Can a Racist Teacher Teach?

Contrary to the beliefs of many of our secondary school students, teachers are in fact humans, with lives and dreams and interests and aspirations that exist outside of our classrooms. We do not, of course, exist in a glass case – activated and released at 8am every morning and returned to a state of hibernation at the end of the day. We also have our failings. And our views on life. And our political beliefs. And our prejudices. But can any of this “life stuff” affect the way we do our jobs?

For me, this question comes following an incident a school last week where a teacher questioned whether or not a Polish student with little English language skills, should actually be in the classroom of an English school. Once the comment was out there, both pupils and staff were shocked that a teacher should actually say this. Now, it might be the case that the teacher was suggesting that non-English speaking students should be placed on language programmes before they enter mainstream education, but I just feel that the more excuses or reasons I find for comments of this nature, the more I could be letting a teacher with xenophobic tendencies off the hook a little. I don’t know? But the incident in general lead me to start really thinking if there is any place in the classroom for a teacher with prejudicial views.

Surely, if a teacher is racist, xenophobic, homophobic, or whatever label we want to place on someone with those types of views, it would render them incapable of doing their jobs properly? If we are to enter the classroom and treat our students with the respect and equality that they all deserve, a prejudicial world view would prevent a teacher from being able to do that. In teaching, to some extent, we all have to hide some of our views. As a teacher of Citizenship I always present a balanced view of politics, despite my left-leaning. I try to explain to my students why people vote for the Conservatives, or Labour, or Lib-Dem, and now even UKIP based on their views (as disagreeable they are) on immigration, I also try to steer the debates about immigration away from a racist undertone and look at the practicalities of push and pull factors in the global labour market, although this becomes more tricky, largely through the actions of individual politicians themselves when they refer to places like “Bongo-Bongo Land”.

However, presenting a balanced view on politics is one thing, as is presenting a balanced historical interpretation on a given topic, despite sitting firmly in one particular historiographical school of thought – but if a teacher is racist or prejudice in some fundamental way, the only way of presenting any sort of balanced view about these matters would be to completely reject the very views that the person stood for. Furthermore, if this level of hypocrisy was happening, then surely the teacher would know it is just plain wrong to have those views, otherwise, would the teacher not be more comfortable sharing them? I suspect this is a paradox.

We could say this in any profession that deals with people. In cases where the police have had racists and homophobes in their ranks, the result has been some high profile incidents where prejudicial approaches have tainted an investigation. Of course, cases like these are lottery tickets for journalists and always dominate front pages when they happen, but whatever the outcome it does send out a clear message to people with those views that increasingly there is no place for them, and certain jobs are very difficult to do with these views in mind.

I’m not suggesting for one instant that we should move to a position where we vet the views of teachers, but having seen the fallout of a teacher who clearly thought there was no place for a Polish student in a lesson with little knowledge of English, surely the results of having prejudicial teachers in the classroom are nothing short of catastrophic? Most teachers I know are the most open-minded people I have ever met in any profession, but I have come across a small minority that have expressed views that have caused some uproar and embarrassment in the staff room. I continue to struggle to see how they are able to do their jobs properly while remaining true to their disagreeable beliefs. On the other hand, if they know their beliefs are so disagreeable, as supposed educated people, are they not now questioning them fundamentally? I think teaching is maybe just one of those professions that we NEED open-mindedness because of the variety of people and issues we deal with every day. Moreover, how can we encourage our next generation of people to be open-minded and accepting if we hold prejudicial views? I think I may have answered my question… can a racist teacher teach? Probably not very well.

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