Sometimes it feels like the world genuinely believes that racism is something that doesn’t *really* exist. Or if it ever did, it is something that you find in the pages of a history book.
But it’s not true, is it?
Over coffee the other day, my friends and I spoke in disbelief about the fact that anti-semitism actually exists. It was almost as if we couldn’t comprehend that people still hold beliefs about Jewish people that come from ancient and medieval ages. Disbelief that the politicians we look to might also hold those beliefs. The ridiculousness of it had us laughing. But for one of my friends, it wasn’t even remotely funny. She’s Jewish.
I shouldn’t be surprised. In teaching, you only need to scratch the surface of any school environment to hear and see things that make a snowflake like me clutch my chest in horror.
You want to hear?
“I don’t want to study RS. I don’t want to learn about ninja warriors and postboxes.” Child, it turns out, was referencing Muslim women.
“How am I racist? My mother uses those words all the time. Even my dad says they are ninja warriors.” Child, on explanation that terms used might be offensive.
“There are too many Paki shops in X.” Child, referencing local area.
“He looks like the underside of a shoe.” Child, referencing a black peer.
“His house smells like black people.” Child, referencing a black person’s home.
“I’m not being racist by using the ‘n’ word. I’ve got a black pass.” Child, explaining that he can use the ‘n’ word because he has asked his black friend for a ‘pass’ to use it.
“I called him a terrorist. Because he has a name that terrorists have.” Child, speaking about a Muslim peer.
It goes on. These are recent. From different sources, but recent. And yes, children misunderstand and say things they shouldn’t because they don’t know any different, but if we fail to challenge comments like these, what’s next?
Negative perceptions about race are so embedded in our society that the dialogue about race in schools has to be open and frank.
So, what do we do?
1. Don’t shy away from calling out racism and sanctioning. Children and the adults in their lives need to know what the red lines are.
2. Explain the impact of the terminology. It helps if you have BAME staff to reference (and I know lots of schools outside major urban centres don’t).
3. Pre-empt racism by referencing BAME history and culture in the curriculum. If no one knows anything about Islam other than what’s in the mainstream media, racism will proliferate.
4. Visibly value difference. Embed openness and equity into the culture of the school.
5. Address common misconceptions – actively deconstruct racist phrases or ideas. Don’t be timid.
Timidity and tiptoeing around the issue doesn’t change societies. Only head on discussion can do that. Let me know how it goes.
I am the woman that always has a clothes label sticking out somewhere. In any given day, some kindly person will reach behind me and tuck it in. And I, without fail, will apologise for that label and the fact that someone had to decide what to do with me.
You see, clothes labels are really useful things. They tell you what to do with the item. How to take care of it – how to fix the item if it is damaged in some way. It stays there as a reminder that the item needs to be nurtured. Lots of us become irritated by them – how many times have we cut the label out because we can’t forget it is there – perhaps it’s rubbing against our skin, making us feel uncomfortable. I do it all the time with the vain hope that people will not have to fix me up and make me presentable.
I have made many jokes over the years at various conference about winning the competition on how many labels I have. We categorise people in so many different ways and I have seen it as a laughing matter. So when I was thinking about my labels, I decided to create a pie chart of the make up of me. Mostly just in case my Maths teacher is watching – my Maths GCSE started with 30 mins of me panicking because I had forgotten how to draw a pie chart.
So if you want to see what my clothes label says – this is me.
It took a long time to decide how much of me I could allocate to the different labels. I am a woman. Quite considerably so, according the number here. I am also equally Asian. It gets harder when I have to decide just how much of me is on the LBGT spectrum. I define as bisexual and have been in a relationship with a woman for a long time. All of these categories I have become comfortable with – while I know they present me with challenges, I have spent my life getting to know them.
I have come to know myself as a Gryffindor too. This is not in jest. I will not have anyone disagree. I’ve taken the test.
It is my last label that is more recent and perhaps the one I struggle with the most. I learned not long ago that I have hearing loss in both ears and it is more pronounced in my left ear. I will be wearing a hearing aid soon to help me function in loud spaces, to help me understand what people are saying when I can’t see their faces.
I mean, I know I’m a woman and can’t lift heavy things or be in charge of a boardroom. I know that I am Asian and therefore should probably be teaching Science and not English. I know that I am bisexual and this means I am greedy/just not willing to admit I am gay.
