On a sunny Sunday in Glasgow, dozens of IHRA delegates joined dozens of Scotland’s teachers for the first international conference on Holocaust education in Scotland. “You should know, dear colleagues, that the schools in Scotland break up at the end of this week for summer holidays,” UK IHRA delegate and founder of Vision Schools Scotland Dr. Paula Cowan said as she took to the stage. “So, you’re sitting amongst some very tired Scottish teachers today.” 

The room filled with laughter and the delegates quickly realized: these teachers, who had taken their Sunday off and come from all over Scotland to Glasgow, were, like them, dedicated to making Holocaust education an important part of people’s lives. Teaching about the Holocaust is not mandatory in Scotland. But as the day progressed, IHRA delegates would see the many ways teachers and schools were weaving Holocaust education into their curricula. Because the schools were being guided by the Vision Schools Scotland program, their efforts were not only innovative and creative, but also highly effective. 

Vision Schools Scotland’s unique approach to overcoming Holocaust education’s unique challenges

Established in 2017, Vision Schools Scotland helps teachers and schools along their journey to embed Holocaust education throughout young people’s education. English Teachers Susan Brownlie and Jennifer Higgins are in the middle of this journey. Their school, St. Andrew’s and St. Bride’s High School in South Lanarkshire, is accredited as a Level 1 Vision School, meaning it has shown that it makes use of good practice when teaching about the Holocaust, that its approaches are sustainable, and that teachers have ample opportunity to participate in continued professional learning in teaching about the Holocaust and share knowledge with their peers.  

I think it’s never easy to teach the Holocaust,” Lord Eric Pickles, IHRA Chair under the UK IHRA Presidency underlined during his welcome address. “The curriculum is pretty cramped and it’s a difficult thing to do. But the Holocaust is unique in that there is a whole bunch of people out there trying to discredit everything we do and everything we say about the Holocaust. There’s even state-sponsored Holocaust denial and distortion.” 

Against this backdrop, teaching about the Holocaust may feel like a tall order. There was a time when it did for Susan Brownlie. “I was growing concerned about the gaps in my own knowledge and this was making me reconsider whether I wanted to teach around this at all,” she said.   

It just feels like something you're meant to do.

Vision Schools Scotland serves as a mentor in teaching about the Holocaust, helping teachers, administrators, and students navigate this challenging terrain. A partnership between the School of Education and Social Sciences at the University of West Scotland (UWS) and the Holocaust Educational Trust, they train teachers and provide helpful, empowering feedback on anything from PowerPoints and lessons to commemoration activities and site visits.  

Importantly, Dr. Cowan emphasized, the accreditation “is a school award – it’s not a teacher’s award.” This goes a long way in addressing common barriers to Holocaust education, which can include lack of support from senior management and lack of funding. For Susan and Jennifer, connecting with other teachers, especially those from other departments, was also sometimes a challenge – like in many other places, teachers are overworked, and they felt unsure if reaching out would add to their workload. The teachers involved in Vision Schools Scotland now function like a go-to network for them and a reliable resource. This has made it easier for them to introduce an interdisciplinary approach to teaching about the Holocaust, where the subject rotates from discipline to discipline, with each lesson building on the work of the previous teacher.  

While their school’s working group is still ironing out the kinks, the effort is worthwhile. For both Susan and Jennifer, Holocaust education “just feels like something you’re meant to do.”

International conference highlights new and practical approaches

For the teachers from Scotland and the IHRA delegates alike, the Teacher Conference introduced them to new approaches that are easy to put into practice. They saw how they could use the UK Holocaust Map from the Association of Jewish Refugees, for example, which localizes this history and means that even when funding is tight, schools can take part in a site visit – without needing to board a plane.   

Dr. Robert Williams, IHRA Advisor and Finci-Viterbi Executive Director of the USC Shoah Foundation, provided a valuable overview of common forms of Holocaust distortion. That teachers need to highlight the role of antisemitism in the Holocaust was also a key takeaway. Keynote speaker IHRA delegate Prof. Mehnaz Afridi also gave teachers valuable starting points for teaching the Holocaust to Muslim students, based on her own course, “Muslims and the Holocaust,” and her interfaith work.  

All this helped Susan and Jennifer have the courage not to shy away from difficult conversations and, as Jennifer put it, “feel better prepared to discuss the current situation in a more informed way.”  

For Susan, this level of support and knowledge sharing is starkly different to when she first started teaching the Holocaust. “When I think back to the early 2000s, I felt pretty much on my own and I didn’t really know where to go to get that training,” she said. “But there are so many opportunities now to join webinars all over the world. There’s an incredible network within reach.”  

For teachers unsure of how to take the first step, both Susan and Jennifer encouraged them to seize the opportunity. With so many quality resources available, from organizations like the IHRA, the Holocaust Education Trust, and others, teachers do not need to start from scratch. They can also take a bite-sized approach, starting small and building their expertise in the area.  

Both in Scotland, and across the IHRA network of 35 countries, teaching about the Holocaust is more important than ever. That means helping teachers do so with passion and confidence, sustainably and based on good practice, is too.

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