By Rosalie de Vries
Nowadays, the academic environment is no longer what it used to be. Not only for the students, but also for the teachers and professors. Since this article covers many issues, it has been divided into two parts. In Part 1 of the article series the problem at hand, the security breach of the teacher´s comfort zone, will be introduced and examplefied, illustrating the most serious consequences, as well as a survey research.
In Part 2 of the article the numbers of the survey research will be further examined in the form of interviews. Two teachers have helped us to get an impression of what things are like behind the scenes.
Samuel Paty was a highschool teacher in France. He was a contributor to shaping the future generation, teaching them about citizenship, critical thinking, norms and values (les valeurs de la république). He is now the symbol for the strike against these norms and values. Samual Paty was killed, beheaded even (Nog eens vier, 2020), on the 16th of October 2020, after showing a mocking cartoon directed at Islam (Giesen, 2020; Vijf verdachten opgepakt, 2020).
The symbolism from this case can be directed at France’s history and culture. According to their constitution, equality, freedom, and brotherhood are to be the central principles of the state. They come from the French revolution, wherein the people revolted against the unequal class society (and the incredibly large expenses of their heads of state in the monarchy). “Égalité, Liberté, Fraternité!” became the root of The French Republic. Not everybody agreed still about the correct principles and pathway for the country, which whereabouts will of course always be dependent on the current youth. It was therefore that schools were decided to be seperated from ideologies, as part of the laïcité (separation of state and church) (Giesen, 2020).
However, recently, clashing opinions about the norms, values, and traditions that children should learn have taken the floor more often. France has counted 935 of such clashes – and those are of course only the ones that have been registered – between September 2019 and March 2020. Such cases vary from dress-codes and food, to extreme violence as the case of Samual Paty (Giesen, 2020).
Is this just a French problem then? No. The same year as Paty’s beheading, a teacher from Rotterdam, the Netherlands, has gone into hiding. Again a mocking cartoon lit up the fuel. The cartoon, again having to do with Islam (it was about Charlie Hebdo), set in motion a wave of death threats (Kuiper, 2020). Debated is whether the incident in Rotterdam has a relation with the case of Paty or not. News articles note a class discussion in Rotterdam about the case of Paty, but there is no confirmation that the cartoon had not been subject to controversy before, since it had been pasted on the classroom walls for years (van der Gaag, 2020).
Similar situations arose quickly after, when in the beginning of November a teacher from Den Bosch, also the Netherlands, was threatened for showing a sensitive cartoon. This social sciences teacher felt threatened, felt the need to report this and had to get protection (Trouw redactie, 2020; Huijben & Steenbekkers, 2020).
Is it a European problem then? Or is it an Islamic issue? Again, the answer is no, twice. Unfortunately the problem of teachers lacking safety is both broader and bigger than that. Zooming in on Los Angeles, The United States of America, yet another highschool teacher was drowned in death threats. She was forced to flee her home. This time not because of a cartoon. But, alike the previous examples highlighted in this article, the threats came after the teacher expressed her opinion about a societal debate. During the live sessions, online even this time due to the Corona pandemic, the teacher was wearing a t-shirt that carried the text ‘I can’t breath’, referring to the systematic police brutality directed overwhelmingly against the Black community. A picture of the teacher was shared on social media, sparking a polarized debate and aforementioned death threats (Meeks, 2020; Lin, 2020).
Another example, situated in Australia this time. In 2015, Newspaper The Educator elaborated on the tension on ‘Sydney school’. Anonymously, a staff member shared the following worrisome experience: “They make threats, they say they’ll kill us, they’ll bash us. They say things like, ‘I’ll meet you down a dark alley and rape you’; ‘Wait ’til I see you after school, Miss’. And it’s males and females that they say that to: it’s not just the female staff,” (Reid, 2015, para 5.). Also on University level, similar dread is hovering: in Victoria, in 2012, four teachers – from three different schools – were threatened by their students. Reasoning nothing more than dissatisfaction over low grades. Consequences as large as destruction of property – cars, houses – and, again, death threats. “I will kill u and your family,” (Thomas, 2012, para. 2) one lecturer said to have received.
