A few years ago, a member of staff shared with me that a student had voiced some anti-gay comments and asked what should be done about it. So our anti-discrimination policy was developed, a guiding statement that would ensure that anyone joining our community would understand in what we believed and stood for.
Part of it reads as follows: “We celebrate diversity by ensuring that all members of the school community, regardless of ancestry, culture, ethnicity, sex, physical or intellectual ability, race, religion, gender identity, sexual orientation, socio-economic status, or other factors – are welcomed, included, treated fairly, and respected.”
In the wake of the Black Lives Matter movement, is this a policy sitting on the shelf or do we actively teach, talk and respond to it?
As one of a number of schools in Malta that boasts a range of cultures, we probably would all agree that we look beyond race to see the character of each child; indeed, the composite bubble of nationalities often leads children to forget that racism exists as they accept one another in a context of sharing knowledge, culture and experiences. However, when they leave the safety of school, they may face a reality that can hurt, harm and inhibit their pathways, as is proven by recent events across the world in a variety of contexts.
It has been interesting to note the students’ reaction to the killing of George Floyd and the resultant protests. On the one hand, it is quite evident that they are following events on social media; many young people supported Black Out Tuesday as they actively found this kind of atrocity quite unbelievable. However, we also need to recognise that for some, unless it is followed through with discussion, it could be a superficial connection; we live in a privileged society where a culture of complacency may occur, as this is something happening somewhere else.
As educators, there are ways to approach this; we can unpack the context of Floyd’s killing and America’s historical journey towards this one moment and the anger beyond. Equally, we can look to other countries, where there are examples of minority or racial prejudice.
Only through dialogue and the acknowledgment of where prejudices come from can we initiate change
We can also take this opportunity to invest in evaluating our own prejudices and where they stem from in terms of culture, background and experiences. It is a hard task to achieve when judgement and prejudice are deeply rooted, often passed down through generations, but the chances are we know someone who has first-hand experience of racism in some form or other.
And there is hope. Historically, we can all name positive transformations that have taken place over the last century, albeit incredibly slowly.
Some educators might shy away from this kind of dialogue, saying it is veering into dangerous territory, that schools should teach subjects, not ethics. At Verdala International School, we run courses where these topics can be unpacked: the IGCE Global Perspectives course and IB Diploma Theory of Knowledge courses both address ethics as an essential component. In the lower years, we welcome open-minded discussion through Personal, Social, Health and Economic (PSHE) and current affairs topics, known by some teachers as the best ‘teachable moments’.
Only through dialogue and the acknowledgment of where prejudices come from can we initiate change so that the students of today grow up with a true understanding of what anti-discrimination is. The aim is to be an upstander, not a bystander, actively ensuring that no one loses out, no one is discriminated against, and we are clearly not there yet.
Our students should grow up, move into jobs and travel across the world without judgement, and above all, treat their friends, colleagues, the man in the shop or the woman who has dropped her shopping, with compassion and respect.
We have a responsibility to ensure our students are thinking and taking on board what is going on, but also need to be careful that we don’t just look across the pond at what is happening ‘over there’, and not notice what is happening in our own back yard, our own treatment of minority groups on our own doorstep; let’s have these discussions with our students and above all dialogue about how we can “value people’s right to express views and opinions in a respectful manner, remembering that discrimination on any basis is unacceptable” as we state in our anti-discrimination policy.
Totty Aris, head, Verdala International School, Pembroke