Last week, teachers and pre-service teachers across New South Wales gathered at Parramatta’s Arts & Cultural Exchange to hear Palestinian-Australian author Randa Abdel-Fattah discuss what teachers can do to raise awareness of the genocide in Palestine.
Organised by the New South Wales Teachers’ Federation Facebook group ‘NSW Teachers and School Staff for Palestine’, several issues regarding the censorship of teachers in schools across NSW were raised. Abdel-Fattah began addressing the forum by acknowledging the indispensable role that teachers and schools play in creating safe spaces for young people to develop their political consciousness. She criticised the lack of support offered to marginalised students wishing to share their voices or express their anger and grief, especially regarding issues that do not immediately concern the white majority.
Expressing her disappointment towards “superficial” annual school events such as Harmony Day, Abdel-Fattah stated,
“[On Harmony Day] they want your food and your outfits, and they want to parade you. But if you bring your grief and your politics and your anger, that’s when you are evicted from the category of diversity and human.”
She called on teachers to be more aware of implicit bias within white-dominant educational institutions where some knowledge is valued over others. She also raised the flaws of outdated curriculums, which do little to expose students to texts that diversify their understanding of politics, race, and international affairs in the Arab world:
“Our students have literally got kids being blown into pieces on their phones at lunchtime, and as soon as they step into the classroom they are expected to study Pride and Prejudice or another white, dead writer”, Abdel-Fattah said.
The current HSC English Curriculum in NSW includes only two texts by Muslim authors – one by an Algerian writer Kamel Daoud, and the other by Malala Yousafzai. Abdel-Fattah further expressed her disappointment that Malala, the only Muslim female author HSC students are exposed to, perpetuates stereotypes of misogyny in the Muslim world.
Also among the panel was Chris Breen, a high school Maths and Science teacher and an active member of the Refugee Action Collective. Breen spoke in a personal capacity, sharing first-hand experiences of students and staff being censored against speaking out in support of Palestine.
“On the first day back [at school] our principal reminded us of the Controversial Issues in Schools policy and said that any mention of Gaza has to go past him first.”
He also shared instances where students had taped drawings of Palestinian flags to school walls, only to be taken down by order of the Head Teacher.
“It’s a complete erasure of their identity”, he asserted.
Breen later questioned the NSW Department of Education’s lack of clarity on what “controversial issues” are, and criticised the circular definition provided in the Controversial Issues in Schools policy document as “topics or problems which create a difference of opinion, causing contention and debate within the school or the community”. Examples of such ‘topics’ are not listed within the document itself.
Confusion around the language of education policy documents was also expressed by several teachers during the Q&A session. One teacher expressed that their school policy which dissuades conversations about Palestine, and broadly, political issues in the Arab world, contradicts the current Australian Curriculum’s cross-curriculum priority ‘Asia and Australia’s Engagement with Asia’. This curriculum priority acknowledges the importance of young people being ‘Asia-literate’, offering students an insight into the histories and politics of countries in Asia across all subject areas.
In response, Abdel-Fattah suggested that teachers need to equip themselves with the language of policy documents to push back against educational bureaucracies that suppress student and staff voices. She referenced the International Court of Justice’s recent ruling on Israel carrying out a plausible risk of genocide in Gaza to suggest that there is now a legitimate basis to justify the use of the word ‘genocide’ when teaching students about Palestine.
Moreover, Abdel-Fattah emphasised the importance of validating the feelings and worries of students. She suggested that teachers use statements from the Child Protection policy to justify how it does fall within a teacher’s duty of care to be allowed to speak to students about familial and personal traumas spurred by ongoing violence in Palestine:
“We need to use the master’s tools against them.”
Towards the end of the forum, both speakers concurred on some practical steps teachers can take to speak out in support of Palestine. There was a consensus in the room that the NSW Department of Education’s insistence on teachers demonstrating political neutrality is not possible when teaching in and about a world with overt political tensions. As such, teachers were encouraged to continue writing open letters and emails to the Secretary of the NSW Department of Education, Murat Dizdar, to apply pressure on the department’s policymakers.
Within the school community itself, teachers were encouraged to go beyond cultural celebration on Harmony Day to raise awareness of settler-colonialism on stolen land. Abdel-Fattah suggested that teachers draw connections between Aboriginal and Palestinian resistance to emphasise their shared struggle, as it is more difficult for schools to shut down Black-Palestinian resistance.
Concerning the curriculum, teachers were encouraged to introduce more texts created by Palestinian composers that commemorate Palestinian culture. In the case of principals and head staff overturning these initiatives, the counter suggestion was organising after-school writing workshops where students could learn more about Palestinian resistance.
Abdel-Fattah concluded her address by saying, “Ultimately the students are the ones who will empower you. There are always students who crave your creative interventions, they crave your support, and we should never give up on them”.
The Teachers and School Staff for Palestine group will host a ‘Palestine Solidarity Day’ rally on the 13th of February, at 4pm. Teachers are encouraged to wear Keffiyeh and Palestinian badges to school and end the day outside Federal Education Minister Jason Clare’s office.
For more information call Chris on 0403013183 and/or join the Whatsapp group tinyurl.com/TSS4Pwhatsapp