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
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.
When Sajid Javid, the first Asian Secretary of State, talks about assimilation and immigrants learning to speak English, I do not naturally object to anything he is saying. His assertion that respecting a British way of life means “things like trying to learn English” seems sound, if a bit vague. My family, for the large part, did just that and expected their children to do the same. Conceptually, it’s a great idea.
My parents, East African Asian and first generation immigrants, spoke English pretty well as they came from former British colonies. My grandparents, older, more set in their ways, found it more challenging. Assimilation was an idea, a process that I absorbed without really thinking about what it meant politically. I grew up in a predominantly Asian community, choosing to speak English all the time, refusing to go to Gujerati school because my uncle was the teacher and I was too embarrassed to attend, having my friends call me a ‘coconut’ (brown on the outside and white on the inside) – these were all part of my every day experience. I became an English teacher. About as assimilated as you can be, I suppose.
I wonder though, and I may be wearing something of a cynical hat, how much of Sajid Javid’s statements are really about the value of language learning to families who arrive on our shores. In a political climate in which UKIP’s Nigel Farage openly scaremongers about Romanian families coming to live next door and possibly stealing from you, you can almost imagine the conversation at Tory headquarters. How does a mainstream political party join in the populist rhetoric on immigration and yet not be seen as a group of fascists or loons? I know, let’s send an Asian man to say it and then it won’t be seen as such a bad thing, because if the Asians are saying it, it’s okay right? Right? Dave, are you still listening?
So forgive me if I’m not seeing this for what it is – apparently an attempt by the Conservative Party to protect Britishness. It reads a little bit like pre-election UKIP neutralisation, a little bit like ‘easy for me, therefore easy for you’ lazy politicking and also a little bit like internalised oppression.
I teach English to London’s melting pot. I know the value of learning to speak the language of the country you are in. Not because speaking a different language is somehow an insult to the country you have chosen to live in, but because it is useful to be able to communicate with education and medical professionals, especially if you have children.
Recently, I set up English classes for parents of a particular ethnic group at my school as I identified that many parents from this group, and in particular, mothers were finding it difficult to communicate with teachers. Parents’ evenings were hard work and came with much embarrassment for all involved, children included. I found a member of support staff who was TEFL trained and finally found some money for her to teach English, after school was finished for the day, to a group of parents. The take up was fantastic and parents were enormously grateful for the opportunity. It proved to me what I already knew, that immigrant families are keen for the opportunity to learn and will take it when offered. My school made a small step in encouraging participation in society by doing something practical, by providing a solution. You see, Mr Javid, as someone who also believes that speaking English is important in England, I put my money where my mouth is.
What occurs to me is that in all the rhetoric, Sajid Javid has forgotten something very simple. Where is the government funding and access for keen families and individuals to learn English if they should wish it? While the will may be there from immigrant families, the financial ability to attend classes may not be. Schools could be, like mine, a hub for community learning, but there are staffing and funding implications for this. As a qualified English teacher, who knows how important it is to the parents of my students to speak English, I do not have the funding or the power to offer them a way to communicate. None of this has been addressed in Sajid Javid’s’s speech. What is worse is that his speech somewhat relies on the fact that people may not remember the Conservative government cut funding to ESOL classes in 2011, meaning fewer immigrants could access these classes for free. There will be people who ask why newcomers should have access to English classes for free. Well, people, you can’t have it both ways. I imagine, when it comes down to a choice between using limited family income on food, clothing and essentials, or English classes so no one around you feels uncomfortable when you speak your own language instead, it doesn’t take a genius to work out which route newcomers take.
There is a real opportunity here to do something extremely positive for new communities in the UK. I guess this is not just a Conservative issue; I am yet to hear any politician, mainstream or otherwise, provide a real solution to this age-old problem. Instead of just telling us from what seems like a fairly privileged position what you think about speaking English in England, you could use your influence to provide funding, possibly to schools that already have the premises and in many cases, the staff, for ESOL classes for the immigrant parents of the children. You could support the work of schools who already provide language classes for parents and the local community. If you are going to send an Asian man to deliver this message, you could have him explain how his family did it – and what resources they used to access the English language.
