Should teachers respect all kinds of diversity?

Political violence and extremism is rarely out of the news these days. So-called ‘multiculturalism’, religious tolerance, sexual and cultural diversity are concepts under attack, sometimes literally.

The  Teachers‘ Standards in England (September 2012) state that teachers ‘must not undermine fundamental British values, including democracy, the rule of law, individual liberty and mutual respect, and tolerance of those with different faiths and beliefs‘.

All statements of values are problematic, of course. But I challenge you to ask yourself why you should feel professionally responsible for the ‘individual liberty and mutual respect, and tolerance of those with different faiths and beliefs’.

Let me pitch you a few examples…

‘Tolerance’ for parents that are of a religious group that, for example views teaching science to girls as undesirable?

Or ‘respect’ for those who believe that ‘intelligent design‘ is a scientific concept?

Or the ‘individual liberty’ of people who think that burning books is a legitimate form of religious or political protest?

I read recently that the General Pharmaceutical Council in the UK – the body charged with regulating the professional standards of pharmacists – will allow pharmacists with strong religious principles to refuse to sell or prescribe products (such as the ‘morning-after’ pill or contraceptives) if they feel that doing so would ‘contradict their beliefs’.

Should pharmacists, or teachers for that matter be allowed to put their religious principles before the perceived needs and interests of their clients?

And what about your colleagues?

If some of your colleagues held the strong religious belief that, for example ‘homosexuality is a sin’ or that ‘the earth was created in seven days’, you might think twice about whether you could exercise ‘mutual respect’ at a peer professional level, let alone a personal one.

And what if a colleague finds your political, social, sexual or religious beliefs or your atheism for that matter, objectionable or abhorrent? Should they have the choice of not working with you?

Where would that leave us as a profession?

But I’m asking a lot of questions here… and here’s one more…

What’s your view?

Alan Newland worked as a teacher and headteacher in London for over 20 years and as a teacher trainer and then for the DfE and the GTC. He now lectures on teaching and runs the award-winning social media network newteacherstalk.  You can follow him on Twitter at @newteacherstalk. His new book “Working in Teaching” (Crimson Publishing) is published in February 2014.


6 thoughts on “Should teachers respect all kinds of diversity?

  1. This is a great post and really one that gets me thinking. I’d quickly say that we must respect diversity as teachers – but of course your conundrum regarding beliefs that conflict significantly with one’s own makes this a less difficult statement to make.
    I am an atheist but have no issue with students in my classes who are strongly religious contributing their beliefs freely in our class discussions. I have always fostered a safe learning environment where students are free to openly discuss their ideas about the world and themselves.
    I guess my response to a parent not wishing a child to be educated in a certain way due to a religious belief would be that there are certain cultural norms in Australian society today and these include the right to a full education by all students. I’d appeal to the laws of the country in which I was teaching. And in light of that point, I suppose I would find it quite difficult to work in a culture where teaching all students to an equal capacity was not the law.
    Thanks again for the post – really got me thinking!

    1. Bianca, thanks for the positive consideration of a difficult and challenging scenario. Of course, I am posing these as challenging in order to get people thinking about ‘where they are’ and what ethical positions they would be prepared, not only to promote, but also defend. I think you express the conundrum rather well. We both live in relatively liberal democratic societies where we want to be tolerant and inclusive and promote those values with our students and the communities we work in. It’s a genuine challenge to the liberal, democratic values implied in the values of the teaching professions of societies like the UK and Australia that, if we are promoting tolerance and inclusivity, that we might have to tolerate and include beliefs, values and practices that we fundamentally disagree with. I don’t know the answer – but I sure benefit from talking about it..! Thanks for your post.

