Dr. Spilchuk – British Teacher Imprisoned in Sudan over Naming of Teddy Bear2017-06-02T14:25:38+00:00
Dear Dr. Spilchuk…

December, 2007

British Teacher Imprisoned in Sudan over Naming of Teddy Bear

Travel/Work Warning to Sudan Area

For background information see the following:

New York Times Article 11-30

Guardian Article – Sudanese government is fanning the flames of hatred

Dear Dr. Spilchuk,

I find it interesting that the issue of an American teacher in Kuwait had so much coverage recently with ISR yet I can see no comment yet about the British teacher in Khartoum, Sudan. Why?

The issue of calling a teddy bear Mohammad when half of the arabic population of the world is called Mohammad seems to be a contradiction – either the name is sacred and not used or it is used, as the name Jesus is, when and where appropriate.

Is this yet another aggressive reaction against teachers who are willing to place their lives in danger by working in such places for the benefit of children. Perhaps as educators the time is right for teachers to withdraw from working in these countries.

Regards,

Concerned

Hello Concerned,

In fact, I emailed the Editor of ISR immediately the situation of the British teacher became public knowledge. While I absolutely agree with your position, I must also support my editor’s contention that the two situations, that is, the one in Kuwait and the one in Sudan are not parallel. The Katherine Phillips’ situation was not religion bound, but rather school policy situated. This latest situation appears to be, at least from the outside, religion bound for that portion of the Muslim population in Sudan who are now persecuting this international teacher.

While I understand, having spent time in a Muslim country, that a majority of the boys in a Muslim school may be called Mohammed after the prophet, my first and continued reaction is that from a primary child’s point of view, the children calling a bear ‘Muhammed’ as a favored name is a natural childhood response. Piaget clearly indicates that the stages of cognitive development of primary school children are, in order, first ‘self’, then family, then school and finally, others in their own community. As such, it was not a religious but likely a childhood developmental stage that prompted the children in Sudan who are in Primary school to name the teddy bear by this name. The teacher responded to the children’s need to validate their input into the naming of the bear by following through on their choice. It is a terrible situation when this type of innocent and natural childhood developmental teacher response is seen as anything other than a validation of the children’s choice.

I have asked the Editor ISR to print my response as well as your letter to me. I have also asked him to put a strong warning to international teachers on our site that the situation in Sudan suggests that radical religious beliefs will precede solid childhood developmental research into good teaching beliefs/practice in that location, thereby putting Western primary/elementary teachers in jeopardy.

It is not right to use religion to persecute another human being in such an innocent setting as a school, particularly when local people in a country have actively encouraged Westerners with different religions, thoughts and beliefs to come to their location to teach their children. There must be some compassion demonstrated for those invited into the community, some caring and consideration for their differences and some tolerance for their responses which may not be exact in the local religious context. Otherwise, I’m afraid it is just not acceptable to continue to invite Western teachers to come into your country to provide a teaching service to local students who want an international education.

I am further asking the editor ISR to place a Travel Warning to all international teachers already in the Sudan area and those contemplating working there that they need to rethink their present/future work contracts in that area. I am asking the editor ISR to publish this Travel Warning continuously in newsletters to our membership and on our web site.

I am praying for the British teacher who is your country woman, and would dearly love to become involved in ensuring her safe return to her family.

Sincerely

Barbara

Responses to This Column

Posted to ISR Forum : Fri Nov 30, 2007 7:12 am Post subject: Teddy Bear Mohammed issue:

I’m a foreign teacher in an Islamic country. The story about Gillian Gibbons, who was convicted of insulting religion because she allowed her students to name their teddy bear “Mohamed,” is VERY disturbing. Consider that the name Mohamed is a name as common as Josh or Steve. The IT guy at my school is named Mohamed, as is the caretaker at my apartment building, both of the taxi drivers I usually call when I need a ride, one member of the teaching staff, and two of my students. One of my students goes by the nickname of “Momo.” Am I insulting religion by allowing my students to use that nickname in place of “Mohamed”?

