Covid-19. George Floyd. Sarah Everard. Sabina Nessa. Samuel Luiz. Israel and Palestine. The Capitol insurrection. COP26. The Kyle Rittenhouse trial. Every conversation about these topics can easily become uncomfortable. We and our students see them dissected on social media. Whether we join in or not, we are all witness to the cultural battlefronts that open up around them – about race, gender, sexuality, class and, effectively, our value systems.
This is the context of Generation Z’s childhood, and it is one they don’t see reflected in our curriculum. But this isn’t an article about reforming what we teach them. Whether we set out to or not, these uncomfortable conversations will find their way into our classrooms regardless. The more salient question is whether we are ready for them when they inevitably arise.
This is the generation of social justice and social media, and we simply can’t ignore their need to learn how to navigate the sheer level of unfiltered information they are being exposed to. Having formed relationships of trust founded on fairness and impartiality, teachers are in a privileged position to steer their students’ growing engagement with global affairs. And if we want to do away with the idea of being workers in ‘exam factories’, then this is surely the way to reclaim our professionalism.
But it won’t do to relegate these uncomfortable conversations to 20-minute assemblies (which aren’t conversations, but monologues and presentations) or to an already over-loaded PSHCE curriculum, for which staff training and professional development is limited.
As an English teacher, my subject lends itself to tackling these topics, yet I have learned to navigate these uncomfortable conversations on the job and without a safety net. No wonder they are uncomfortable!
In ten years since completing my PGCE, I have been involved in teacher training in different capacities. Though the Teaching Standards speak of ‘respect for the rights of others’ and ‘high standards of ethics and behaviour’, the majority of my training, mentoring and coaching was rooted in teaching and learning my subject area. My knowledge of and compliance with the rest has broadly been assumed.
And I’m someone for whom they are an area of interest. Quite rightly, not every teacher shares similar lived experiences or curiosity. Yet we are all potentially teachers of PSHCE. How then can we pretend to any sort of consistency in teaching students the way to engage safely with these uncomfortable conversations? Is a scripted curriculum for weekly sessions (or less) really the best way to ensure students receive responsible, relevant and appropriate information?
Sadly, the new early career framework does little to fix these endemic problems for future trainees. But we are answering the call as a school community by fully engaging with how young people wish to receive this information. Who do they want to listen to? How can we get their families involved? How can we narrow the gap between school and the professional world, where many of these topics are prevalent?
Headteacher at Beaconsfield High School, Rachel Smith, consistently reminds us of our responsibility to “educate for the outside”. That is, to teach our young people in a candid and authentic manner where we learn as a collective. The result is a series of Uncomfortable Conversation conferences, the first of which will be on overcoming toxic masculinity and promoting gender advocacy, in association with The Global Equality Collective.
This is a new initiative, but its reception has been overwhelmingly positive. Students, parents and staff will attend, but the collaborative element doesn’t end there. We are also welcoming other schools to learn with us, and we will be hosting Uncomfortable Conversation webinars with respective experts, making the most of the digital spaces our students inhabit with us to spread the knowledge and expertise we discover and develop.
Until this type of training is prioritised, collaboration and networking will continue to be key to ensuring that, regardless of barriers, our students are at the forefront of making the uncomfortable, comfortable.