how far can teachers across divided cyprus get teachers accounts of teaching controversial events
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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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how far can teachers across divided cyprus get teachers accounts of teaching controversial events

How far can teachers across divided Cyprus get?Teachers’ accounts of teaching controversial events.

Α comparative study betweenT/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.
my objectives
My objectives
  • to draw out “thick descriptions” (Geertz 1973) from the perspective of the teachers who hold a critical stance towards the hegemonic discourses and practices of their schools.
  • to investigate what teachers say they do with their students; whether and to what extent these teachers record instances of alternative practices that break the dominant conventions of silence.
  • to enumerate the difficulties faced by these teachers, how they define their needs and under which conditions they believe they could do their job better.
Ι was also inquisitive to view all the above objectives through the interplay between the sociopolitical structures and teachers’ “personal cost”.

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.

the sociopolitical context of research loud memories and loud silences in a divided society
The Sociopolitical Context of Research: Loud Memories and Loud Silences in a divided society

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.

the sociopolitical context of research loud memories and loud silences in a divided society1
The Sociopolitical Context of Research: Loud Memories and Loud Silences in a divided society

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.

the sociopolitical context of research loud memories and loud silences in a divided society2
The Sociopolitical Context of Research: Loud Memories and Loud Silences in a divided society

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.

The dominant discourses on the island across the divide are those of victimhood/blaming the other and within these discourses two generations of Greek and Turkish Cypriots grew up. However, a handful of people, such as journalists, film directors, activists, educators, social and political scientists (but yet no historians), has started to emerge in an attempt to achieve openings through their work for the breaking of the convention of silence and for alternative interpretations of the past.
research design methodology
Research Design/Methodology

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”.

research design methodology1
Research Design/Methodology

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).

research design methodology2
Research Design/Methodology

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.

research design methodology3
Research Design/Methodology

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.

research design methodology4
Research Design/Methodology

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).

research design methodology5
Research Design/Methodology

During the data analysis I was looking for patterns, motifs, and issues of relevance, which then were coded to allow further analysis.

analysis of issues and comparison
Analysis of issues and comparison

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.

summary of findings
Summary of findings

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.

Despite the fact that outside the school they promote dialogue with “the other” and they recognize the atrocities committed by their “own” side, inside the school context they follow the dominant norm. On several occasions they stated they would have liked to act differently but in the end they remained silent.
andros said in an ironic tone greek cypriot teacher 28 years old ba and ma degrees
Andros said in an ironic tone:(Greek Cypriot teacher, 28 years old, BA and MA degrees)

“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”.

pembe tc female 40 yrs old atat rk teacher training academy
Pembe(TC, female, 40 yrs old, Atatϋrk Teacher Training Academy)

“I refer to GC sufferings in 1974 in a general way. I don’t get into details about what happened”.

1 st differentiation the reference to the other
1st Differentiation: the reference to the other

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.

2) A second finding of this research is related with teachers’ accounts of the difficulties they face and the circumstances under which they believe that controversial issues could be taught. Furthermore, these accounts reveal the second differentiation between the GC and the TC, that is they adduce different reasons about why they do not teach in depth controversial issues.
Most Greek Cypriot teachers are not involved in talking about the “Cyprus issue” directly. They attempt to analyze the factors that deter them from teaching controversial/taboo issues. So the Cypriot issue remains a background context for them.
Strong social control is a crucial factor for the G/C teachers (parents, teachers’ Union, media, school’s leadership, other colleagues) that influences their every day choices and practices at their schools.
Most probably that is why G/C teachers adopt a strategy of avoidance, some consciously and others unconsciously, to deal with this negative environment described above. In most of the interviews with G/C teachers it was demonstrated that they keep their opinion to themselves to avoid ostracism in their school or avoid possible attacks by the media or parents.
That is why they express fear, suppressed anger or they are driven to apathy while they are able to recognize what is wrong.
fear of media parents students
Fear of Media, parents, students

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)

school s leadership curriculum
School’s leadership, Curriculum

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”.

school s culture
School’s culture

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)

Research in other conflicting societies, namely Northern Ireland, has shown that teaching controversial issues, particularly those that might involved connections to the present, places tremendous demands on teachers. If they do not have a strong teacher network, flexible curriculum, school leadership or support from other colleagues within their school it is practically impossible for teachers to engage their students in more current and controversial discussions (Barton & McCully 2007; McCully 2005).
On the other hand, T/C educators have a favourable social context that allows T/C teachers to participate openly and engage in the exchanging of views with the other community.
tarik turkish cypriot teacher male 38 years old atat rk teacher training academy
Tarik (Turkish Cypriot Teacher, male, 38 years old, Atatϋrk Teacher Training Academy)

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)

