There is so much more to teaching than standing in front of a class of children, following a syllabus and ensuring the prescribed knowledge is passed on to the next generation. As a teacher, one is responsible for so much more. Children spend a lot of their time at schools, and are shaped and moulded by the people they meet there, both their peers and their teachers. The time they spend in eduction makes these children who they are, develops their values, defines what they want to be, teaches them how the behave and interact, and can have a dramatic impact on a person’s subsequent life. Therefore the position of an authoritative, respected, and knowledgable adult can be somewhat daunting, and I have found myself in two situations where, as the teacher, I have had to address moral issues brought up, inadvertently, by my students.
The first was during my trip to the provinces last weekend. The children here appear to be fascinated with Ebola, not entirely sure why but they speak of this awful virus fairly regularly. One boy asked me why we had not stopped the spread of Ebola yet. I explained that the stock of vaccines is very small, due to the cost of producing them and the rarity of the virus itself, but that the West is currently developing larger quantities to be distributed to affected areas. In response to this, he declared that he hated West Africa for causing Ebola. I instantly told him that he could not say this, that it was not the fault of those in the afflicted countries, and that the Western world is helping them to combat the spread of the virus. Somehow, somewhere, from someone, this young child had been influenced to believe that it was the people in countries such as Liberia, Sierra Leone, and Guinea who are responsible for the outbreak. Children are not born with racist thoughts such as these, but are influenced by their environment. In the case of this child, I am unaware of where this came from, be it television, local news, or the people in his life (I would be very surprised to find it was the latter). What is more alarming perhaps is that he was unaware that had the outbreak begun in, say, Cambodia, his own country would be struggling just as much to combat the disease as the African countries. Neither geographical area have the monetary resources, nor the medical ability to successfully contain an Ebola outbreak. As the adult present when this child made an overtly, yet unintentional racist statement, I felt it was necessary to educate him not only about Ebola itself, but what one can and cannot say when speaking about other countries. Whether he understood and took on my mini lecture, I have no idea, but at least I tried!
The second incident was as my grade 4 class were filing in from break last week. One child, who is usually a sweetheart, got my attention and told me that one of the boys in the class was gay. These children are ten and I had not planned to speak to them about sexuality but since it came up, I felt obliged once again as the authoritative figure to speak prejudices. I sat them all down, explained that there was nothing wrong with being gay, that it didn’t make that person any less nice or worthy of respect, and that it must never be used as an insult in my class (you’d be proud Mum!). I then asked them what gay was in Khmer. They responded but I didn’t actually know myself so I looked it up on Google Translate (best thing since sliced bread) and showed them the Khmer translation. Turns out gay didn’t mean what they thought it was. As soon as they saw the word, they squealed and laughed. I have no idea what they originally thought gay meant but it appears I inadvertently gave them an unnecessary lecture on sexuality … Their reaction to the real meaning of gay angered me more than I anticipated it would have. Now that they fully understood the meaning of the word, I repeated my spiel, this time adding that one of my best friends is gay, admittedly partly for effect and I was not let down by their reactions. At that point, nine children collectively gasped and reacted so strongly, that once again I felt a surge of anger, not towards them but towards a society which continues to instil homophobic values in their children. My best friend and I have spoken regularly about sexuality and whilst I told my Grade 4s that she is gay, we both agree that it is a spectrum, and labelling oneself is rarely truthful or helpful when understanding one’s identity. However, the world continues to consider these labels necessary and many attach stigmas, often negative, to those who identify as anything less than 100% heterosexual. Once again I found myself wondering where nine children, from nine families, had developed negative connotations for the word gay. As far as one can tell, babies are not born homophobic.
I hope that my speeches were understood by these children, and thus far I have not heard gay as an insult in my class again, nor have I heard anyone blaming black people for Ebola so that’s a good sign. As a liberal, western, educated adult in a developing country, I feel I am in an important position, whereby I am able to help these children understand that the world is made up of many kinds of people, all of whom are equal, and none of whom should be targeted for being different. Watch this space for more tidbits of Teacher Ruth wisdom!