It would certainly take the fear and scaremongering out of the politics and serve to identify the political wheat from the chaff – parties that want to affect real change, not just pontificate on it.
Is 2012 the year that racism makes its name? It’s hard to ignore the fact that sports headlines have been less focused on, well, actual sport than the prejudicial antics of a few well known players. Whatever our opinions of John Terry and Luis Suarez, it seems that racism is not dead. The sad fact is that many school teachers could have told you this a long time ago.
In every school I’ve worked in, I have been startled and disappointed by the racial segregation that occurs on a daily basis in our canteens and playgrounds. I’m not even talking about what David Levin, the vice-chair of the Headmasters’ and Headmistresses’ Conference commented on last year when he stated that society was “sleepwalking towards Johannesburg” as schools became monocultural institutions serving small and distinct communities. Even in schools that cannot be designated as being populated by one particular racial group, the keen observer of teenagers will notice that they group together in factions of single cultures. The Asian students will befriend the Asian students, the Turkish will remain with the Turkish, the White with the White and the Black with the Black.
This need for grouping along cultural or racial lines is not new either. I remember attending a state comprehensive in Leicester and I am ashamed to admit that even though there were students from different backgrounds (very few, as it served a predominantly Asian area and therefore was made up of mostly Asian students), it did not occur to me to mix with those who were different to me. That happened later. Not at my sixth form college, mind you. I still tell colleagues and friends of the mini-apartheid that existed at this institution. In class, we mixed; in the canteen, one side was white, the other side brown and ne’er the twain did meet. It was only at university that I discovered friends from different backgrounds and started to consider what integration and what cultural inter-mixing really meant.
While there have been very few incidents of open racism in the schools I have worked in, I cannot help but wonder what this means for a society that is again starting to realise that race and class are as divisive as they have always been. This week, a fascinating TV documentary, Making Bradford British, will deal with the uncomfortable truth of our segregation. Like in our schools, Bradford is a city that contains lots of different ethnic groups who, on the surface, accept each others’ presence, but make no effort to understand each other. Our canteens are the starting line for this kind of social division. It begins in teenage years and it extends throughout lives.
There is a distinct difference between physical proximity to other cultures and actually understanding them. What is it that we need to do in schools to ensure that children grow up with an acute understanding of someone else’s religion, culture, race, background? The simple answer to this is to make Religious Education a fundamental, almost sacrosanct, part of the curriculum. I believe that this subject goes part of the way in addressing lack of basic knowledge about religion, but it does not necessarily deal with race and culture. Learning about the 5Ks of Sikhism does not mean that people from different cultures truly understand each other.
The Guardian article on Making Bradford British cites a publican called Audrey. Her statement – “I have lived in Bradford for more than 30 years and I have never been invited by an Asian to have Sunday lunch or a cup of tea,” – is hideously revealing. Firstly because Sunday lunch or cups of tea are culturally specific to her and secondly because she inadvertently identifies the problem. Our students are educated together, in seating plans that mean that they sit next to and work with other students from different cultures, but they don’t go round for dinner, or attend weddings together, or celebrate religious festivals together. Many students’ cultural experience is made up a thin veneer of multiculturalism – easily peeled away when they no longer even have to sit next to that person because their life choices mean that they’ve segregated for good.
Is it too uncomfortable to point out to our students that this is the case? Do we allow them to divide along racial lines because that is our own experience – the way it has always been and the way it will continue to be for generations to come? It would take a brave soul to begin, in an educational context, to tackle what most are too afraid to admit. Racism, for most of us, is something that footballers experience – it is Stephen Lawrence eighteen years ago, it is pictures from South Africa, or the American Deep South. We don’t look at our playgrounds closely enough, because then we might see that racial misunderstanding and the perpetual mystery that surrounds ‘other’ cultures begins very early.