4th July 2003 at 01:00
As a form tutor there are times when you need to go beyond the call of normal school duty, and after five years I'm still not very good at it

September 11 didn't create much of a stir in my classroom. Not that my kids weren't watching the television and reading the newspapers as much as I was. Not that they didn't have plenty of intelligent, insightful things to say. Not that they didn't discuss it in other contexts, with other teachers. They just didn't discuss it with me. Nearly two years on, my decision to remain silent still puzzles and disturbs me, but I think I've worked out why I didn't say anything. I was embarrassed. What could I, a 20-something teacher, a Jewish woman born and raised in north-west London, untouched by trouble or tragedy, have to say in answer to their bewilderment, outrage, confusion and fear? I was frightened of what I might unleash. How would I contain the views and perspectives of the wide range of students that you find in any inner-London classroom? What would I do if it got out of control?

The recent war on Iraq has got me thinking along the same lines. Again I've stayed silent, and again I'm not pleased with my decision. Maybe it's my British reserve. Maybe I've got a deep-seated anxiety about hearing people express their views in public. It's not that I don't care; to be honest, I don't feel equipped. I'm good at taking the register, handling absence notes, and providing a shoulder to cry on when Miss won't accept the third homework excuse in a row even when they're all genuine. But there are some times in the career of a form tutor when you feel the need to provide a service that goes beyond the call of normal school duty, and after five years I'm still not very good at it.

Perhaps it's an issue of territory. It's like seeing two people having a fight on the London Underground. Do you step in? Do you bury yourself in a magazine? My brother once intervened when he saw a bloke verbally abusing his girlfriend on the train. The woman was cowering in fear, he said. My brother ended up with a black eye - not from the bloke, but from the girl.

I remember my old form tutor once trying to tackle the issue of a girl that she knew we were bullying in our class. Were we guilty? Of course. But we never forgave the poor woman for sticking her nose into "our" business. I look back and admire her bravery. Do my kids really want to be discussing this kind of thing with me? Or should I stay well clear of it?

I was reading some research carried out by my LEA recently in which they questioned students about whether teachers raised sensitive issues in class, and let them talk about how they were feeling and why. Most students didn't feel that they had the chance to express their views. This got me thinking about being braver. After all, we can't expect to solve the problems of the world in one session of circle time, but we can get some good practice in tolerance and listening.

So, next circle time, I'll ditch my well-worn classics. Discussing the ins and outs of explicit music videos is another way of skirting the big issues. I can't be frightened of unleashing the fearsome dragon of controversy if I'm not prepared to open the cave doors a bit. We live in a controversial world - I need to get over it. You can't expect your students to develop their ideas if they never get a chance to express them in the first place.

Gemma Warren is an assistant special needs co-ordinator at a London secondary school. Email:

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