Traumatic events in the current Israel-Gaza conflict are presenting many teachers with increasing challenges in the classroom as dangerous narratives (often myths found in the darker recesses of the internet) take hold. At the UCL centre for Holocaust education, we have always taken an evidence-based approach, so we concluded that that if we are to meaningfully address these issues, we first need to understand what is going on at a classroom level.
To that end, we recently consulted with lead teachers working in our national network of more than 200 ‘beacon schools’ in Holocaust education. To claim that evidence reported by teachers was universally grim would be an exaggeration, but the picture that emerged is very disconcerting.
Representative of other comments we received, one teacher asserted: ‘It has been horrendous. Our student body has been very engaged and vocal […] There are many students incredibly distressed by events and a lot of anger and resentment. This has come through in classrooms and corridors and for some students it has boiled over into an inability to regulate emotions. Instances of hate around antisemitism, Islamophobia and xenophobia are rising in terms of pastoral and behaviour referrals.’
Unfortunately, this appears to be far from an isolated incident. Another highly committed teacher with whom we work, told us: ‘At present a lack of reliable information and right-wing influences in our locality are playing out in parental and student comments in school. Lots of antisemitic tropes are being deployed, knowingly or not (e.g., Jews/Israel conspiracy, power, wealth), but in equal measure, Islamophobia (e.g., all Muslims are as terrorists, anti-immigrant feeling, sex abuse gangs, misogyny).’
Teachers consistently reported that students’ exposure to misinformation on social media was fuelling prejudice and ignorance. They also expressed concerns about the impact on young people’s mental health caused by the proliferation of ‘distressing films and atrocity images’ on social media and news outlets.
Another serious concern schools face is the erroneous belief held by many parents and community leaders that a school’s commitment to teach about the Holocaust somehow ‘proves’ that the school is ‘taking sides’. Accordingly, many teachers are very worried that widespread ignorance of historic and contemporary events is causing students and parents to inappropriately ‘conflate, confuse, compare or relate the Holocaust to events unfolding in the Middle East right now’.
One issue that was extremely prominent in the feedback we received was that many teachers believe they or their colleagues do not have the expertise, knowledge and confidence to deal with increasing manifestations of racism and hate speech. Teachers variously claimed that talking to students about the conflict placed an ‘incredible burden and weight of responsibility’ on them. Others described the context as ‘emotionally exhausting, distressing, and overwhelming’ and appeared troubled by a sense of powerlessness in the face of the long-standing complex conflict.
Indeed, many teachers believe that they are particularly unprepared to address and challenge antisemitic comments and actions. In many respects, this is not surprising. Even before the horrific events that have unfolded since 7 October, our 2020 research study, Continuity and Change: Ten years of teaching and learning about the Holocaust in England’s secondary schools highlighted teachers’ growing concerns over the rise of antisemitism and the proliferation of antisemitic material on social media.
Teachers are, of course, not to be blamed for feeling at sea or trying to do their best in an incredibly complex and contested space. However, it is clear that at least in some situations they are feeling forced to make deeply concerning decisions about what to teach and what not to teach.
This is why it is incredibly important that teachers are supported with external advice and professional training. It is strikingly apparent that febrile atmospheres in our schools that are giving rise to antisemitism and Islamophobia can’t be tackled by school staff who don’t have the expertise to do so.
In addition to several national and international education programmes to address antisemitism, we help thousands of teachers and young people every year to develop deep knowledge and understanding of the genocide that took place during the Second World War. Armed with these insights, young people become more equipped to identify the myths and counter the misconceptions they encounter.
Our experience of working in this field for many years and the ongoing feedback from educators across the country provides compelling evidence that teachers need robust support and high-quality professional development.
Indeed, if we are to avoid a dangerous rise in extremism, racism and antisemitism in our classrooms, we need to commit to a national effort to address the serious challenges teachers and schools are increasingly facing.