Is there is a conspiracy of silence in the international school community about the volatility of the Islamic world and what that means for teachers? With my heavy teaching load, I haven’t made a lot of progress with Arabic language study, but one doesn’t need fluency to register the angry hostility of ranting and raving that is broadcast from loudspeakers at the mosque at every Friday sermon. Our teacher housing is right next door to a mosque, and it is absolutely horrifying to me. At the same time there is a facade of modernization and casual attitudes that can lull one into relaxing one’s behavior. Incidents like the current affair in Sudan should be a wake-up call. I just don’t understand the absence of protest and response. Robert Bolous, the director of Unity School where this all took place, has refused to appeal the sentence. What message does that leave?


Posted to ISR Forum: Fri Nov 30, 2007 11:40 am Just imagine calling fluffy little Ted ‘Jesus’ in the mid west. I wonder what the response would be.


Posted to ISR Forum : Fri Nov 30, 2007 12:34 pm (afternoon): I thought of that. A truer comparison would be a “Teodoro-Jesus” in a Mexican community, where the name “Jesus” is commonly used just as “Mohammed” is used here. Would Mexicans rally for the teacher’s punishment if somebody named a Teddy Bear “Jesus”? I really don’t think so. Anyhow, I am as politically correct as the next guy – campaigned for Nader and the Green! But living in the Middle East raises issues that go deeper than political stripe.


Posted to ISR Forum: Fri Nov 30, 2007 11:27 pm (evening): Unfortunately today, as reported on news sources, there were large protests in Khartoum asking for execution of Gillian and the government moved her from the women’s prison to an undisclosed location for her safety.

There were a number of teachers from Gillian’s school in Sudan on a TES forum yesterday but they do not seem to be on there today. Am wondering if they have all left the country for their own safety. Yesterday they reported that it was a secretary at their school who pressed charges against Gillian and started this whole thing. The teachers were very angry. This woman allegedly was the witness against Gillian at the trial yesterday. It was for revenge for something quite trivial and her fellow teachers all stated Gillian is a wonderful teacher and person and would never do anything to hurt anyone. Let’s hope they get this straightened out post haste. Wish they would just deport her right now……..which they may have already done. Who knows?


Dear Dr. Spilchuk:

In Dubai, we were all appalled to hear of the controversy surrounding the extremely harsh sentenced meted out to the British teacher whose class called its teddy bear Mohammed. While many of my colleagues felt that it was a shame, many of us also felt that she ought to have known better.

But wait a minute: what kind of cultural sensitivity training do most schools in the Arab world offer? I had about a one hour session in my current school here in Dubai and perhaps two hours in my previous school in another Gulf state. When the name Mohammed is, hands down, the most popular named in the region, how is a newly recruited teacher to know that it would be inappropriate to name an animal after the Prophet? I learned these sorts of things only through a decade (and more!) of trial and error, angry explanations, confused apologies and red faces.

Teachers who come to teach in the Arab world must realize that they really are coming to a different world. However, the onus for cultural sensitivity training lies firmly with the school. An hour or two session really is insufficient. Schools need to organize more lectures, language lessons and opportunities to learn more about the local culture rather than leaving new teachers to flounder in a morass of ignorance.

If you find it appropriate, I hope you would consider adding this letter to your ISR web site (where I am a grateful and paid up member!).

Kind regards,

Teacher in Dubai


Dear Teacher in Dubai

Well put! I have given you a pseudonym to protect you in this correspondence as one never knows where it will fly. The world is sometimes upside down and this is certainly an
upside-down situation.

Sensitivity aside, childhood development is the pillar upon which I will stand in all of my responses. If we want the world community to be a better place for children to live in, then we must teach them that tolerance is a virtue. If we want to ensure that the needs of children come above those of state, politics and religion, then we must fall back on theoretical masters in child development such as Piaget and Vygotsky. Note the names. They are, neither of them, British. Nor are they Sudanese. These are masters long gone who simply spoke of what was good childhood development and educational practice regardless of where a child lives; their thoughts cross borders to children everywhere.

This is the pillar upon which I will stand in support of the British teacher. Please stand beside me. I believe this is the only way to support children, their education and their teachers, regardless of where they are located. In the end, however, I am so terribly distraught, as are international teachers around the world, that a teacher who did nothing more than honor the children is being persecuted in such an unreasonable and horrific way!

Sincerely,

Barbara


Dear Dr. Spilchuk,

While I appreciate that we are all up in arms about this event, myself included, I must say as I always do…we are not in Kansas, or Dorchester or Perth. We often make it sound like we are doing some kind of a favor by teaching in their countries. Khartoum is not Darfur. It is not Gaza. Such an attitude is inherently condescending and patronizing. It is that superiority that we often feel that gets us into trouble. We teach for ourselves, for our own satisfaction, for our own pockets. We are not doing any favors.

