Teachers: do not be afraid of ‘calling out’ Boris

Railing against offensive behaviour and hateful language even if it comes from the Prime Minister is not partisan, it’s a teacher's duty, says Blair Minchin

Teachers: do not be fearful of ‘calling out’ Boris Johnson

“But Donald Trump did it.”

Having reflected on this moment, while dealing with an incident where a child with a disability had been bullied, I couldn’t help but question what teachers could and should do to combat some of the terrible examples being set by those in positions of power. Having a pupil in upper primary imitating a disability (in an attempt to get some cheap laughs) was grim enough but when they were following the actions of a state leader, it really gave me pause for thought.

Now we have Boris.


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Every school has its own set of values. However, one can imagine that we all want our pupils to understand the importance of honesty, take pride in their appearance, stand by their words, and champion equality and equity for the betterment of society.

I’m sure we have all, at some point, chastised a child for having their shirt untucked and wearing a messy tie; we will have spent our breaktime sorting out an issue of deceit and made it clear that lying is unacceptable; and maybe you’ve even pulled out the "would you employ someone who…" card when dealing with incidents of xenophobia, sexism, racism or homophobia.

Now we have Boris.

As teachers, our position of trust risks being eroded. When our young people see that we have a leader who contravened many of the principles we expect citizens to live by and yet still rose to the highest office in the country, why would they bother listening to our guidance? When we are holding children to a greater degree of moral accountability than our own Prime Minister, how do we assert this to be just and fair? Can we speak out? 

Practitioners in Scotland are of course bound by the General Teaching Council for Scotland professional standards. Point 5.3 of the Code of Professionalism and Conduct requires all teachers to recognise that they are role models and that any signs of intolerance or prejudice could bring the profession into disrepute and question an individual’s fitness to teach.

It therefore stands to reason, that if Pupil A were to refer to Pupil B as "a tank-topped bumboy" we teachers would have a duty to call out such vile and offensive language. To not do so would go against our own professional standards.

Furthermore, to not respond to pupils’ questions and concerns about the prejudicial language of celebrities and politicians, for fear of being seen to project one’s own personal values onto children, could equally be viewed as unprofessional. Tolerance of hate speech will rightly be viewed as intolerance towards those whom the language is directed at.

I’m sure many staff will have heard the phrase "you promote what you permit". Pupils have become much more engaged in politics, due in part to the recent referendums, not to mention the rise of meme culture that often pictures politicians and political leaders. As teachers, we need to ensure that offensive behaviour and hateful language cannot be tolerated, regardless of whether the person saying it is in an elected office or position of power. 

Certainly, we should not be preaching to our class and going out of our way to plan lessons deriding political parties or figures in hope of manipulating thought or directing pupils towards a certain political leaning. However, if children do question the Prime Minister’s actions, past or future, we should not be fearful of calling them out for what they are.

Now we have Boris. 

Now we might need to speak up.

Blair Minchin is a primary teacher in Edinburgh. He tweets @Mr_Minchin

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