What is to be done when a terrorist atrocity takes place?

When a terrorist atrocity takes place, such as the targeting of children at a pop concert or young people enjoying a night out, one wonders what questions will be going through the minds of children going into school and how teachers can even begin to respond to their fears.

But respond we must.

The role of a teacher at such a time is absolutely fundamental to the well-being and security children have a right to expect. They will need to ask questions, express fear and even anger.

But that will only be their immediate and initial response. Like grief, this part of the process will soon pass, though teachers need to allow for this and accommodate it as part of their role as pastoral mentors.

Schools, teachers and children will quickly get back to teaching their subjects.

What is to be done then?

Teachers must also respond in the long term – and that means teach values that promote and support the understanding and acceptance of democracy, the rule of law, individual liberty, mutual respect and tolerance.

How is this to be done?

Well, not by doing it in a ‘moral panic’ or with a series of ‘shoot-from-the-hip’ reactions to a single terrorist incident or by staging tokenistic gestures to try and convince Ofsted inspectors that the school is promoting ‘fundamental British values’.

We do it by embedding – every day and every week – a wide range of good quality spiritual, moral, social and cultural education experiences throughout the school.

For example (and these are all questions posed positively by a group of teacher trainees I met this week):

  • Do the children in your school democratically elect a school council or have some responsibility for some real decisions that can affect their school lives?
  • Do the children in your school have the opportunity to inform and shape the class and school rules that protect us all?
  • Do children in your school appreciate and understand their individual freedoms – such as their right to own property, choose what to eat or wear, choose their own friends, travel freely or have the right to an education irrespective of their race or gender?
  • Do the children in your school have the opportunity to learn and practice mutual respect, like learning to debate difficult issues where they have to listen respectfully to challenging arguments – tolerate different opinions even if they fundamentally disagree with them – and then learn how to respectfully challenge them in return?

Not only is this what every school and every teacher is expected to provide as part of the National Curriculum, but it is the moral and ethical purpose of every person that can proudly call them self a teacher.

It is also the way that we will all – in school and in society – overcome fear with hope, defeat terror with peace and security and ultimately transform hatred into love.

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

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