Here, I must mention that Turkish Cypriot teachers Union, KTÖS, has a long tradition in favor of a dialogue between teachers and students of the two communities. Representatives of the Union, participate, support and organize many bi-communal events.
On the contrary, POED, the Greek Cypriot teacher’s Union, reacted against the objective of Reconciliation which was defined as a fundamental objective by the Ministry of Education of the Republic of Cyprus (school year 2008 – 2009). With a circular letter sent to all primary schools of Cyprus, POED underlined that Greek Cypriot teachers who would start having contacts with the other side “will be alone”, given that the Union considers that the objective of the Ministry “is not compatible with the fact that we live in a semi occupied country”.
T/C teachers express disappointment and fatigue. They carried out a brave first step by changing their text books (2005), however along the way they found that the political status quo remains the same and prevents the continuation of this initiative.
Furthermore, the new Cyprus history textbooks (2005) were lately withdrawn when right wing Eroğlu was elected President (2009).
The Turkish Cypriot educators’ focus is more political in the sense that it revolves around the consequences of the unresolved “Cyprus issue”. They feel that the challenge of reconciliation with the past and with the Greek Cypriots has been lost forever after the failure of the referendum of April 2004. They express feelings of deep disappointment, despair and melancholy.
Most of the TC teachers (18/20) mention that the major problem they face nowadays is the “physical survival” of their community. Furthermore, the increase of the children of Turkish immigrants changes the population and the priorities in their classrooms.
another t c teacher mustafa 39 years old male ataturk teacher training academy pointed out that
Another T/C teacher, Mustafa (39 years old, male, Ataturk Teacher Training Academy), pointed out that,

“ 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.”

what do the above extract tell us
What do the above extract tell us?

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).

Secondly, there is a growing xenophobic discourse towards immigrants from Turkey who are becoming the majority population in the South.
This also reveals the inconsistency of the T/C teachers’ discourse. On the one hand, they are very positive towards Greek Cypriots and on the other hand, they are very negative towards immigrants from Turkey. From the point of view of T/C teachers, the “other” is not Greek Cypriots, but Turks.
Lastly, if one takes into consideration the

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?

3 teaching methodology
3) Teaching methodology

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”.

Many teachers used specialized vocabulary such as the term “empathy”. Some others argued that it is necessary to adopt a “multiperspective approach” in the teaching of conflicting issues. However, while the teachers say that they use these techniques in the classroom, finally in the course of the discussion it was made clear that the word “empathy” or “multiperspectivity” was just an impressive slogan.
Researcher: You said before that you teach 1974 under the title «Empathy». How do you cultivate “Empathy” to your students?
  • Tarik: I talk to them, I talk to them (my empasis) I say Turkish Cypriots suffered so much between 1963 till 1974 but also Greek Cypriot suffered a lot after 1974 … (Long Pause)
  • Researcher: Yeah, ok. But do you use any sources to teach, for example, a theme like “Refugees in Cyprus”. Sources like photos, testimonies by refugees, newspaper extracts, etc.?
  • Tarik: No, no, I tell them.
While most of the teachers have enriched their pedagogic vocabulary with contemporary, up-to-date terms, their practice still follows teaching from the teacher’s desk with the teacher being the basic source of information (“Ι tell them”, “I tried to transmit that we also made mistakes”).
Third Differentiation:Teachers’ understandings of conceptual/methodological tools

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.

maria g c female 35 years old ba
Maria (G/C, female, 35 years old, BA):

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

Yiannis (Greek Cypriot teacher, 38 years old, BA and MA in Education):

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.

However, GC teachers despite their in depth understanding of epistemological concepts and methodological issues admitted that they do not dare to pose historic questions like the one aforementioned to their pupils.
4 epistemological beliefs are not enough
4) Epistemological beliefs are not enough

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.

Also, there is the danger for teachers despite their high level of epistemological understanding not to consider controversial issue discussions to be part of their history curriculum and some may explicitly avoid such topics because “they consider history either to be an academic subject which is not meant to contribute to societal goals” (Barton & McCully 2007: 17) or to have any relation with other curriculum areas like Citizenship Education, Human Rights Education, even Media Education.
5 similarity a shared concern among teachers across the divide that
5) Similarity: a shared concern among teachers across the divide that,

“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)

similarly tarik tc teacher male 38 years old atat rk teacher training academy
Similarly Tarik (TC teacher, male, 38 years old, Atatϋrk Teacher Training Academy):

“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.

similarity self censored teachers with good intentions
Similarity: Self censored teacherswith “good” intentions

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.

instances of resistance
Instances of Resistance

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:

  •   Implicit work in the classroom
  •   Implicit work outside their classroom
  • Explicit, systematic work inside and outside the classroom
implicit work in the classroom
Implicit work in the classroom

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.

implicit work outside their classroom
Implicit work outside their classroom
  • Irene (GC, female, 31 years old, BA, MA):

“When I decorate the school’s notice boardfor national celebrations I do not use militaristic material”. 

  • Umut (TC, female, 40 years old, Teacher’s College)

  “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”.

explicit systematic work inside and outside the classroom
Explicit, systematic work inside and outside the classroom

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”.