Disclaimer: This article is the opinion of the author and does not necessarily reflect that of all Teachers' Christian Fellowship members.
Refugees, asylum seekers, boat people, displaced people and visa over stayers. How do primary teachers and secondary teachers of geography, history and English deal with the controversial issues that these labels bring? What approach should Christian teachers take to the issues that arise?
A brief reminder of our history
The history of Australia is laced with racism. First Aboriginal people, then Chinese on the gold fields and Kanaka on the sugar coast and then after World War 11 waves of migrants from Europe, then Vietnam, the middle east, China, India and Africa making Australia a truly multicultural country. Yet, throughout this process there has always been opposition, most exemplified in the “White Australia” Policy after Federation and in later times concern for the changes immigration has brought. These people were different and clashed with contemporary practice. Australia does not have a good record on accepting such differences. But despite this, migrant groups have become part of Australia and British background Australians have learnt to embrace features of their cultural, not only food. Throughout this process there has been the them and us, but expressed in a most Australian way. For example, I have an adopted Indian son and people would sometimes comment to me about how migrants were taking Australian jobs. When I replied “like my son”, they would often respond, “No, he’s one of us”. A strange acceptance. But often it’s the people we know that are accepted, irrespective of their background, but all those others out there, well, that’s a different story. Australians express a fear of the other as observed in attitudes towards the latest migrant group. They don’t know THEM. There is little point teaching about refugees, migration, asylum seekers, boat people, displaced people and visa overstayers unless we know our history, however uncomfortable much of it might be.
When teaching about population, migration, refugees and displaced people, background history is needed if contemporary issues are to be addressed. Then the facts. What are the figures on the ethnic backgrounds of Australians? What are the numbers for the current intake of migrants and refugees? Which countries are represented in this intake? How many asylum seekers have been granted refugee status and how many are being held in detention? How many, and from which countries, are estimated to have overstayed their visas and are living in the community? Knowing the facts can help diffuse some stereotypes.
What is the focus?
Knowing the background and having the facts can be brought to bear on the issue or question at hand. Some examples might include:
- Can Australia sustain the current rate of increase in population?
- What are the implications of decreased immigration and refugee intakes?
- Can Australia develop a cohesive society with diverse migrant and refugee inputs?
- Is it desirable to break up migrant ghettos?
- How does Australia deal with asylum seekers?
- How does Australia compare with other nations on migration, refugees and asylum seekers?
- How many is too many?
- How do Australians support migrants and refugees?
- What problems are created for Australia by its intake of migrants and refugees?
- What have been the benefits and problems created by developing a multicultural Australia?
These and other questions are all legitimate for study. Knowing the history and having the facts available will help any classroom discussion and debate. However, students like their parents, are likely to have strong opinions often based on prejudice, media stereotypes and ignorance. Teachers will need to follow guidelines for dealing with controversial issues like the NSW Department’s policy document https://education.nsw.gov.au/policy-library/policies/controversial-issues-in-schools
So, what does a Christian teacher do when preparing topics that cover this subject matter:
1. Provide context
Students need to understand why they are studying in this area and how these studies will contribute to their greater understanding of the world they live in, and, in particular, the Australian society. The Christian teacher will be particularly interested in helping their students to understand others and how their own lives connect with other people and fit into current circumstances. Understanding “the other” is fundamental to relationships and sharing faith. They will want to address stereotypes, media perceptions and fallacies of composition – what one person does is what the whole group does.
2. Provide background
As argued above, students need to know some history of Australia involving migrants, refugees and asylum seekers. Without some understanding of this history it will be difficult for them to understand the attitudes of different groups within Australia. The Christian teacher will be concerned that their students recognise the histories of people groups in Australia as a way of bridging the gap of understanding and removing the threat of the other. Some understanding of the cultures they come from will also help.
3. Explore cultural differences
To understand the background of many of the people new to Australia it will be necessary to study aspects of their culture, including religion that is a key motivating factor for many. The Christian teacher will be concerned that students learn to accept difference, but nor all differences are good, and learning to respect the right of others to live differently can be a key to acceptance. They should learn about different religions, but not engage in their practices.
4. Let the facts speak for themselves.
Truth is particularly important for Christian teachers because it relates to the very nature of God. Pursuing truth is fundamental to Christian teaching. In this topic, in which there will be conflicting opinions and adopted prejudices, the Christian teacher can point students to study factual information which will address many of their prejudices and concerns, cut through their stereotypes and give them a sense of empowerment to look further at the issues.
5. Control discussion
Students with diverse opinions or minority opinions may feel intimidated within the whole class setting. Providing discussion questions and using group structures will help promote discussion and force students to justify their opinions and seek consensus within their groups. Christian teacher will want students to be involved in authentic discussions, not simply the sharing of ignorance and prejudice. To understand others, students will need to engage and not be passive listeners.
6. Include Bible reference for discussion.
The scriptures have a lot to say about caring for outsiders and for neighbours. Select a couple of passages and have the students discuss them in reference to the focus of the study. There is nothing to stop Christian teachers in public schools using this approach as long as it is nondenominational and aimed at promoting open-ended discussion relevant to the topic. Knowing what Christians think can be helpful for all students.
At a time when many Christians seem focussed on their rights to freedom of religion, there would appear to be much more in scripture about the needs of the poor, the foreigner and the outcast. Teachers should not shy away from difficult or controversial topics in the curriculum or treat them superficially to avoid argument and conflict. These are the very topics that allow Christians to impact on their students through approaches that show integrity and respect for others. Lessening the THEM and uplifting the US is consistent with promoting the love of Christ in a community where all individuals need acceptance, love, and forgiveness.