But I was not prepared to be disabled, albeit in a small way. In some ways I have to confront here my own misgivings about having a hearing impairment in a profession that is built on listening to children in order to teach them. I sat in a car park and cried. Because this female, Asian, bi person didn’t want another label – especially one that could literally mean people think I cannot do my job. How many glass ceilings for me?
It has taken time to adjust to it. It chafed. I could feel it rubbing. But I have left it there because it gives people another way to know me.
Some people will say: if we take away all labels, we can just be people. I absolutely agree. I want to be able to teach without any of those. At the risk of sounding like a below the line Daily Mail commentator, stop going on about your labels – it creates the victim complex. It’s not important to the way you teach, so just shut up and get on with it. Identity politics creates resentment. I resent you and your labels.
I don’t think any of us walk around with our labels on our sleeves. If teaching is a profession in which your authentic self is required for children and adults alike to connect and know you, if it a profession in which people are the centre then I do not want to lie, either overtly or by omission.
The average 18-44 year old lies twice a day. I am sure that you are sitting there thinking – well that’s low. I can smash that statistic by 9am in the morning on any given school day. But the lies I tell because I have to are now starting to grate.
There are things I can’t say, choose not to say, places I won’t ever visit with my partner – and it is exhausting making all of those decisions about who I can be when I am simultaneously juggling the demands of the curriculum, behaviour, marking, meetings, paperwork. Wouldn’t it just be easier for me and more real for the students if I didn’t have to think about my pronouns so carefully? Or worry about who is going to see me with my partner in the local area?
I spoke recently about the curriculum and how having diverse voices delivering content doesn’t take away from what we teach our students – when we teach the Ramayana or about Malian women’s contributions to local industry, we are not saying do not teach about Wordsworth or Dickens. Perhaps as a female, Asian, bisexual, disabled Gryffindor, I can enrich rather than detract. Hiring me, allowing me to be free within a role, means a better education. Not because I am better. But because I can bring my knowledge and still teach yours really quite well. There is enough oxygen for all of our stories, told with pride. Authenticity in teachers allows students to understand humanity in all of its guises. We actively prevent learning when we lie, when we omit.
I have seen this quotation many times and it occurs to me that I no longer see it as being about other people. I see it as being about myself and about all of us that walk in different shoes. My silence about about me is collusion. I am colluding with the oppressor. It is unjust that I should be quiet, tuck in my labels to make everyone else feel comfortable, staff, students, parents alike. In remaining silent and not celebrating or sharing all of me as I am, I am complicit.
How can any of these things happen when we are silent?
I am not asking anyone to stand up and shout from the rooftops about their sexuality, disability, gender or heritage. But I am asking you to stand, metaphorically speaking. And speak about your truths without fear. And perhaps, when you feel brave enough because you have a room full of people willing to support you – to act, in the way that makes you feel that you are authentic.
So, if you see me again and my labels are sticking out. Maybe don’t tuck them in.
Closing keynote: Diverse Educators Conference, 6th January 2018
Chuka Umunna’s assertion that migrants need to learn English to avoid living parallel lives is most disconcerting. I heard this assertion over two years ago from less savoury quarters and was moved to comment on it at length. I won’t repeat what I said, as tempting as it is, you can read that for yourselves. When Sajid Javid proffered a similar point in 2014, I was embarrassed to see a man from an ethnic minority background with his feet firmly under the desk waving a stop sign to immigrants following in the same path as Javid’s family. It is not the first time I had heard a person of colour saying that new immigrants to the nation must meet a standard that they themselves had not been set, and it won’t be the last time either.
What irks me this time is that it is Labour minister making the assertion and it irks me on several levels. Let me explain. I am painfully aware, as a Labour voter, of the pressure the party is under to be something new, to reincarnate under a messianic leader and to be a credible opposition to a government that has had very little contest in the time it has taken to sort out who’s in charge at Labour HQ. But is this where the Labour Party is going? Did someone send a memo that said Nigel Farage is doing okay with voters in the north and I think we should put out statements that sort of sound like him?
One of the problems with Chuka Umunna’s declaration is that he is a bit late to the party. The Casey Review was commissioned over a year ago by the Prime Minister and Home Secretary, with a remit to investigate integration and opportunity in isolated and deprived communities. The review was released in December 2016. In its 199 pages, it outlined the reasons why learning English if you are new to the country is a good idea. It outlined clearly and with a sense of compassion that life is much harder for immigrants that do not speak English. No one can argue with that.
