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Challenging discrimination in the teaching context

Within your role as a clinical teacher you will at times be required to challenge learners over their behaviour because you feel it is potentially discriminatory.

You are required to challenge in order to:

  • ensure you create a learning environment that is free of discrimination and that values difference
  • reinforce the policies and procedures of your organisation
  • ensure you do not breach the equalities legal framework.

Knowing what to challenge, and when to challenge, can be tricky and open to personal interpretation. There are some non-negotiables re inappropriate language/behaviour e.g. swearing, language that is racist/sexist/homophobic, etc. We can often find debate over questions such as ‘what constitutes inappropriate banter?’ or ‘They meant no offence by a comment – do I still need to challenge?’

However, not challenging is not a neutral act – it can be seen as colluding behaviour.

Guiding principles re challenging

If in doubt about whether you should challenge someone’s behaviour or not, consider the following.

  • Is the banter/joke/comment excluding anyone or aimed at anyone in order to ridicule them?
  • Could someone be offended by the behaviour?
  • Lack of intention is not an excuse for behaviour. You are required to consider and manage the effect of behaviour.
  • Is the banter/joke/behaviour open to misinterpretation or misunderstanding?

How to challenge

There is no definite way to challenge inappropriate behaviour and no doubt you will find your own approach to challenging effectively. The following may be useful to consider.

  • Don’t punish or blame – say what is better.
  • Understand your audience. Think about your role in the situation – clinical practitioner, colleague, manager – and consider this in your approach.
  • State your position: ‘That’s disrespectful; we don’t talk about patients like that.’
  • Understand the situation. Do you challenge there and then, or quietly at a later date? What will be most effective for the person involved/for those witnessing the incident?

Case studies

Sometimes you need to respond to remarks and situations that might be discriminatory. The next exercise gives you an opportunity to practise some skills and strategies and consider good practice in these situations.

What issues are raised by the following situations?

1. You observe a trainee talking to a patient with learning disabilities. The patient has a speech impairment which means that his speech is slow. The trainee continually interrupts him and finishes his sentences for him.

2. A learner has raised with you that they do not feel confident when discussing disability issues with patients as they are not sure they are using the latest ‘pc’ language and terminology relating to this group. They are worried they may be open to challenge and not have the knowledge or confidence to respond. You recognise that this could be an issue for other learners in your group.

3. You have noticed that a trainee tends to make a number of assumptions when referring to patients’ social identity. For example she often says things like ‘Asian people do this’ or ‘gay men are known for doing that’. You are worried it may demonstrate underlying issues.

4. A tutorial has just begun and a student makes a joke about Polish people being everywhere. The group laughs awkwardly and no one challenges.

5. The standard of college work produced by a student has recently shown a marked decline. When you talk to the learner about this she says that she is experiencing racist behaviour from another learner on the course and is finding this impossible to cope with.

Please see our suggested responses to the above.


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