"You are a racist" is a common statement from aggrieved pupils who may feel left out or angry about something that has occurred in the classroom. There cannot be one set route for you to follow - in this situation, context is everything and will dictate the next steps to take.
You should ask yourself several questions. Was it a genuine sentiment or a defensive reaction on the part of the pupil? Was the accusation made during a class discussion and, if so, did others hear what was said? Was the accusation made after the pupil received negative feedback? Was it because of some action by you outside the classroom?
It is important that you make the pupil aware of the enormity of this type of allegation. Writing on The TES web forum, one teacher wrote about her own experience with an aggrieved pupil - she responded to the accusation by explaining that if they really felt this way, they should go to the headmaster and report it.
"I wanted to make a very clear point that he should not be bandying about that term without thought," she says. "I called a colleague over as a 'witness' and made him repeat the allegation." The teacher and her colleague then put a number of questions to the pupil. "We asked him what he thought racism was and whether he could explain why he thought he was being discriminated against," the teacher remembers. "I never, ever heard another peep from him after that."
According to Paul Dix, an education trainer in the field of behaviour, motivation and learning management, it is important not to get caught up in the race argument.
"Focus on the primary behaviour, which is the fact that the child has refused to comply with classroom etiquette," he says. "Crying 'racism' puts the teacher in a very uncomfortable position and the child knows this. Instead of trying to prove to the pupil that you are not a racist, try to remain calm."
Mr Dix suggests jotting down what was said as soon as the opportunity presents itself. "The child will remember the incident with clarity since they have had the rest of the lesson to brood over it," he says.
"The teacher, on the other hand, has continued delivering the lesson and has had to deal with over a score of other pupils. You should write a chronological account of the events as soon as possible."
It is also important to make your head of department or pastoral head aware of the allegation and its context. You need to present your position in case the pupil makes an official complaint.
According to David Allaway of Behaviour UK, a company that works with teachers to improve behaviour, taking the pupil aside to discuss the incident is advisable. "You need to speak with the pupil privately," says Mr Allaway. "The pupil may have misunderstood a remark or an action and interpreted it as being racist."
Arrange to see the pupil with another member of staff who can act as mediator. "Asking the child what he thinks about the incident retrospectively and sharing your own thoughts can help to create an atmosphere of reconciliation," says Mr Dix.
In an ideal situation, these steps will allow you and the pupil to reflect on their behaviour. "Perhaps you can admit that shouting at the pupil may have been the wrong course of action," says Mr Dix. "A great teacher always knows when to back down, and this will make it easier for the pupil to admit that the accusation was inappropriate."
To ensure that incidents of this type are dealt with appropriately in the future, procedures should be agreed on for ensuring that staff are more aware of pupils' experiences, and for ensuring that complaints about prejudice and racism are rigorously and sensitively investigated and dealt with. "The school should extend the work it is already doing on cultural diversity," says Mr Dix. "There should be increased attention to the nature of racism and preparing pupils for life in a multi-ethnic society."
Next week calling parents
- Ask yourself whether your behaviour was in any way inappropriate.
- Focus on the primary behaviour - that is, what the pupil did to get into trouble.
- Make the child aware that this is a serious allegation.
- Write a chronological account of the incident and its context and tell your department head.
- Get caught up in the race argument.
- Try to prove to the pupil that you are not racist.