In the face of so much distressing information (and misinformation and disinformation), supporting pupils to make sense of the situation in Ukraine appears an impossible task. It’s difficult to bring sense where there is none, yet we have to try.
As educators, our first response is usually to educate. The elephant in the room is the DfE’s new guidance for maintaining political impartiality and how we “should go about meeting [our] legal duties”. Barely two weeks old, not even its loudest critics could have imagined the advice would be so thoroughly tested quite so soon.
How can we balance ‘legal’ duties with our moral responsibilities? Is it possible, ethical even, to show impartiality in the face of atrocities? Is it better to avoid engaging in discussion to protect ourselves?
The fact of the matter is that we simply can’t avoid addressing something that affects so many of our students so deeply. Would our students even allow us to avoid this issue? Could we still claim to be working in their best interests if we did?
The British government has taken a side in this conflict but, rather than simplifying matters, it adds complexity to the teacher’s dilemma. Those of Ukrainian heritage, especially those with family in Ukraine, may see unfamiliar images of familiar places – places they lived in or visited with family, now devastated by war. They need and deserve our support. But what of our students of Russian heritage?
We saw only too recently how students of South-East Asian heritage experienced abuse because Covid originated in a place they merely looked like they might come from. Already I’ve heard of UK residents and citizens of Russian origin experiencing abuse. These students need our support too.
No doubt, people from other areas in the region are also indiscriminately affected. Meanwhile, they may be fearing that this conflict could be the beginning of a series of invasions and annexations. They will be feeling a sense of loss of control.
And then there are all those from communities where war and conflict are recent, or indeed ongoing. To witness atrocities all over again will only re-open what are fresh wounds. They may have seen footage of refugees from Ukraine this week being treated differently because of the colour of their skin. They may wonder at our apparent blindness to that, and the unevenness in the reporting of this conflict compared with the one they identify with. To label and dismiss their concerns as micro-aggressions would add insult to injury.
In addition to those with specific connections to the conflict, all students have experienced a week of #WWIII trending and heard political leaders talking in those terms.
All these students could be at neighbouring desks in any given classroom. They will certainly be sharing the playground in many schools. Thankfully, there are things we can all do to ensure they are all supported to process their emotions, feel they belong somewhere and make their own sense of the world.
First, we must acknowledge that the world has become a more frightening, less predictable place. We should admit that we don’t know all the answers, they may simply need us to sit with them in their distress.
Next, we should be advising young people to limit their exposure to distressing content, signposting reliable and unbiased sources of information as well as sources of practical and emotional support.
Finally, we should be aware that home, for some, has become a place where adults are sad, afraid and potentially angry. Finding stability, continuity and joy at school will be all the more important for a while.
If we need them, there are various resources available to adapt for cohorts’ varying experiences and to adjust for those with SEND or mental health challenges, such as low mood or anxiety.
One way or another, sticking to our ‘legal duties’ is unlikely to be sufficient. Once again, teachers are called on to put their own fears and politics aside. Once again, it’s time to step in, and step up.