Teachers Must Handle Controversial Issues Cautiously

January 13, 2020 Updated: January 13, 2020


Last month, a Metro Vancouver high school teacher allegedly showed students a Netflix documentary called “Don’t F*** With Cats.” This documentary, rated “Mature” for adults, graphically depicts the torture of cats by convicted murderer Luka Magnotta. Not surprisingly, a number of students found the film very disturbing.

A worried parent anonymously expressed concern about the graphic nature of the documentary and questioned why it was shown in school. The Surrey School District says it is taking the issue seriously and is investigating the complaint.

While showing such a graphic video to students is certainly questionable, some teachers have shown much worse judgment than this teacher. For example, in 2012, a Montreal teacher showed actual footage of Magnotta’s murder of Jun Lin. Upon hearing about this, the school board promptly suspended the teacher and later fired him.

Sadly, there are many other cases of teachers exercising poor professional judgment. A search of publicly available teacher disciplinary cases in Ontario and British Columbia reveals everything from teachers showing sexually suggestive videos during class to a teacher providing elementary-age students with graphic details about how serial killer Robert Picton kidnapped and murdered dozens of prostitutes. This type of conduct is a quick way to end a teacher’s professional career.

In light of these cases, it is tempting to advise teachers to always avoid anything that might be controversial. However, that would be short-sighted. Students can’t think critically if teachers never expose them to controversial issues. Instead of shying away from controversy entirely, teachers need to exercise more discernment when dealing with controversial topics.

Context is the key thing. Before stepping into a classroom, all teachers should be aware of their classroom, community, and professional contexts.

First, teachers need to consider their classroom context, which includes the age and maturity of students. Generally speaking, older students are better able to handle controversial issues than younger students. The teacher who showed the Netflix documentary about Magnotta is fortunate that he showed it to high school students. He would likely be out of a job if he had shown it in an elementary school or even in a middle school. Teachers should also take careful note of the overall maturity of their students. Material that works with one group of students might be completely inappropriate for another, even though they are the same age or grade.

Community context refers to a school community’s predominant religion, culture, and occupation. Some topics are more controversial in certain communities than others. Bringing up abortion rights is probably more sensitive in a rural community with conservative religious values than in an urban community with liberal values. In addition, a topic will instantly become controversial if it challenges the livelihood of a significant number of parents. For example, a teacher who is passionate about alternative energy had better tread lightly if he or she teaches in a resource-based community, such as Fort McMurray, Alberta.

Finally, professional context refers to a teacher’s credentials, experience, and relationship with the school administrators. Generally speaking, teachers with recognized subject matter expertise will usually get more latitude in dealing with controversial issues than teachers who lack this status. In addition, experienced teachers can usually take more liberties than inexperienced teachers. That is why inexperienced teachers are more likely to get themselves in hot water when controversial issues come up.

Education faculties would do schools a great service if they ensured that all teachers who graduate from their teacher education programs understood the importance of these three contexts. Far too often, teachers are encouraged to use their classrooms to promote social justice goals that might not be supported by parents in the local community. New teachers quickly learn that public school classrooms are quite different environments from their politically correct education courses.

One of the best ways for teachers to stay out of trouble is to stick to the provincial curriculum. When curriculum guides are properly designed, they provide teachers with an abundance of content that must be covered every year. In contrast, when curriculum guides focus more on so-called 21st Century Skills than on specific content, they leave far too much to teachers’ personal interpretations. This makes it too easy for teachers to get into trouble because they can wander into controversial areas without realizing they are entering territory where wise teachers would not go.

As a specific example, British Columbia recently revamped its curriculum to focus on 21st Century Skills. Specific content outcomes have been downgraded and replaced with “big ideas” that often have a social justice focus. This lack of detail in the curriculum means that teachers must create many of their own resources. Not only does this open-ended approach deprive students of much-needed and standardized content, it creates an unnecessary—indeed a problematic—burden on teachers.

At the end of the day, teachers are responsible for everything that happens in their classrooms. If they wish to have long careers, they must handle controversial issues very cautiously. Teachers should consider their classroom, community, and professional contexts and stick to the provincial curriculum when teaching their courses. No doubt, provinces can make this easier by providing teachers with content-rich curriculum guides.

There is a difference between needless controversy and controversy that informs and educates students. It is up to teachers to recognize the difference. Teacher education programs should emphasize this distinction to a much greater degree than they do at present.

Michael Zwaagstra is a public high school teacher and author of A Sage on the Stage: Common Sense Reflections on Teaching and Learning.

Views expressed in this article are the opinions of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Epoch Times.