We can derive from this list of examples that:
- Teachers are being threatened
- Severely, both in textual form and by carried out acts of intimidation
- Globally rather than regionally
- For various reasons
- That usually involve expressions of the teacher’s opinions
Emphasized here should be the severity of this situation. Teachers are a child’s best chance at equality in all aspects of the term. Help with studying, languages, but also the ability to come into contact with and analyze different points of view. Teachers do not just teach a subject, they also contribute to children’s development. It is thus dangerous to inhibit their reach by limiting their comfort zone. Sensitive topics should be discussed, of course with the right tone of respect. Yet, something can be said too for the parent’s rights to raise their kids as they see fit, their cultural rights and rights of minorities to guard their identity (Grant, 2017). Under these circumstances, the rights of children and their parents could clash, while the teacher is stuck in the middle.
Luckily, the news consists of important, outstanding events, meaning that the examples highlighted above – although increasingly so – do not yet illustrate ordinary encounters. But, alike terrorism, even though an attack occurs only sometimes, the lingering threat is ever present. It is unpredictable where, how, and when the next hit will take place. And this threat might just as well be enough to limit teachers in their range of discussions and lesson topics. So how far have we slipped down that slope?
What do teachers tell us?
Sending out a questionnaire has shown us the actual whereabouts of this lingering fear. The teachers (n=40) have been asked questions to assess how comfortable they feel to discuss sensitive topics in class. The questionnaire contained questions about the teacher’s demographics, their priorities in teaching, and lastly a list of 14 statements on a 5-point likert scale. The exact statements, and options for priority-selections have been added underneath the bibliography of this article.
Of the teachers who filled in the questions, 65% works in post-secondary education, 22,5% works in secondary education, and 12,5% teaches at a primary school. The teacher’s have each responded differently when asked what their priorities were. Out of eleven options, everyone was asked to choose the three they valued most. Concluding from their answers, the group of respondents gave the following results: a comfortable atmosphere in class was selected most frequently (57,5%), followed by individual attention for all students (42,5%) and employing fun and diverse teaching methods (30%).
From the likert-scale questions, a new variable indicating the relative uncomfortability of teachers to discuss sensitive topics in class was composed [Cronbach’s alpha .710]. Analyzing this new variable shows a 2,6521 mean with a standard deviation of .45818. The teachers on average thus feel comfortable to discuss sensitive topics in class, leaning towards a neutral attitude.
Does this differ? If so, dependent on what exactly? Using the Spearman’s test (as the Shapiro Wilk Test indicated abnormal distributions of the variables), a weak, negative, significant relation was [Coëfficient -.277, P=.042]. This means that if a teacher has more years of experience, this teacher feels a little bit less uncomfortable discussing sensitive topics in class.
The level of uncomfortability was also compared to the types of school the teachers work at. This was done with the Kruskal Wallis test (due to abnormal distribution of the variables). The means of the three groups were compared (visual inspection revealed dissimilar shapes of the total uncomfortability distributions per group). An insignificant difference was found [p=.658, df=2, Kruskal Wallis-H = .837]. Comparing the groups in pairs – group 1 to group 2, group 2 to group 3, and group 1 to group 3 – also resulted in insignificant distributions. Thus, based on the data at hand, the type of school a teacher works at does not affect the level of uncomfortability experienced.
To examine the relationship between the total uncomfortability and the political orientation of the teachers, the Spearman’s test was used (because of an abnormal distribution of the variables). A more rightist political orientation comes with a slight, significant increase in uncomfortability [Coëfficient .417, P=.004].
Reviewing whether the (un)comfortability experienced by the teachers depends on their prioritized aims and values was tested with the Mann-Whitney U test (due to abnormal distribution of the variables). Per option, teachers that had selected it were compared to those who had not. Significant results were found only in a comparison between selectors [Mean rank = 24.9 ] and non-selectors [Mean rank = 15.65] of ‘individual attention for all my students’ [U= 113.5, z=-2.262, p=.024]. Selectors having a higher mean rank indicates that teachers who include ‘individual attention for all my students’ as one of three priorities over the other options, experience a higher uncomfortability on average during sensitive discussions.
To conclude this first half of the story, teachers are facing some grave security risks, as brought forward in the news, especially in recent years this problem seems to have gotten out of hand. However, the survey indicates that the teachers here do not bow to these negative precedents, as their teaching aims and personal values outreach the risks mentioned. Primary school teacher Daphne (23) and Professor Anonymous (A.) will explain their personal experiences in teaching and how the current security issues influence their perception of comfortability, in Part two of this article series.
