worms up in cans) as it will lead to the inevitable follow up question “Why?”
There are few questions a vegan fears more because it is hard to answer without then being labelled a preachy vegan and the next thing you know the person asking you, the very person who brought it up, is repeating the tired line: “How do you know someone is vegan? Don’t worry. They’ll tell you.”
The issue is magnified in the classroom because there is a fear that a teacher could influence a class through their own personal views. This leads to difficulties when children want to ask you about your own religious beliefs, politics, or stance on the exploitation of animals.
So if we are vegan, should we keep it quiet?
It is interesting, though, that there is far less squeamishness about the idea of influencing children to believe in other things: survival of the fittest is not a good basis for ethical decisions, we should help the needy, climate change is a problem that we should take action over – all of these views we seem quite happy to promote in the classroom, tutor times and assemblies.
The difference is probably that these issues are generally agreed on by the vast majority of the population. They don’t feel controversial.
Whereas “I voted for the Green Party” or “I’m a Christian” or heaven-forfend “I don’t believe we should exploit animals when we don’t have to” are beliefs and attitudes that are still contested.
Time to be brave
Perhaps though, this is just another reason why we shouldn’t shy away from being open about them. There is a danger that children only ever get exposed to the views of their parents and immediate community – it would seem a healthy idea for them to at least be aware that there are real life people, people they have met and know, who hold contrary views.
Is it really harmful for them to be aware that their teacher holds a political view or goes to Temple or is vegan? Perhaps this will have an influence, but is that really more harmful than the influence of their parents, their peers and the messages coming from the media?
The number of people who are vegan may be growing fast but it still only accounts for a minority of the population. They will encounter people who are not vegan, and who will explain why they think it is OK to exploit animals, every single day. They will see adverts for products that normalise this exploitation every time they turn on the TV. Is it really so harmful to hear the occasional dissenting voice in this barrage of noise coming in one direction?
I believe that schools, and the teachers in them, are there for the purposes of providing an education. I am much more interested in passing on as much as I can about what humanity has discovered about how the world works than I am in shaping the beliefs and attitudes of young people.
However, I am also aware that these beliefs and attitudes will be shaped by me along with every other person they come into contact with.
Perhaps we just need to be a little less squeamish about it and a little more open and honest.
Mark Enser is head of geography and research lead at Heathfield Community College. His first book, Making Every Geography Lesson Count, is out now. He tweets @EnserMark