Take this and the fact that government policy on requirements for immigrants to speak English to be able to gain citizenship or leave to remain seems to be fairly clear – and I am left wondering: why bring this up now, Mr Umunna? Visit www.gov.uk and check the pages on immigration. It’s there. There’s a 15-page list of where you can take the tests to prove your English proficiency before or after you arrive.
So who is Chuka Umunna talking about? What kind of migrant? Refugees? The government have declared they are exempt from the requirement. Transient economic migrants? How do you enforce compulsory classes on a transient population? Established communities living parallel lives, then. I would argue that it would be even harder – and more expensive – to enforce language classes on high-ethnic minority concentration areas such as Bradford. Not because I think people would be unwilling. Immigrants do want to be able to communicate. But there isn’t a solution to that until somebody coughs up the money it would take to cover it. And who is going to explain that to austerity Britain, already chomping at the bit, that tax payers’ money is being spent on funding for immigrant language classes? I would volunteer, but I’m too busy trying to work out how to provide a quality education to students while the Conservative government merrily chips away at the finances.
Crucially, how do you make it happen when two years ago funding for ESOL delivery was slashed – in fact, when funding for ESOL has halved since 2009? I doff my hat to Sajid Javid for finding £20 million for ESOL for Muslim women, who are less likely to learn to speak English than other newcomers. But it doesn’t fix the gaping hole in ESOL funding. It’s still staring at us, while we stare at already marginalised communities and demand that they learn to speak properly.
That’s why Chuka Umunna’s lack of clarity makes me uneasy. That and the fervent desire to hear a leader say something refreshing and new about the society in which we all live and work. Focusing on immigrants speaking English, without a clear funding plan and without having considered the current government’s stance on this, seems a little pointless. Dear Labour Party: give me more than rehashed UKIP fodder, with a side of Conservative Javid.
Originally published as ‘It Costs Money to Teach Immigrants English, Mr Umunna’ on Huffington Post UK
I decided to go out on a Tuesday night in the middle of exam season. Before you get carried away with a largely inappropriate vision of me out on the proverbial, my days of wearing purple wigs and sashaying the night away to trance music are long behind me. My idea of a night out these days involves some sort of teaching event that carries the promise of a glass of wine or two and sure enough, one came along last week in the form of a panel event organised by Teach First on ‘Women in Leadership: Education, Business and Beyond’. I was happy to accept their invite to be a panel member, alongside Hannah Wilson, one of the co-founders of the WomenEd movement and Henrietta Baldock- Chairman of European Financial Institutions at Bank of America Merrill Lynch – one of Teach First’s partner organisations. We were ably chaired by Fiona Rawes, the Director of Community Impact at Teach First, who ensured that as many voices were heard as possible at this important event.
We dealt with two official questions on the night, as well as a raft of well-thought out and provoking ones from an audience that was made up of about 100 women in teaching and business and precisely 2 men. Hannah and I wryly noted that had the event been entitled: ‘Leadership: Education, Business and Beyond’, there may have been a greater balance between male and female delegates. I do wonder whether taking out the gendered title at these events is the right thing to do. We were due to talk about the lack of female headteachers and how to raise aspirations in the girls we teach. To me and many of the women in the room, this isn’t an exclusively female issue. As the night progressed, the ideas became more and more central: for more women to enter into positions of responsibility in schools, in businesses and in politics, support from male colleagues is essential.
When I left, I realised we had covered so much in the time given to us as panellists that it would be hard to capture all the ideas and questions in one place. What I can do is provide a run-down of my points in response to the main questions. And possibly leave with you with more questions to consider.
Recent figures, released by the Future Leaders Trust, show that the overall proportion of women taking on headteacher positions is not reflected by the number of women in the workforce. A government report on the school workforce in England, issued in 2014, showed that the state education sector is 74% female, yet only 65% of headteachers are women. If these percentages were equal, there would over 1,500 more female headteachers in the UK – a number that the Future Leaders Trust believes could potentially fill many long-standing headship vacancies.
Recent research by the Guardian showed there are more men called John running FTSE 100 companies than all the female bosses put together. Among chief executives and chairs of FTSE 100 companies, there were 17 men called John (or Jean) – and seven women.
What in your view is the most important way we could influence a change with leadership positions?
