Nowhere to Go But Up: A Field Report from a US Teacher Starting Work in the UK
How was my first teaching experience as a US citizen living in the UK, you ask?
Let’s just say that afterward, I had to speak to the administration and give a full incident report on the students who praised Hitler. Students, plural. There were two of them. It might be the tip of the iceberg.
This was a struggling secondary school in a major city in West Yorkshire, where I had the opportunity to sub (or work “on supply,” as the Brits say) for two weeks or possibly longer. I lasted two days.
To be clear, I fully expect teaching to be difficult, even painfully uncomfortable at times. I’ve been through it, and I know how it works. But there’s a limit to what I can tolerate, and more important, there’s a point where no one’s best interests are being served: not mine, not the school’s, and ultimately not the students’. You have to recognize when that bridge has been crossed.
To say the behavior issues at this school were out of control is to put it mildly. Those behavior issues were my immediate reason for leaving — yes, believe it or not, the pro-Hitler stuff was actually not the worst thing that happened. But that’s for another article, maybe in an education journal or a teacher training workshop. You need those scars in order to become really good. About that I’m not discouraged at all. I’m eager to get back in front of a classroom.
I focus on the antisemitism here because, as I’m sure you know, it is not happening in a vacuum. And that’s exactly what I told my students, when I exploded in anger at the second pro-Nazi incident I’d encountered at this school in two days. The silver lining in this whole affair — and there were several, in fact — is that I was tested to my limit, well beyond my limit, and I delivered. Even though visibly infuriated, I remained professional, and more to the point, I taught. It was five minutes of the best teaching I’ve ever done.
First, the facts.
When you’re “on supply” in the UK, like the US, you’re expected to cover whatever is needed. Sure, my area is music, but I had to spend three periods on security duty in the courtyard. And I had to cover three math classes, which anyone who knows me will agree is absolutely hilarious, and a really bad omen.
The first class was an observation: I was to sit and very quickly learn the ropes while another much more experienced supply teacher handled Year 11 (10th grade) math during first period. Usually you’re handing out worksheets for independent work, or there’s a quick PowerPoint to run through to introduce a concept before the work gets started. The opportunities for misbehavior are ample, and as a new sub, and an American one at that, I was a very tempting target.
I say “target,” but I should make clear that the Hitler stuff was not directed at me personally. No one knew I was Jewish, until I told them.
So there I was, observing first period math — or maths in the UK — and I hear a male voice in the hallway, in a kind of slow, mock-serious bellowing: “All Hail Hitler!” Once or twice, I can’t recall. My first thought was that I could not possibly have heard it. Surely he was saying something else. (“All Hail Hitler” is not even correct.) But about halfway through the period, a loud and unpleasant boy enters our classroom, apparently as a disciplinary measure after disrupting his regular class. And sure enough, after a few minutes: “All Hail Hitler!” Not only can I confirm that he said it, but I connect the voice with a face. The sub on duty says rather tepidly, “That is NOT appropriate!”
This is happening within an hour of setting foot in the building — within an hour, I should say, of walking into a British classroom for the first time.
I was not the teacher of record in this class. I was too stunned, and too unsure of my proper role, to intervene. I did, however, seize a moment to quietly ask the sub for this boy’s name. I was going to need it later. And I knew I was in for a very rough ride.
Fast-forward to the next day, Year 9 (8th grade) music class. I’m in charge now. We are 10 minutes into the period, the group is reasonably engaged although somewhat difficult to manage. I start hearing murmurings of “Nazi” this and “Nazi” that. I stop the class and ask what the hell is going on. “He made a Nazi salute,” one boy says, pointing to a boy across from him. To their credit, a few of the kids are calling him out.
I did not witness the Nazi salute. But I assess the situation, the veracity of the accusers and the demeanor of the accused. One boy mutters, “That’s offensive to Jews.”
I respond: “I’m Jewish.”
And for a brief moment, I collect myself, because I am about to go off. I’m about to take a course of action and I genuinely do not know where it will end.
With palpable disgust, I mention yesterday’s Hitler incident. And I put it to them very simply: you have got to be kidding me. Moments after entering a British classroom for the first time, two days in a row, and this is what I hear from the students?
“The Nazis carried out their crimes some 80 years ago,” I continued. “In the sweep of history, that is yesterday.” Interestingly, this was the point that seemed to get through. All the nervous chittering stopped and the class was dead silent until I stopped speaking.
My parents were born, I said, while the Holocaust was happening. My grandmother was an adult woman seeing it unfold, helpless to stop it, watching as Hitler took over much of Europe. He bombed your country, the United Kingdom, subjected London to the blitzkrieg.
I acknowledged that most of these students had done nothing wrong, and yet I would not contain my anger, and will not apologize for it at a moment like this, because if I cannot educate them about something so basic as human decency, then what are we even doing here?
I made clear that I would be reporting everything I saw and heard the last two days to the highest levels of the school administration. This was not over. I made a note of this second student’s name. Accountability mattered, and yet retaliating against one individual was not the point; something much larger was at stake. I think I successfully got that across. Other students pulled me aside and told me that this is routine, repeat behavior from this kid. I reported that as well the next day when I spoke to an assistant principal and gave my full statement. She listened very conscientiously, documented intensively, apologized and told me that severe consequences would follow.
Antisemitism is called the oldest hatred, but a confluence of factors makes this current bout especially terrifying. To see the news day after day and then have it leap right out of the woodwork on my first day teaching abroad was hard to bear. But I felt I had agency, I could do something. I can only hope that the students I addressed will take the experience to heart and do the same.