Yes, teachers should get involved in politics

George Bryant-Aird argues that knowledge of and confidence in contemporary political and social debates are crucial to the future of teachers and teaching

George Bryant-Aird is Faculty Regulation and Governance Officer at Edge Hill University

A recent survey by the UK’s teacher’s union, NASUWT, found that 74 per cent of teachers were seriously considering leaving their current job – and 69 per cent had considered leaving the teaching profession altogether.

In the years since the pandemic, we have grown used to these kinds of statistics, both related to teachers’ experiences and the experiences of many other professionally aligned degrees.

But outside of the numbers, there needs to be attention placed upon how growing political instability impacts teachers and newly qualified professionals on a day-to-day basis – and what universities are doing to prepare students for the realities of being confronted by topics like book banning and anti-vaccination movements.

With heated elections due in 2024, these debates are only going to become more prominent, further emphasising the need to tackle the issues head-on.

Lines and mirrored lines

In Naomi Klein’s recent book Doppelganger, she talks about the blurring of political lines or what she has come to define as narratives that exist in “the mirror world.”

This, according to Klein, is the result of increasing polarisation in political debate and the binaries these views create, where opinions, narratives, and facts are shared, politicised, and skewed to match individuals’ and groups own ends.

This mirroring is having an increasingly pervasive impact on our politics, with flashpoint subjects like COVID vaccines distorting our traditional idea of left vs. right and fact vs. fiction, all contributing to political diagonalism (or, individuals from various and unlikely political factions gathering around flashpoint topics, in many instances as a result of alternative truth and conspiracy narratives shared in online forums).

When I talk about “political playgrounds,” it is probably these flashpoint subjects which immediately come to mind. In recent years, think book banning and basically all debates around the rights of trans kids in schools.

From the teacher’s perspective, trying to work sensibly and responsibly in a society where traditional notions of left and right have been distorted, with the consequent effect of dissolving any idea of a safe centre, poses real issues, especially when teachers are already under pressure to remain apolitical and objective.

Book banning in schools, for example, has been a flashpoint topic, particularly (but as we’ll see in a moment, not exclusively) in the US since the 1980s, with the traditional argument pitching students’ first amendment rights to free expression against a school’s (or school board’s) right to protect students from inappropriate or obscene materials.

For much of the period between 1980s and early 2020s, the legal precedent for most cases of book banning was Island Trees School District v. Pico, during which the supreme court determined it was unconstitutional for a school board to remove a book based on the board’s disagreement with the ideas expressed, but that a book could be properly removed based on its “educational suitability” or if there were pedagogical concerns.

Part of the issue with the Pico ruling is that, in our current climate, it is more than naïve to think that the impact of book banning is simply a pedagogical issue. As Robert Kim points out in his 2022 article on the subject, book-banning in schools disproportionately affects books that “address the voices and lived experiences of Black, Indigenous, and people of colour and LGBTQIA+ individuals”.

Here “educational suitability” becomes a catch-all for, “we don’t particularly like or agree with the ideas presented.”

The flashpoint debate of book banning for teachers, and the stakes of intervening in this debate, were raised even higher when in 2023, several US states passed laws meaning school librarians could be jailed or fined up to $10,000 for providing sexually explicit, obscene, or harmful books to children.

And so in book banning we have a flashpoint topic, one that cuts across children’s rights, their identities, their education, but also parent’s rights, school policy, and national politics, with each stakeholder accessing a wealth of (often highly politicised) “facts” and theories online to support their own beliefs. And right in the middle of all those voices – teachers.

Negotiating flashpoints

Far from being immune to these mirrored tensions in the safety of the classroom, children and children’s identities are centred within them. Teachers are therefore simultaneously expected to be neutral but inspirational; passionate and also objective; inclusive and socially aware but not transgressive or “woke.”

It doesn’t take long to see the same kind of flashpoints occurring in fields like medicine and nursing (a quick google about antivax movements and the prescription of antidepressants or hormone-blockers for children quickly show you that a successful career in these fields will require more than just book smarts).

Where left, right and centre are dissolved, newly qualified front-line workers now have to be confident in negotiating a multitude of political flashpoints without many reference points about what is the “correct” answer to the questions posed or even what is expected of them.