In a groundbreaking study in 1975, Don Zimmerman and Candace West tracked the interruption rates in conversations between men and women. The study can be read in its entirety at the link provided but the findings can be summarised succinctly in these tables:
Source: Zimmerman/West, 1975
Interruptions are interesting interaction mechanisms. They serve to assert dominance and control in a conversation. Ask a Year 10 student how Lady Macbeth asserts her dominance over her husband in Macbeth and she will tell you that she interrupts and questions. It is ironic that she is seen as a manifestation of a witch for doing so and ‘corrected’ at the end of the play for her foolish attempt to control her husband and usurp the Elizabethan natural order. The rota fortunae turns. Exit Lady Macbeth. And yet we have a study here that shows that mixed gender conversations are rife with interruption.
How does this contribute to our understanding of where all the female headteachers are? I explained that the results of this study, and all of the subsequent studies that proved the same phenomenon, are still being played out in education institutions and businesses today. Women make up the majority of the teaching workforce and disappear as you climb the ranks into senior leadership, headship and governance – a fact reinforced by Warwick Mansell in The Guardian here. If the daily experience of leadership in schools for women is working in environments not only physically, but verbally dominated by male colleagues, then why would anyone want to do it? It is exhausting and demoralising. And we might not even be aware of the issue and the reason why.
Rather than just pose the problem and pondered, I spoke about solutions. The solution doesn’t involve flinging down your meeting agenda and storming out of the room, neither does it involve shouting louder than your interruptor. It is the rain that grows flowers, not the thunder (thanks Rumi). Women have to train themselves to deal with interruption so they can be heard.
If this was the only problem then we’d be fine because women would just do this and make progress. I talked about ‘Askers and Guessers’ at the WomenEd Unconference in last year and I came back to the topic on Tuesday night. I read Oliver Burkeman’s article in The Guardian a long time ago and was citing the concept of Askers vs Guessers as his idea. Only on re-reading the article last week did I notice that the original idea came from Andrea Donderi, a woman, on a discussion forum. Irony klaxon.
The idea is simple. And it resonates with me as a female leader so completely because I am a Guesser. I have waited for promotion and hoped someone would notice my work and assumed that if I just worked harder, longer, better, then I would be promoted. And I stalled. This wasn’t a result of male oppression. This was me, not realising I could move into being an Asker.
If we want more women in headships, or being CEOs of MATs and global banking institutions, we have to coach and mentor them to be confident Askers.
In 1848 a religious advice pamphlet observed: “Some boys laugh at poor cripples when they see them in the street. Sometimes we meet a man with only one eye, or one arm, or one leg, or who has a humpback. How ought we to feel when we see them? We ought to pity them.”
Why did you come into teaching? I’m guessing this is a question that teachers across the country will be asking themselves whilst clutching at the last of the Christmas chocolates and knocking back the last of the Christmas wine. Indeed, I’m sitting here, eyeing the half-completed pile of marking, making optimistic plans to eat less and exercise more, regretting that last tub of Heroes and wondering where the hell my school shoes are – and I know this week, I will ask myself that question at 5.45 every morning…and possibly for the next three months at least. I have a sneaking suspicion that I will be less and less grateful to be employed as the week wears on.
But it is an important question. When we rock up to the university/training training programme, new folder and notepaper in hand, ready to learn about Vygotsky and Freire, we have all chosen to do so in the knowledge that the old adage about teaching is just not true. At least I hope we realise that ‘if you can’t, teach’ is an insidious misrepresentation of the worst kind. Some of us absolutely love our subjects and want to be employed using the knowledge we have gained in our education. Some of us do it because teaching is a craft to be mastered. Some of us because it is the least altruistic profession, in the same way giving a birthday gift might not really about the joy of giving to another person; it is simply the desire to feel that warm glow that says ‘I’m a good person’. To borrow a phrase I am rapidly coming to dislike, teaching might be for some folk a Jedi-level ‘virtue signal’.
So why do I do it?
I was once fresh-faced and enthusiastic, I thought I wanted to teach because I loved my subject and I wanted others to love it too. But it turns out that wasn’t entirely it. So here it is, on a blustery Sunday evening. The reason why I do it.
When I started teaching, I was given a Year 7 English class. They were also my tutor group. In that entirely mixed ability class, I met Vikesh* and I realised that I had absolutely no understanding as to how to teach him anything. Vikesh had been born with microcephaly; alongside having a distinctively small cranial cavity, he had the cognitive ability of a six year old boy. On top of that, he didn’t speak English. It was a lucky coincidence that we spoke the same home language and Vikesh didn’t judge me for having a six year old’s linguistic ability in Gujerati. I panicked. I became frustrated. What was I supposed to do with this boy? I had thirty other students and I wanted to teach. I couldn’t because he couldn’t learn like the others.