While I could have stepped my foot into this same hot water, I would have to say…oops! My mistake. We all read. We know of the Mohammed cartoons. We know of Salmun Rushdie. Don’t mess with Mohammed! If I choose to accept a job at KICS, Unity, or the American School in Khartoum, I had best know the rules, norms and more’s of the culture. (I might here add that I was “detained” there once for being alone in a car with someone who was not my husband.)

Now, at the risk or being arrested and thrown in Guantanamo, let us look at this for a moment in a different context — a political one. Extremism begets extremism. If one looks “Middle Eastern” in America, speaks in support of this or that Muslim cause, questions the legality of George Bush’s actions, speaks openly about the atrocities committed in Iraq, carries a Qu’ran on a public conveyance, goes to the mosque too often, supports Muslim unity, or attends a Muslim school, s/he had better look out. Chances of losing a job, being arrested, being labeled “enemy combatant” or “sleeper cell’ member, being jailed for “questioning” or even being deported are significant.

In this period of aggression against any and every thing or person Islamic, why wouldn’t we expect retaliation and over-reaction, right or wrong, when we cross the line. Like begets like.

Thanks,

The Resource


Dear The Resource

I appreciate your position; however, I think we must look at who we are as teachers above all else. We are not in this businees to promote any political or religious conviction. We are certainly not in this business to line our pockets. The wages of an international teacher anywhere in the world are quite insignificant by comparison to that of the corporate world. There has to be a love of children and teaching at the root of why we do what we do…else why stay in teaching? One can make significantly more money in many other careers.

We are in this business to promote good, solid theory into practice while crossing borders to children in other places to share our knowledge. Compassion above all else is what we should be teaching children, whether in Kansas, London, Paris, Toronto or Khartoum. Children are the future of this world, not pawns to be manouevered. The ‘Bear’ project crosses all borders of understanding to children. I wonder what the world would be like if we all saw the world in a gentler way.

Best
Barbara


Dear ISR Readers

I am an educator. I will not get into political or religious debates with ISR readers about the situation in Khartoum. From an educational point of view, I stand solidly behind and beside the British teacher. The classroom cannot and should not be a place where hatred and difference presides. It should be a place where caring and sharing lives. It is a childhood place where gentleness and trust are born and children’s thoughts and ideas are validated. Adults who cross into that caring place with messages of intolerance and disdain violate the very core of education.

Dr. Barbara Spilchuk
Online Teacher Advisor
International Schools Review


Dear Dr. Spilchuk

I echo the concern that the Director of Unity doesn’t seem to have made a public stand in support of Gillian Gibbons, although I realise why – it might have cost him his job and put the school in jeopardy. If this is the case then one has to ask if Unity High School or any other international school should be operating in Sudan at this point in time.

The teacher in Dubai is quite right to point out that international schools have a responsibility to make new staff aware of areas of cultural sensitivity, however its way off the mark to suggest cultural insensitivity by Gillian for allowing the Teddy to be named Mohammed. Was she walking down the street waving the Teddy around and calling it Mohammed in public?

I fully agree with a you, and those teachers who have declared their unequivocal support for Gillian, that
bigotry and intolerance have no place in a classroom. It is also quite absurd to suggest that all teachers
working internationally, particularly in places like Sudan, do so for purely selfish reasons and to get rich. Gillian Gibbons would have earned far more in the UK and she would have enjoyed a much higher standard of living had she stayed at home.

Thanks for your support and good work.

African Teacher


Dear African Teacher

You make some excellent points. I absolutely agree that its seems quite ridiculous that among International teaching professionals, there would even be a discussion about any form of culpability on Gillian’s behalf.

I have also wondered about the role the school Director appears to have taken. I have certainly considered that his apparent lack of overt support for Gillian is necessary given the rather extreme danger in the circumstances. One has to wonder how safe it is in Khartoum for any international teacher right now, particularly one who speaks out in defense of Gillian.

Thanks for standing beside me in support of Ms. Gibbons. Wouldn’t it be wonderful if the international teaching body could circle the globe through cyber communication in a united stand on her behalf?

Barbara

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