Teachers – at the forefront of challenging ignorance and bigotry.

Diversity and difference is a cause for celebration and an opportunity for learning - for those who are prepared to open their minds and leave their prejudices behind.

Diversity and difference is a cause for celebration and an opportunity for learning – for those who are prepared to open their minds and leave their prejudices behind.

Last evening I had a very sad and disturbing conversation with a friend who teaches in a school in a city not very far from here. Angela (not her real name) has worked in the same primary school for the past fourteen years and is totally committed to her pupils and their families. Angela is a good musician and she is involved in a wide range of after school activities for children including organising a school choir, a recorder group and a drumming class. In addition, she helps to run a parent and child activity group for a couple of weeks during each school summer holiday. Angela’s husband is similarly involved in a number of initiatives to support children and families, in what is one of the poorest parts of the city in which they live.

Angela tells me that at the end of the school day yesterday an unusually large number of parents, mostly mothers, who had come to collect their children, came to see her to have a brief conversation. Most, she tells me, had the same message that they wished to convey. “Please”, they said, “make sure everyone knows that we are good people, and we are disgusted by the events that have taken place today in France, these people do not represent our community.”

As the parents were conveying this message, Angela was completely ignorant of the murder of journalists and cartoonists that had taken place earlier in the day at the offices of the satirical publication Charlie Hebdo in Paris. She tells me that she was at first confused, but as the significance of what had happened became apparent she then felt angry and slightly nauseous. Being largely unaware of the events, after all she had been in class all day, she was at a loss as to what she could say.

Angela teaches in a school where more than fifty percent of the children come from Moslem families. Her school is located in a part of the city where Moslem’s make up a majority of the local neighbourhood. It is a peaceful and well respected community that contributes greatly to the socio-economic and cultural well-being of the area and the city as a whole. Of late however, many who live in this district have become increasingly afraid of anti-Islamic sentiments that have been intensified both by terrorist activities in various parts of the world, and by the fanning of flames by a number of xenophobic individuals and organisations.

Today, as on every school day, Angela will continue to give her best for the children in the school. She will, as always be available for families, and will demonstrate the same enthusiasm for the musical after school activities that she runs. The saddest part of Angela’s situation, she tells me, is that good, caring and dedicated parents feel the need to apologise to her, and reassure her that they do not subscribe to the hatred shown by a tiny minority who are prepared to murder, maim and terrorise those who do not share their warped view of the world. Angela tells me that over her years of working in this school she has come to appreciate the warmth and affection shown towards her by parents of children attending this school. She and her colleagues have been thankful for the support given to the school by members of the local community, and regard those of the Moslem faith as kind, considerate and caring. Of course, she tells me, there are a few parents who are not supportive and do not want to participate in the life and activities of the school, but isn’t this true of schools everywhere? This is not a factor dependent upon religious belief.

Listening to Angela’s recounting of her after school conversations, it was impossible not to empathise and to appreciate her concerns and those of the families with whom she works. It was equally difficult not share in her sadness and anger that a small minority can have the effect of demonising the  peaceful majority who espouse a religious belief. Though anger will have only a negative impact and is part of what the terrorist tries to achieve. Today Angela and her colleagues will try to reassure parents and children as they arrive at the school gates. It should not be necessary, but today, possibly more than on others, they will be vigilant in listening for any unkind or inappropriate comment that might be made towards a child in school. She does not anticipate that there will be any real need to behave differently from the ways that she might on any other day, but she is none the less concerned that there may be difficult moments.

Good teachers like Angela care about their children and do their best for them regardless of their background, culture or religion. They look for the good that exists in all children and do their best to support them in their learning and social development. This is the way that all professionals who are committed to children act, and will continue to behave, despite the provocation of a few misguided bullies and thugs who through a misrepresentation of faith attempt to terrorise the populace. Education should be free of fear, must promote the exchange of ideas, celebrate difference and diversity and aim to create a more inclusive and respectful society. If this is achieved the perpetrators of atrocities such as those committed in Paris yesterday will be seen for what they are – acts of cowardice and totally unrepresentative of anyone other than a bigoted minority.

The actions that will be taken by Angela and her colleagues, and by teachers in classrooms and on playgrounds across the world today will have far greater impact than ignorant men armed with guns could ever have.

Nous sommes Charlie!