You’ll be reading this thinking that he should have been in a special school. I agree. But he wasn’t. He was there, with me in that classroom and I had to do something. My LSA – one of the best people I have ever met – embarked on a programme that meant that he would have some meaningful education. We learned letters. We learned sounds. We learned verbal communication. We played cricket in the aisle of the classroom when he achieved something small. The other students didn’t get any less of my time. It’s just that Vikesh got me in the blank spaces in my lesson when the others were scribbling away furiously. It as the most tired I had ever been in my life but I was finding something. In the midst of the madness of learning how to teach, I learned why I teach.
Because Vikesh – like so many students with additional needs – didn’t choose to be there. Society put him there. There was no provision for a child of his needs within a reasonable distance from his home and his parents knew he had to learn to be around people. I’m pretty certain that as much as he learned the basics, the children around him learned just as much about humanity and acceptance. He wasn’t to be pitied. He was a member of our community. And just like society is legally obliged to make reasonable adjustments to be compliant with the Disability Discrimination Act, I was obliged to make reasonable adjustments to my teaching. The discussion about what constitutes ‘reasonable adjustment’ is a valid one and it needs to be had. But exclusion on the grounds of special education need is much more problematic.
When we separate the act of teaching from its intended or unintended effects, we ignore that fact that whether we like it or not – for whatever reason we came into teaching in the first place – we change someone’s world. And we can either show the love and acceptance that comes with that, or we can move people into boxes. To teach is to change someone’s world, in a million ways, in a million moments.
If I believed that Vikesh should have been in a special school, or that Jenn* (blind, autistic, impaired mobility) or Henry* (a descendant of Dickens with Aspergers) should have a school for themselves, I would worry about the line. Where is the line in separating out students with additional needs? Who stays in a mainstream school? Vikesh is an extreme case, but if we start to categorise who we can and can’t teach, that way trouble lies.
This brings me to the other reason. The fundamental belief that teachers, not politicians, are the engineers of society they want to live in. I don’t want to live in a society that places people in neat little boxes so that I can get on with it. By believing that teaching is more that a knowledge-delivery system, we subscribe to William Temple‘s school of thought:
‘Are you going to treat a man as he is or as he might be? Morality requires that you should treat him as he might be, as he has it in him to become…Raising what he is to what he might be is the work of education.’
As I put in the years at inner-city schools, I came to know that exclusion in any form is wrong – either in segregation according to educational need or as a method of managing behaviour. And the statistics on exclusion and SEN make for horrible reading. The brilliant and well-informed blog, Ed Yourself, points out:
The single biggest reason for permanent exclusion from school is “persistent disruptive behaviour” and two thirds of pupils who are permanently excluded have some degree of special educational needs, with 1 in 10 having a statement.
Let’s throw race into the mix just to see what happens when we start to see children as categories and not people…
Combine some of the greatest risk-factors for exclusion and you have this: a black boy, with SEN and claiming free school meals is 168 times more likely to be permanently excluded than a white girl with no additional needs, who does not claim free school meals (Institute of Race Relations).
Add to that the fact that exclusions are on the rise in academies and free schools due to a lack of legislative clarity on the mandate to use alternative provision in educational establishments that are guided by their funding agreement and not the Education Act – we have a bigger problem than we think in how we deal with students who do not fit the ideal.
Add that to the study that outlines the correlation between permanent exclusion and crime and you have a problem that exists not in the classroom, disrupting your teaching of a poetry anthology, but in your streets, in your prisons, in your morgues.
I don’t have the answers to the challenges of teaching students with all sorts of different needs because I don’t think there are any hard and fast answers. What I do know is that these children – the dyslexic, the dyspraxic, the rich, the poor, the able and not so able – are in our care. And we have a duty to make sure that we make reasonable adjustments to ensure that they achieve their potential. Because that is what changes worlds.
When I get up tomorrow, as hard as it might be to prop my eyelids open with the burnt-oust matchsticks of a great Christmas, I will remember that my job is to teach. And that ‘teaching’ means more that being in the room, delivering content.
Speak to me in a week and you may find less fighting spirit in me, but for now, before I go and find those shoes, this is it.