Special thanks to Helena Reinders, who ensured that the statistical research has been done thoroughly, and has thus increased its reliability and validity. Moreover, to Dr. Pauline G.M. Aarten for going over my survey and helping me improve it by giving me some additional suggestions, thus lending me some of her academic experience as a researcher.
Additionally, special thanks go to teacher Daphne and Professor A. for their valuable contributions. Furthermore, I would also like to thank all the teachers who were willing to put their time and effort into filling out the questionnaire. Lastly, I would like to note a special thanks to Chira Tudoran, for editing this article and creating the illustration, as well as helping me not only learn but also to enjoy taking up this project.
Edited by Helena Reinders and Chira Tudoran
Artwork by Chira Tudoran
Zeegers, G. (2017). Jij hoort bij ons! Systemisch denken voor ouders, leraren en leerlingen. Egoscoop. p.16-17.
Giesen, P. (2020, October 21). Onthoofding leraar raakt de Franse Republiek in het hart. De volkskrant.
Vijf verdachten opgepakt na onthoofding Franse leraar, jongste verdachte is 14 jaar. (2020, December 19). Algemeen Dagblad.
Nog eens vier tieners opgepakt voor onthoofding Franse leraar. (2020, November 26). NOS.
Kuiper, R. (2020, November 5). Bedreigde Rotterdamse docent zit ondergedoken vanwege cartoon in klaslokaal. De Volkskrant. https://www.volkskrant.nl/nieuws-achtergrond/bedreigde-rotterdamse-docent-zit-ondergedoken-vanwege-cartoon-in-klaslokaal~bd2d3e23/
Trouw redactie. (2020, November 5). Ook onveilige situation op school Den Bosch na tonen spotprent. Trouw. https://www.trouw.nl/binnenland/ook-onveilige-situatie-op-school-den-bosch-na-tonen-spotprent~be1393fa/
Hujben, M & Steenbekkers, A. (2020, November 5). Ook incident op school in Den Bosch na les over vrijheid van meningsuiting. Het Parool.
Reid, J. (2015, July 2). Teachers speak out against student death threats. The educator.
Thomas, D. (2012, January 10). Teacher threats in Australia: academic ability questioned. The Pie News.
Grant, S. (2017, June 1). What are Parental Rights and how are they protected? EachOther.
Meeks, A. (2020, September 2). Los Angeles teacher flees home after receiving death threats for wearing ‘I can’t breathe’ T-shirt. CNN.
Lin, S. (2020, August 17). Black Lives Matter shirt worn in class sparks death threats, California teacher says. The Sacramento Bee.
Van der Gaag, S. (2020, November 3). Docenten Emmauscollege bedreigd om spotprent na aandacht voor moord op Samuel Paty. Algemeen Dagblad.
Likert scale questions:
The statements in the survey from which the total uncomfortability variable was composed
*The likert-scale range: largely disagree-disagree-neutral-agree-largely agree
*The negatively formulated questions were reversed in value for analysis in SPSS27
- I feel a pressing need to express that I do not mean to generalize a group of people
- I feel a pressing need to find examples / cases / explanations from multiple ethnicities, religions, minority groups
- I check the political correctness of my language I am feeling increasingly uncomfortable to share my opinion
- I fear to be classified as racist if I do not express values like equality, nondiscrimination, freedom of expression
- I consider more elaborately the use of direct sources (cartoons, caricatures, letters, manifestos, social media content) than indirect sources (books, news articles, academic articles)
- I am hesitant to connect my teaching to current events
- I do not feel comfortable sharing my political beliefs
- I am hesitant to respond to conversations of students involving political or problematic societal topics
- I would decline the opportunity to teach about religions in my class(es)
- I avoid philosophical debates on the workfloor when possible
- I am feeling increasingly comfortable to share my opinion during class
- I feel comfortable sharing my political beliefs in class
- I do not hesitate to connect my teaching to current events
The options for prioritization:
*The respondents were allowed to choose three of the options below
- References to current events / the news
- Varied source materials
- Individual attention for all my students
- Nuanced and politically correct choice of words
- Covering societal dilemmas such as equality and freedom of speech
- Pragmatic and to-the-point teaching methods
- Fun and engaging teaching methods
- A comfortable learning atmosphere
- Teaching students to accept each others opinions
- General norms and values, such as respect, equality, etc.
- Allowing expression of opinions
- Sharing personal experiences and insights with and between students