With the election campaigns in full swing, some educators on Twitter have deemed it appropriate to bombard their followers with propaganda tweets in support of their political opinions. Some slogans on my Twitter feed have been so provocative that I have been tempted at times to respond. The reasons why I haven’t are twofold. Firstly, there are not enough characters in a tweet to allow me to fully explain my point of view (I know you can create a thread of multiple tweets but it still feels prescriptive to me). The second and more powerful reason is that for me, politics as well as faith, are private matters.
Is there an argument for teachers to remain impartial, and to maintain BBC style neutrality? I know it is difficult to do given so many issues, such as cuts to funding and grammar schools are very close to teachers’ hearts. We are human beings and we don’t want to be muzzled. We want to be free to express what we feel and what we think. But given the power and influence teachers have on their pupils, is there not a danger that, in forcibly stating a political opinion, we could be guilty of brainwashing them? Of course, it’s one thing to do so in the classroom and another to talk politics on a private Twitter or Facebook account. Surely we should be given more leeway in the latter?
My one experience of politics in the classroom came during last year’s EU referendum. At the time, I was a teaching assistant in a primary school, in a year 3 classroom to be exact. I don’t remember what prompted the teacher to discuss the referendum, which is fair enough, but then he went on to say he would be voting Leave because the EU institutions were too corrupt and dysfunctional. The very next day, a pupil came to school sporting a Remain sticker on his shirt. Now this could have been a coincidence but I doubt it. In any case, one could say no harm was done – maybe even the opposite. I don’t remember being particularly fired up about it at the time, though I did pipe up in class and say that I disagreed and was pro-Remain. Perhaps it was because the teacher gave his considered opinion and didn’t descend into an ad hominem type of argument and I was able to express my disagreement. The children could see that differences of opinion could be expressed without rancour or personal attacks.
I am much less sanguine, however, when parents use their children as their political spokesperson. From the sharing of their child’s notes written in class, in which they obviously parrot what they have heard at home, to the young child holding up a banner calling Theresa May a bad MEFF, I find it distasteful to see young children being used in this way.
I am saving my highest opprobrium, however, for the head of a primary school who decided to call another teacher a dick and an out-of-touch attention seeking plank, for having written an article in TES in favour of the Conservative party’s stance on education. Quite a few people disagreed with the article and were well within their rights to do so. However, it is one thing to disagree with a political point of view and quite another to make a personal attack on the person expressing it. Head teachers, and teachers too for that matter, are expected to uphold the values of our democracy. We are a pluralistic society with different political points of views. We can disagree with people’s views, but we must do so respectfully. Just because someone is on the other side of the spectrum politically doesn’t mean they are cruel or evil. We must be able to show, by example, that we can disagree with people but still treat them with courtesy.
And so, to answer my own question. I don’t believe it’s necessary or even possible for teachers to be politically neutral, but they should be aware that they are in a position of influence and must be considered in what they say. By all means express a political opinion, but back it up with rational arguments, invite disagreement and never, never, make ad hominem remarks about opponents.