If they don’t, there lies the impending fear of attracting disciplinary action from their employer, the ire of parents, scrutiny in the media, or even trial through the legal system.

These realities are borne out in the NASUWT survey, which found 28 per cent of teachers had received abuse or criticism from parents/carers in the last year, and that 62 per cent of teachers cited “a lack of understanding by decision-makers of the day-to-day realities of the job” as a factor that professionally disempowers them (the second highest response for that question).

Teaching teachers and changing responsibilities

I wanted to use book banning as an example because it isn’t a uniquely US phenomenon.

In 2023, for example, a third of UK librarians reported being asked to censor or remove books resulting in the Chartered Institute of Library and Information Professions (Cilip) releasing new guidelines urging UK libraries not to avoid controversial books. Those keen to isolate this issue as one specific to American schools may wish to read this article by GUY ADAMS (caps apparently encouraged…) which asks “do you know what’s in your child’s school library?

There is a fundamental question here for UK universities – are we confident that the average trainee teacher doing a BA course with QTS or a PGCE student (or indeed any student working towards a professional accreditation as part of their degree) could confidently navigate conversations and debates with parents regarding censorship and free expression, or children’s sexual identities vs. parental safeguarding?

Because what is becoming abundantly clear is that this will be a core part of their role.

And what about the regulatory obligation for universities when it comes to whether these kinds of subjects should be included in teaching materials?

At Edge Hill University, we recently went through a process of revalidating our entire Initial Teacher Education provision, closely followed by an Ofsted inspection where we received an Outstanding grade across all age phases. A key part of the investigators’ comments leading to that outcome was the “high levels of confidence” exhibited by our trainees, and “seamlessly designed and integrated curriculums […] steeped in pertinent research which keeps trainees’ practice innovative.”

In other words, to be confident that our trainees were prepared to succeed, we spent time building programmes that were both PSRB compliant, but more importantly that allowed trainees to “learn their craft [and] about the importance of equality and social justice”.

Outside of teacher training, there is also a case to be had under the Office for Students’ (OfS) conditions of registration. Condition B1.3e (“each higher education course […] requires students to develop relevant skills”), for example, could be applied to ensuring students understand the key debates required to safely negotiate future roles in their profession.

There’s nothing too specific on this matter, though the OfS do qualify that “relevant skills” should encompass “other skills relevant to the subject matter” including “cognitive skills, practical skills, transferable skills and professional competencies.”

There is also an argument that educational currency could be applied here (B1.3a: each higher education course is up-to-date) where, according to the OfS, “up-to-date” means representative of “current thinking […] including being appropriate informed by recent: subjective matter developments; research, industrial and professional developments.”

Equally, condition 2.2b (effective engagement with each cohort of students which is sufficient for the purpose of ensuring […] those students succeed in and beyond higher education) appears to offer some guidance. But again, in the definition of “engagement” the regulator speaks more of effective student engagement in committees and feedback on courses, rather than effective engagement with key debates required for students to succeed in future careers.

The takeaway? It’s there, but it’s all a bit woolly…

Quality can be complicated

This is tricky ground for both universities and their regulator. OfS has always been reluctant to prescribe what content courses should include, and many academics would agree this is a sensible approach (the QAA’s subject benchmark statements also provide this kind of guidance in a more light-handed way).

University senior management teams too would be reticent in addressing flashpoint debates head-on, for fear of embroiling themselves in the centre of a media-driven culture war debate that has been prone to ignite at any stage.

But there is a flipside, and it’s important.

Too often, in a manner similar to the Pico legal precedent used in cases of book-banning, we view academic quality in a silo – course content and subject matter existing somehow outside of contemporary debates.

Knowledge of these debates, I would argue, is not supplementary to individuals’ ability to take up roles like becoming a teacher, but is essential for their wellbeing and safety.

The argument here is that, especially for professions like teaching, these lines between what is pedagogy and what is cultural debate need to be dissolved. Whether this is recognised by regulators or not, it will be essential in producing confident professionals who flourish in their careers on a long-term basis.

The inverse reality, one where we aren’t preparing students adequately for their future sectors, will continue to see new front-line workers leaving their profession before they’ve had a chance to thrive.

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