The Secret Teacher writes in The Guardian. Each time I turn on the news and see another Islamist terrorist attack being reported, I worry for my students. Not for their physical safety but for their sense of identity and belonging as British schoolchildren. Like many schools in east London, the majority of my students are Muslim. The school is home to many different cultures and religions, and students unconsciously demonstrate a level of tolerance that rivals any adult organisation I know of. Yet this is put at risk because of the intolerant values held by some parts of society and spread by certain elements of the media.
With the rise of Islamic State over the past few years, the word terrorism has become almost synonymous with Islam for some people. And this has presented a real existential problem for a number of our students. On the one hand they identify as being British – they were born here, as were their parents; they have British passports; they speak English as their first language; they read Harry Potter; they watch superhero movies and play football on the weekends
On the other hand, they identify as being Muslim – they attend mosque on a Friday; they go to Islamic school in the evenings; they can recite verses of the Qur’an; they wear headscarves; and they visit the prayer room during lunchtime. They live happily in balance with these two identities, until the next terrorist attack. And suddenly, yet again, they see part of their identity thrust negatively into the media spotlight.
What does that look like in reality? In my school, we are taught how to have direct and challenging conversations with students – Muslim and non-Muslim – on the religious and political aspects of terrorist attacks. After each major terrorist attack in the UK, the safeguarding officer at our school meets with safeguarding leaders at the other local schools as well as the police and local religious leaders. They then brief us on the facts of the attack and talk us through the key messages that we are to share with the students. Namely: how the attacks are, actually, un-Islamic, sometimes with specific reference to parts of the Qur’an to demonstrate how the attackers have directly contravened the peaceful message of Islam. It’s important that students receive this alternative message.
Of course, issues around terrorism need to be handled with sensitivity by schools. The government’s Prevent strategy recently drew fresh criticism for stigmatising Muslim pupils – in particular due to concerns that promoting “fundamental British values” undermines efforts to promote shared values. But if the topic is approached with care, I believe teachers can play an important role and be proactive in addressing prejudice and misunderstandings.
Over time, I’ve seen my students become much more well-informed and at ease discussing the issues. Now when there’s a terrorist attack, it’s the Muslim children in our classes who are the first to speak out, condemning the attacks (rather receiving their opinions from the teachers). And the non-Muslim students are right by their side, confident in articulating their support with the Muslim community and aware of the negative impact such attacks can have on social perceptions of Islam.
Read the full article Secret Teacher: we must play our part in giving Muslim students a voice
Please tell us your thoughts in comments or via Twitter ~ Tamsin
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