The start of September marks my ‘freelanciversary’. I left teaching in 2017 to allow space for other things, not least to give more attention to creating better ways to develop diversity and mutual understanding in the classroom. Over the last couple of years, I have worked with groups, and on projects and resources to enable teachers to talk about the divided society we live in. It has not been easy. Teachers are often uncomfortable about talking about societal division now, and, frankly, terrified of any discussion about the past.
I understand that. To be fair, it’s not just teachers; Northern Ireland has so many people who want to ignore the past. (Or talk about it, but only in like-minded groups). It’s not necessarily a bad thing, they want to move on and don’t want to burden future generations with what we have previously done to each other. The atrocities of the past are painful and disturbing, and so it might seem better if current and future generations don’t know about them. And yet, by not appropriately addressing the divisions in our society, and their origins, we remain divided and distrustful; we’re not resolving anything.
As I enter a third year of freelance work, I realise my approach has, to some degree, been wrong. The biggest barrier to discussing difference in Northern Ireland is that people often don’t see a need to do so; and it’s almost impossible to get people to do something they don’t see a need for. A second barrier is not having the means to enable discussion. If teachers are nervous about opening up certain topics, they need simple and safe mechanisms to use.
My starting point used to be that we need to understand each other better, but I realise now a better starting point is to look at the effects of our inability to understand each other. These are many and obvious. Northern Ireland hasn’t had a local government in almost three years; why are we arguing with each other and not making key decisions about education, health, infrastructure, employment? Then there are the anniversaries. We’ve just begun the fiftieth anniversary of every event in the Troubles; why are we still angry a half century later? Then there’s Brexit. We are a divided nation, and will remain divided long after any political settlement is in place; why has Brexit caused so much bad feeling? Then there’s Africa and the Middle East; what should happen to so many refugees? Then there’s America; why do some people love Trump while others hate him?
Clearly, we are divided. The question is, are we going to talk about it?
And if we talk about it, will the world be a better place for our conversation?
Mutual understanding is a key skill, not just in school, but in the work place, and in our friendships and families. It has to be in the very fabric of a healthy society. And yet, the words ‘empathy’ and ‘perspective’ are not present in the curriculum. There is a desire for children and young people to understand the ‘World Around Us’, but without the realisation that deep understanding of it requires you to see through someone else’s eyes. In the next few years, my focus is going to be less about the place of contentious topics in the classroom, and more on the ability of teachers to employ perspective sharing approaches that develop empathy across the curriculum. If we can all learn to see alternative perspectives, understanding of specific divisions will follow.