How far can teachers across divided Cyprus get? Teachers’ accounts of teaching controversial events. Α comparative study between T / C and G / C primary school teachers who appear most willing to teach controversial issues in the context of a conflict - ridden society like the Cypriot one.
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Finally I would like to highlight the fact that this study has a diagnostic character since it’s the first time a study deals with the issue of teaching controversial issues across the divide.
Cyprus is a divided country. Violent conflicts in 1963 put to an end of the coexistence of GC and TC ever since.
In 1974 Turkish “invasion/intervention” has deepened even further the parallel and antagonistic lives of the two communities. The war consequently caused more deaths, more missing persons, refugees and various other social and personal traumas that war and dislocation cause. One third of the total population of Greek Cypriots was displaced to the south side and the one forth of the Turkish Cypriots were also displaced to the north.
In 2003, under the pressure of political discussion concerning the resolution of the “Cyprus issue” by the UN Secretary General Kofi Annan, two crossing points were opened after 40 years in Nicosia allowing the contact between the two communities.
In April 2004, a few days before Cyprus’ accession in EU, a comprehensive U.N. proposal for re-unification on the basis of a bi-zonal, bi-communal federation – known as the ‘Annan Plan’– was put to simultaneous referenda on both sides, but led to failure, with a 65% “yes”-vote by the Turkish Cypriots and a 76% “no”-vote by the Greek Cypriots.
This paper is based on 40 semi-structured interviews with primary school teachers, 20 Greek Cypriots and 20 Turkish Cypriots. The teachers who participated in the present research aged between 28 and 50 years old belong to the second generation of the “Cyprus issue”.
I have met most of these people and I know them in person as I have been participating in bi-communal activities for the last six years. Furthermore, in some cases I used the “snowballing” recruitment technique, that is the mobilization of the interviewers’ social networks for accessing potential informants (Bernard 2002).
All of the interviewers have participated or they themselves have organized many bi-communal workshops, conferences, symposiums and events. For these reasons, I would characterize them as “the most lighted” teachers to teach controversial/taboo issues or as the most willing teachers to raise the discussion about these issues in their classroom.
Following Kitson and McCully’s (2005) typology of teacher’s attitudes towards the teaching of conflicting historical events, I am not interested in the “avoiders”, or the “containers”. I am interested in the teachers that are most likely to adopt a “risk taker” attitude.
In other words, the sample of my research does not include teachers who either have never heard of the traumas of the other community or even if they have heard of them, they adopt a defensive ingroup perspective which is used to justify one’s ingroup behavior (Zebel et al 2004), or to use a more Freudian language, they are still at the stage of “denial” or affective “amnesia” (Igartua & Paez 1997).
During the data analysis I was looking for patterns, motifs, and issues of relevance, which then were coded to allow further analysis.
In what follows, I provide summaries of the major issues identified by the teachers. The goal of this presentation is not to engage in a detailed empirical description and comparison of the findings as such, but to highlight the most important findings and conclusions of this research.
1) Teachers’ accounts across the divide reveal that silence is maintained regarding the teaching of controversial issues. Teaching controversial issues does not take place systematically and in depth, even among educators who are willing to start a dialogue with their students about the past.
“Since in our everyday discourse in the school there are no Turkish Cypriots, how are we going to tell them suddenly that not only there are Turkish Cypriots but also that there are missing Turkish Cypriots? […] We always talk about our own missing persons. (pause) Sometimes I can’t stand school. I think that by remaining silent I am going to reproduce another ignorant generation like my own”.
“I refer to GC sufferings in 1974 in a general way. I don’t get into details about what happened”.
I have recorded a differentiation between Greek and Turkish Cypriot teachers, namely that Turkish Cypriot teachers seem to speak more easily to their students about the suffering of the other side.
George (Greek Cypriot teacher, 37 years old, BA & MA):
Now that I think about it, the tactic I use is that instead of doing something, I avoid it. I do it unconsciously. Imagine something happens with a parent and the next day “Phileleftheros” newspaper writes “Teacher sides with the Turkish side in his teaching”... The parents, children and colleagues will give me hell. Remember what happened with Rooftop Theatre?(my emphasis)
Christos (31 years old, BA & MA) narrates how the head teacher of her school actually stopped her from inviting a Turkish Cypriot class to their school.
“The head teacher of the school invited me in his office and asked me about my intentions. I told him that I was thinking about inviting a Turkish Cypriot friend and his classroom to our school […]He brings the curriculum and he opens it on page 134. I will never forget this. He read aloud that the goal of a history lesson is to help students develop a conscience about the tragedy of their motherland as a result of the coup, the Turkish invasion and the occupation and to reinforce their fighting spirit, etc. I mean, after this there was no way I would invite my friend to the school”.
Andros: One day I saw something that made me sick. On the 25th of March performance, the leading actor, a very nice boy who enjoys hip hop, died like a hero while fighting the Turks. His classmate, dressed in black, slowly climbs onto the stage and covers him with a Greek flag. For goodness sake! For goodness sake! (at this point the teacher raises his voice).
Researcher: Did you do something about it?
Andros: What could I do? I was furious. I was shaking due to my anger.
Researcher: I don’t know... You could have mentioned it as a problem during the staff meeting so that it could be discussed... Since you felt so bad or you considered what took place as unacceptable, why should you remain silent?
