When I first joined my wife’s large Indian family, I went in with an open mind, eager to learn more about her cultural heritage. I was ready to have my misconceptions challenged and my horizons broadened.
What I was not expecting, as we travelled to London so that I could meet them for the first time, was to discover that they delighted in doing pastiches of “typical” British Indians, much in the style of the old BBC sketch show Goodness Gracious Me complete with thick accents and nods to all the racial stereotypes associated with their background.
If a stranger overheard, it could easily be construed as disrespectful. Yet the family are incredibly proud of their Indian heritage and are not prejudiced at all – they’re just having a laugh.
Tackling racism, sexism, homophobia or any form of discrimination within the workplace is essential and a moral responsibility of all educators. But there is a fine line between setting the right example and creating an environment in which staff do not feel comfortable to express themselves and to joke with one another.
In our school office, safe from the children’s ears, there is plenty of banter. My business manager (a woman who worked on building sites before working in schools) and my farm manager (a blokey, rough diamond) are good friends of mine. Some of the conversations we have would not be out of place in a Carry On film from the 1970s, but these are laced with irony and not in the least bit negative. We also know when not to talk in this way, such as near children or around more sensitive adults.
Using irony in a humorous and socially intelligent manner can be a way of affirming an inclusive culture, while giving staff the freedom to express themselves helps to bring colleagues closer. Professionals within the education system are intelligent enough to know when it is appropriate to be “inappropriate” and should not be scared to be politically incorrect at times. As long as the intention is positive, in the right environment and the banter is not concealing a hidden negativity, people should say what they like.
What is not beneficial is the feeling of having to tread on eggshells for fear of offending. After all, freedom of speech is one of the pillars of our society.
Of course, there are those who will take advantage of this freedom in order to be divisive, but restricting ourselves is not the answer to this. Teachers and school leaders are aware enough to monitor their own behaviour and language, and we know that there is a time and a place for everything.
Mike Fairclough is headteacher at West Rise Junior School, which was Tes School of the Year 2015, and author of Playing with Fire: embracing risk and danger in schools