These teachers say the war in Gaza must be discussed in classrooms – but claim “the silence is deafening”

Claire Halliday
Claire Halliday

“I’m joining in the teacher actions for Palestine because I’m devastated at the slaughter in Gaza and Palestine, and deeply disturbed at our government’s complicity,” Melbourne primary school teacher Emma told EducationDaily.

For many teachers around the world, it’s an opinion that is shared, as people whose livelihoods require them to explore world events and the part they play in global history report feeling silenced by school leadership they say is actively asking them not to share their opinions, or even acknowledge the events in Gaza are happening.

“I teach primary school students from many backgrounds and religions, and at the beginning of every school year, we form a class agreement about how to hold a safe and respectful classroom. We work constantly to make this mean something beyond empty words. When a student calls another ‘gay’ as an insult, we talk about it. When someone is making fun of the name of another, we talk about it,” she says.

But she feels frustrated that the same inclusive conversations can’t be had about what is happening in Gaza. She says the current mood – at least in the government school system she is part of – is that many teachers feel they are prevented from discussing the war in Gaza.

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“Israel is in breach of human rights and international humanitarian law, and continues to act with impunity,” she told EducationDaily. “We cannot turn away. We must talk about it.”

Small actions to support a call for big changes

Lucy Honan uses her spare time away from a permanent part-time role as a Victorian teacher to be an active supporter of the Teachers and School Staff for Palestine movement. Teachers were encouraged to take action, including wearing a Palestinian badge, Free Palestine t-shirt, or keffiyeh, and inviting Palestinian advocates to speak to students.

Since the group’s commitment to what Ms Honan describes as “school-based actions” hit the media headlines recently, some commentators were quick to criticise, saying political opinion should be left out of the classrooms.

Although Ms Honan says “nothing materialised” following threats of disciplinary action against teachers who took part in the actions, Victorian Education Minister Ben Carroll warned state school teachers they would contribute to division and disharmony if they participate in pro-Palestinian advocacy planned for some inner-Melbourne schools.

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Union supports NSW teacher action

In New South Wales, it was a slightly different story, with the NSW teachers’ Federation (NSWTF) actively supporting the actions.

A post on the Facebook Teachers and School Staff for Palestine Group posted “teachers can proudly and safely wear Keffiyeh to work with backing of NSW Teachers Federation”.

“Our week of action has been extended for a week, please take photos at work teachers wearing Keffiyeh or with signs calling to end the siege and bombing of Gaza and send to us. If any principal tries to stop you, get the NSWTF to speak to your principal,” the post read.

Ms Honan says a Never Again is Now campaign planned for the new 2024 school year will aim to continue calls for a ceasefire.

“It is a constant struggle about what teachers are allowed to speak about and what they are not,” Ms Honan told EducationDaily. ” Government schools have been encouraging teachers to say ‘I don’t know’ in reply to students asking them to explain more about what’s happening in Gaza.”

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Despite the media highlighting statements that indicate support for Palestine in schools helps foster antisemitism, Ms Honan says she knows of teachers who have experienced positive feedback from Jewish students who have told them they are pro-ceasefire.

“As teachers, we believe we have the right – and the responsibility – to raise issues in a way that’s respectful,” Ms Honan told EducationDaily. “But we are still seeking more explicit clarification to say that teachers can wear the scarves to school. It will give a lot more teachers a lot more confidence. The NSW union has made it explicit.”

Inclusive conversations are important

In her primary school classroom, Emma says the first day she wore her Free Palestine badge to school, it was a Jewish student who commented.

“They said, ‘nice badge’, followed by, ‘I’ve been asking my mum to go to the rally and march with the Jewish group’,” she told EducationDaily. “It is a mistake to assume that we harm Jewish students by supporting a free Palestine. Being against the current actions of Israel is not antisemitism. If we shy away from critiquing Israel because of this fear, we allow this damaging and polarising falsity to continue.”

But while she was heartened by empathetic words from students, Emma says she was disappointed with the stance by school leadership.

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“I placed posters in the staff room to share with my colleagues about the Teachers for Palestine Vigil for students and teachers of Palestine,” she says. “By recess my posters were gone, I believe removed by school leadership. The silencing has been deafening.”

World events must be explained and understood

Victorian state school secondary teacher Dr Pippa Tandy says she had been “thinking for a while that I should have been making more of an effort in support of Palestine”.

“When I did a few things in school for Ukraine, I was asking myself why I wasn’t doing it for Palestine. I am sorry that it took this terrible escalation to motivate me,” she told EducationDaily.

“When I was a very young child I was schooled in the Holocaust by my parents (not that long after the end of the war) and one of the things that terrified and angered me the most, was that people knew it was happening and did nothing. Or worse, turned back refugee ships and blocked support for Jewish people attempting to escape.”

These powerful memories, she says, prompted her to ask herself if she wanted her students to think of their teachers in the same light.

““You mean, you did not want to call for a ceasefire until all the children and their parents were under the rubble in Gaza?’ But it’s not just our shame that we should worry about. Think about what it is like for children to look at adults around them and feel unsafe because they suspect that we cannot stand up for children in danger, that we don’t care, or are too frightened of being reprimanded or called antisemitic,” Dr Tandy says. “This has life-long consequences for a child’s sense of their worth in the world. We must stop the conflation of disgusting acts of antisemitism with the desire and the moral imperative to protect children. To conflate these things is an unconscionable act of dishonesty and ideological control.”

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Claire Halliday has an extensive career as a full-time writer - across book publishing, copywriting, podcasting and feature journalism - for more than 25 years. She lives in Melbourne with children, two border collies and a grumpy Burmese cat. Contact: claire.halliday[at]