Andros: Now that I am thinking about it again, I get more angry with my self... I’m afraid to get into trouble. This is what I am thinking about. Who will support me? I’ll be alone (my emphasis)
Νο, no I am not afraid of the parents. Most parents think like me. Anyway, if something happens I have the teacher union behind me. They will support me till the end. Till the end! (the last phrase is told very passionately and loudly, my emphasis)
“ I am disappointed with peace process so I feel frustrated talking or even teaching about the past.
I am losing my strength (my emphasis). 65% of our schools consist of children whose families have arrived from Turkey. Any Turkish Cypriots that are able to leave Cyprus, they leave Cyprus. Those of us with money, send our children to private schools, in the North or South. I find it ridiculous teaching these children about the past of the Greek Cypriots and the Turkish Cypriots. They are not interested […] I think, unavoidably, we are going to have potential tension between Turkish immigrants and local Turkish people. This is our problem now.”
Firstly, there is a growing belief among the T/C teachers who are very active in the bi–communal peace movement that there is no hope in reaching a solution to the “Cyprus problem” and this belief is reflected in their work (at least this is what they state).
aforementioned extract, what are the implications for
history teaching? Is the teaching of controversial issues
of the recent past a matter of Greek Cypriots and
Turkish Cypriots only? Do we have to start thinking
about how we could teach history in this changing
context without excluding any group?
T/C teachers’ accounts reveal the tendency of preaching instead of developing a teaching environment that investigates and values conflicting viewpoints. A few G/C showed a similar tendency to preach. In these cases the teacher remains the information source and substitutes the dominant ethnocentric narrative of the school with another narrative often characterized by simplistic humanism about “the sorrow of the other”.
However, most of the Greek Cypriot teachers (13/20) appeared to have an in-depth grasp of the pedagogical tools of history didactics and they could provide practical examples on how to teach the issues differently.
When the yearly goal was about intercultural dialogue, we were allowed to have intercultural dialogue with all people in the world except Turks and Turkish Cypriots. I guess now we can apply the term multiperspectivity, which is a slogan nowadays in Cyprus – I mean even nationalists use it in all contexts except in the context of the modern history of Cyprus
Researcher: Can you give me an example of what you mean by “change our epistemology”?
Yiannis: The way we teach things. For example, Grivas in schools is eh... Grivas was a legendary EOKA hero. He does not have a past and neither a future. He is a legendary figure who always wins the battles. He is invincible [pause] he is not a historical person.
Researcher: How would you like to teach about him?
Yiannis: I would start by posing a basic question which I would write on the board: Why does the figure of Grivas still divide, Greek Cypriots amongst themselves and Greek and Turkish Cypriots? Then I would provide sources which refer to him and his actions in various ways.
So, a fourth very significant findingof this study is that G/C’s epistemological beliefs are not a reason strong enough to convince them to put their beliefs into teaching practices. The personal cost is too high.
“There is no need to scratch our wounds if we want to move forward. We have to emphasize the things that unite the two communities, not the things that divide them in the past
(Irene, GC teacher, female, 31 years old, BA, MA)
“I am afraid I might cause the opposite effect and create a bigger divide. They will say that it is impossible to live together like Denktash says”.
On the one hand, according to the teachers of my sample, nationalism as a state ideology is identified as the obstacle to elaborate historical taboos with their students.
On the other hand, there is also a certain grade of self censorship by the teachers because they consider that if one emphasizes the oppositions and the sufferings caused by one side on the other and vice versa, we may re-experience the past.
There is a common “progressive” discourse which consciously chooses suppressing the severe and bloody conflicts that happened between the two communities for the sake of emphasizing the common experiences and attitudes.
In other words, the discourse for the peaceful coexistence and the discourse of the violent past have not yet managed to enter in a unified interpretation scheme which will be able to be used as the tool to evaluate two opposite, at a first glance, memories of the past.
Only a few teachers narrated moments of resistance (12/40). I have classified teachers’ narrations in three groups which show the level of intervention by the teachers:
Ali (TC, male, 43 years old, Teachers’ College):
I do not use the official discourse when I teach history. For example I never use the term «peace operation». “Peace operation!”, It’s silly. I say “operation”, “the war of 1974”, “1974”, etc. I am very careful with words. I use neutral vocabulary. I always think how the words I use will sound to a Greek Cypriot.
“When I decorate the school’s notice boardfor national celebrations I do not use militaristic material”.
“When visiting the Museum of Barbarism I let my pupils understand that they can stay out in the yard to play. I explain in an implicit way that I will stay outside in the yard because the day is very beautiful”.
Only two G/C teachers fall into this category.
For example, Gregory (male, 36 years old, BA & MA) stressed the importance of visible alternative practices
“I always take the responsibility for the national celebrations in my school. It’s an opportunity to work with my students in depth about a theme. I prefer to work more but have an opportunity to send a message through my work about how we can “work with” the past differently. The celebration of national anniversaries in schools is an opportunity to show to the whole school community how we can remember the past differently. It’s an opportunity for an alternative history lesson: use of sources, conflicting interpretations, family stories, show what anachronism causes. It’s also an opportunity to show how history is used in modern societies. With my students I do not concentrate only on the telling of the story but also in the story of the telling of the story”.