  2. I’m not sure how much awareness there is of the fact that (in England) the current set of teachers’ standards and the GTCE Code will be replaced by a new set of teachers’ standards from September 2012. This arises from the Coates review. Views of the new standards will differ, but Part 2, which is about standards of “Personal and professional conduct”, has a lot to say about the issues in this blog. The first principle, which some of the unions have taken exception to, is that:

    “Teachers uphold public trust in the profession and maintain high standards of ethics and behaviour, within and outside the school, by:

    – treating pupils with dignity, building relationships rooted in mutual respect, and at all times observing proper boundaries appropriate to a teacher’s professional position
    – having regard to the need to safeguard pupils’ well-being, in accordance with statutory provisions
    – showing tolerance of and respect for the rights of others
    – not undermining fundamental British values, including democracy, the rule of law, individual liberty and mutual respect, and tolerance of those with different faiths and beliefs
    – ensuring that personal beliefs are not expressed in ways which exploit pupils’ vulnerability or might lead them to break the law”

    A lot of this stems from a daunting Home Office document, the New Prevent Strategy, which is about combating terrorism and radicalism. It does make it clear that tolerance of those with different faiths and beliefs should sit within a context, not least, of the law – which is Bianca’s point.

    But whether or not teaching that intelligent design is a scientific concept is illegal or not, I’m sure that the vast majority of teachers would instinctively recognise the need to present a balanced view of the issue, placing the issue in context, to help students make up their own minds.

    1. Thanks for that David – and how interesting that the tenets of a new code for teachers should be so visibly influenced by the social and political climate of the times.

      It has of course been a recurring theme in the talks we do at universities and training centres up and down the country that any ‘teaching code’ is a reflection of the values of ‘a profession’ and ‘a society’ at a given point in time. Many students reflected on the fact that many of the principles of the existing code would have been highly contested by the profession itself only a decade or two earlier – take for example the principle relating to “co-operating with parents and carers” or “collaborating with other professional agencies” – both would have been an almost inconceivable in the 1970’s or even 80’s.

      Your post highlights the point that the values of any profession expressed in a code must be grounded in the broad consensus of values and the laws of the society it serves, but it is fascinating how that professional consensus is seriously tested at various times, especially (but not always) by the views of extremists.

      Thanks again for your post. There are other blogs related to this you may also find interesting:

      Suitable to be a teacher?
      Why is it the job of a teacher to promnote equality?
      Are the values of teaching universal?

  3. It is a really interesting proposition. I am a liberal catholic who does take faith seriously on a personal level. There are a few things I take issue with in the church at the moment but I feel the best way of changing things is from within. How I communicated my faith was something I thought long and hard about when starting my PGCE. It was something that got very interesting when our group did a P4C (Philosophy 4 Children) training course and we realised half of our group were Christian and half were not. The most interesting part of the new standards is “must not undermine fundamental British values” before listing the things it lists. What is considered a fundamental British value? What makes that value British? Is it the people of Britain who decide? Is it the government? Is it Ofsted? … How can you evidence this?

    1. That’s a great post James – thanks for taking the time. And it’s a great list of reflective and penetrating questions you ask too – and hopefully other readers may take you up on debating them. I think the contrast between the previous GTC “Code of Conduct and Practise for Teachers” and the new Teachers’ Standards is very stark. One talks about “promoting” various values, but as you point out, the new Standards talk about “not undermining” them. It reveals an interesting and contrasting view of what the active/passive role of a teacher should be.

      I was the headteacher of a Church of England primary school and when I went for the interview, the chair of governors (who was the parish priest) asked me a question about being head of such a school. I started spouting what I thought he wanted to hear about it being a “Christian school”. He interrupted me. “We’re not a Christian school” he said “We’re a community school and we reflect the community within which we live. We always have. It’s in the founding Trust Deeds of the school going back to 1868. That’s why we have had in the past many Jewish children here and it’s why now we have children from all faiths and of none. So we are not a Christian school. We are a community school with a Christian ethos – that’s a very important difference.”

      Thankfully I still got the job and it was a great little school – but the priest’s statement later helped me resolve the issues I had with believing that religious faith is essentially a private matter and that schools are essentially for all of the community.

      (You’ve given me an idea for a blog now…)

      Thanks again for the post James – and good luck with the rest of the course.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s