The New Kind of Security Breach: A Teacher’s Comfort Zone (Part II)

By Rosalie de Vries

This is Part 2 of a series, about how the academic environment has changed. 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 story, the problem at hand, the security breach of the teacher´s comfort zone, has been introduced and examplefied, illustrating the most serious consequences, as well as a survey research.

In this part 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. These are primary school teacher Daphne (23) and Professor Anonymous (A.). 

Part 2

Summarizing the results of the survey research, which was previously illustrated in Part 1, gives us the following:

  1. The teachers, on average feel comfortable and are leaning towards a neutral attitude
  2. A rightist political orientation slightly increases an uncomfortable feeling
  3. Additional years of experience diminish this uncomfortability experienced on the other hand. 
  4. Furthermore, the type of school they teach at (primary, secondary, or post-secondary education)  has no significant effect. 
  5. When reviewing the priorities of the teachers, only ‘individual attention for all my students’ seems to affect the uncomfortability experienced. 

Of course these suggestions should be further examined by further research with more respondents to the questions to gain more generalizable results. Also, the effects of a tight team might be interesting to look at, as Daphne, highlights.

Daphne was willing to share some of her experiences with us to explain the context behind these earlier conclusions. Daphne got her teacher’s degree last year and is currently working at a primary school. This is the first year that she has been solely responsible for her own class, and has already come across several memorable events. She has previously worked as an intern at several primary schools in the suburbs, and is now working in the city centre of Rotterdam. Differences in the atmosphere are noticeable. 

“It seems like I have to explain everything that I need or expect from my current class over and over again. Instructions have to be more detailed than I was familiar with. I also realize that with the kids in this class, I really need to invest more in a bond with them individually. Being a teacher does not grant me respect automatically, like in my previous classes.” 

The atmosphere in the city-centre Daphne experiences to be more tense. She explains that this does not mean that she feels the need to avoid certain topics of discussion. In a group, as well as an individual setting, she does not feel the need to refrain from addressing an issue. This is mainly due to her supportive team of colleagues, Daphne explains. This year, a threatening situation developed with an 11-year old student who had taken a knife to school after a quarrel with a fellow student. Luckily, staff could see to it that the knife was taken away before any situation where it would be used had arrived. 

“After that we really had to tighten the rules again. Food and water had to be brought in class, and bags had to stay in the hallway at all times.”

Another experience preceded this. A groupchat with pictures from their teacher had been made without consent. This breach of privacy, in combination with the knife-incident, brought Daphne and her colleagues to a new procedure of action.

“We decided to take on the confrontation and address security, though group conversations explaining what security means and what it feels like when you experience unsafety. First, though, I really wondered how I could recreate a safe environment and atmosphere for both the kids and myself.”

A module about safety in class and comfortable communication would be helpful, Daphne agrees. Theory says that the best method for teaching children such important norms and values is to form one front between teacher and parent (Zeegers, 2017). Daphne can expand on France’s growing encounters and disagreements with her own experience. 

Yes, I have experienced already that parents went against my judgement and disagreed with me. They get angry sometimes. These are a minority though, for most of the parent-teacher talks I would still be comfortable on my own, but for some I would like to have one of my colleagues next to me.”

Daphne is one of the teachers that take into account the presence of not only students, but also their parents. The atmosphere is determined by everyone’s presence and what they bring to the table. 

Although parents do not play a direct role in a university setting, the cultural background of students – and everyone else, but students and teachers being the focus of this article – holds significance in communication. According to a University Lecturer from The Netherlands – who will be referred to as Professor A. – it is valuable to take into account the class composition, backgrounds of students and their norms, values, and pre-existing ideas. This is noticeable both during classes and in the preparation phase.

Professor A. covers topics such as contemporary warfare and violations of humanitarian law. These topics usually contain a religious, political, or cultural dimension as well, depending on the region that is taught about.  Professor A. explains that he sometimes has students in his classes that come from the region he is teaching about. In such cases, he tries to discuss with them beforehand what they can expect to come across during the lectures. He also adapts his tone of voice a little bit during the lessons.

“I try to be a bit more diplomatic, and a little less direct. I replace some value-judgements with a more political correct choice of words”

More important for Professor A. is finding the balance between describing and illustrating subjects for clarity on the one hand, and the brutal content on the other. For instance, when discussing Genocide, it is difficult to decide just how much detail should be discussed, and what images should be shown, to make clear the severity of the case at hand, and the importance of preventing similar cases from happening in the future.

“Here, too, I consider the backgrounds of my students. If they might have personal history with the case, for instance. I have had students from Syria for example , which means I have to be more careful in the way I discuss the topic at hand.”

Besides taking into account the students’ backgrounds from an emotional, considerate point of view, Professor A. also feels the student’s influence with regards to his own feeling of comfortability, and security. The platform launched by Dutch political party Forum for Democratie quickly passed by the interview. The initiative allowed students to report their teachers for ‘leftist indoctrination’. Professor A. assures that he and the colleagues in his field of study were not much affected by it, but it did show how easily the words shared by teachers are labelled and are met with opposing worldviews.

“I am increasingly aware that I should pay attention to when and how I express my opinion. There is the risk of things being taken out of context, especially now that we are teaching online. I am aware that I am being recorded, and maybe I am less outspoken because of it. Besides that, one should be more careful playing the devil’s advocate, taking a radical standpoint that is not your own to illustrate an argument. Furthermore, compared to ten years ago, I am also more aware of the necessity to take other perspectives into account.” 

Especially the non-Western point of view is something that Professor A. pays attention to. He shares some knowledge about his time as a teacher in the United Kingdom. There, the classrooms were more diverse, resulting in more diverse opinions in debates about international news, as the students had such diverse narratives. According to Professor A. this usually did not result in an uncomfortable atmosphere. Even during the Brexit campaign and its aftermath, when standpoints on immigration polarised somewhat in the UK , Professor A, being an immigrant himself, did not really experience a difference in the atmosphere in the classroom, mainly because most of the students themselves were not originally from the UK.

Important to note is that, besides culture, also other factors such as gender equality receive more consideration nowadays.

“For example, when selecting reading materials, I do try to provide more of a balance between female and male authors, if possible.”

He points out that although these things are taken into consideration, it is important to not let this guide the content of the lessons too much. Despite his awareness of the necessary political correctness sometimes, Professor A. does not limit the topics of discussion, at most the ways in which they are discussed.

To conclude, the survey shows the following:

Concluded from the list of examples of Part 1, the survey responses and both interviews can be the following: teaching is a complex job with responsibilities that requires thought-through communication. The atmosphere that a teacher is in is determined by the classroom, where the background and political outspokenness of the students matter. This can in turn affect – mostly diminish –  a teacher’s outspokenness, and provoke a necessity for political correctness. All teachers that have contributed to this article do show that, although they consider the nuance of their tone and word choice, they are not afraid to address topics that they deem necessary. Luckily, they realize that the news examples listed at the beginning of this article series, are reports of the most extreme situations. Despite the risks and disagreements that teachers come across, the teachers are resilient. In their trade-off, the benefits of confrontation both with students and parents outweigh the costs when necessary, and the approach of the subject by the teacher oftentimes suffices to discuss sensitive topics without such confrontations at all. 

It is up to the teachers of today to continue teaching as they do, (e.g. continue their work) emphasizing the values of respect and security within the dynamics of society, to help the teachers of the future to continue this job feeling safe and comfortable enough, too, to discuss all topics deemed important.

Concluding Remarks

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