When I was a young school teacher, I once had a classroom full of exuberant fifteen year-old boys and was given the task of teaching them about girls.
That got your attention – as it got theirs.
To be more precise, the actual class was a special one-off lesson on “Equal Opportunity”; the time for this class being taken out of time that was normally allocated to regular subjects such as English and Maths. Together, the boys and I discussed entrenched gender bias in society, and we confronted sexism, discrimination and sexual harassment.
The class went well, the boys shared their agreement with the concepts – and then they went out to play sport, where the PE teacher loudly complained that they were all kicking the ball “like a bunch of girls”.
I learnt an important lesson that day: that people cannot be taught about equality or prejudice or bullying – or a thousand other ethical issues – as a separate subject; these must be incorporated into their everyday lives.
Over subsequent years, I learnt how to incorporate social justice and critical thinking into my English classes, where I encouraged Christian, Muslim, agnostic and atheist students to explore, evaluate and debate issues as diverse as the ethics of modern music, same-sex parenting, and voluntary euthanasia. Other students pondered whether Shakespeare might rewrite Romeo and Juliet today, recasting the main characters as an interracial, interfaith or same-sex teen couple – and give the story a happier ending.
In History and Social Studies classes, my junior students learnt to discuss a diverse range of religions as they enjoyed turning teddy bears into mummies and evaluating the religious beliefs of the ancient Egyptians; middle-year students pondered ethics as they related to consumerism, vegetarianism or multiculturalism; senior students debated the ethics of conscription, cultural imperialism and conscientious objection while studying a variety of wars, invasions and genocides.
Nor did I simply want to introduce students to theoretical issues that enabled them to remain dispassionate; I wanted them to adopt lifelong learning.
I recall one class from the early 1990s, when my students were studying To Kill A Mockingbird at school and then going home to watch TV news of the Rodney King Riots in the USA. I realised that they felt smugly superior due to a mistaken belief that here in Australia, we had suffered no such history of racist prejudice and violence. In their next class, I presented them with material on colonial mistreatment of indigenous Australians, abridged summaries of the Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody, and an account of the Myall Creek massacre. This material horrified and shocked them out of their complacency, and challenged them to consider their place in history and their personal responsibility as world citizens.
In another senior class about ten years later – when the times and culture were more homophobic than they are today – I taught students critical thinking and analysis through examining a then-contemporary and somewhat scandalous social issue (thoroughly vetted and approved in advance by the school principal) of whether or not lesbians should have access to in vitro fertilisation technology. Through the use of daily newspaper clippings and other materials, we examined various viewpoints, and engaged in a number of respectful discussions in which students shared their religious or cultural attitudes towards the issue. One night, a parent came into the school, and I recognised him as both the father of one of these students and as a parent representative on School Council. He sat down alongside me and said, “So you’re the teacher giving my boy the information about lesbian parenting?” Probably sensing my sudden hesitation, he smiled and said, “Every night, the family sits around the dinner table and talks about how our day has been. When it’s my son’s turn to talk about his day at school, he tells us excitedly about how you allow them all to discuss a grown up issue, and treat their different views with empathy and respect. I want to thank you for helping my son to grow up.” (Well, that was not the response I had expected from someone who possibly had the power to hire or fire me!)
Lifelong learning can happen when it is least expected.
©2021 Geoff Allshorn