What Teachers Can and Can't Say About the HK Protests: An Interview with Mr. Kersten
January 8, 2020
With the slew of violent protests having no end in sight, it is natural to look to teachers for guidance. They are the mentors of our community, and so often in school, we tackle issues of this kind — issues that have rocked nations as these protests have rocked ours.
In the wake of these protests, Mr. Kersten led a gathering a few months ago that courageously tried to address the issue in an fair manner. Several questions may have popped into your head as it has mine, but the most prominent is this: What are our teachers, and perhaps even the school, allowed to say about matters such as this? With there being rumors of a pan-international school agreement to not speak out about this movement for fear of losing their license, I figured there is no better time than the present to answer the question.
The most well-known policy of the school is that while teachers aren’t allowed to give their own political opinions (for obvious reasons, as it would invite negative attention to the school), they are permitted to encourage conversation on the matter amongst their students. Mr. Kersten, the spiritual coordinator, has a fair few thoughts about this particular policy, and thus was the natural person to interview for this topic.
He revealed a great deal of information about the policy, including but not limited to the degree to which he feels it is necessary, what exactly teachers are allowed to say and do as it relates to the protests (and how Mr. Kersten handles such topics when they come up), and why the gathering provided a sense of community and understanding in this troubling time whilst still respecting the policy.
When asked whether or not the policy was necessary, Mr. Kersten replied, “absolutely.” His reasoning was that the foremost job of our school is to “nurture” the individual thought of students and to better equip them to make their own decisions on how they view sensitive topics, which in this case would be the protests that have taken our city by such storm.
Mr. Kersten affirmed that he believed it would be “inappropriate” for any faculty members to express their views in such a way that makes it seem like it is the only right approach, not just as it pertains to the protests, but also as it relates to any stance, political or otherwise. Supposedly, there is a belief in our school that the teachers tend to slant left in political matters, especially in the Humanities department, and their political preferences somehow affect their grading. Mr. Kersten believes such beliefs simply nothing more than urban legend, and “largely untrue”.
In the classroom, teachers are encouraged to facilitate discussion, but they must do so in a way that doesn’t unduly sway people to their own viewpoint or bias. Mr. Kersten provided some great detail as to how he facilitates discussion in his own classroom. He will often show the class a media source that details the views of a “third party source” and will occasionally play the “devil’s advocate” to the consensus of the class when he feels that one view is underrepresented.
The guidelines of the classroom are clear, but what are teachers allowed to do outside of the confines of the classroom? Given the values of our school, HKIS allows teachers to express their beliefs as they see fit outside of school. This means that teachers are allowed to attend protest rallies if they want to. However, this freedom of expression comes with the condition that they not associate HKIS with their particular political stance. For example, they cannot be wearing an HKIS hoodie if and when marching.
A crucial response to these protests within the HKIS community has been the gathering that we had a few months ago, which accomplished its goal by allowing all sides to be heard. There have been people talking about the content of the gathering, specifically whether it may or may not have gone too far or was too candid in what it broadcasted to the school.
To this, I turned to the person who organized the gathering, Mr. Kersten, himself. He believes that arguably the closest the gathering came to crossing the line was when the faculty spoke, but it was made clear that their contributions were but their own opinion and outlook, and it should not be the definitive way people view this event, thus ensuring the neutrality of the gathering. Needless to say, the gathering played its role in facilitating the discussion while being unbiased as people of all different sides were heard.