Moving Forward in Education after the murder of George Floyd
Updated: Oct 16, 2020
A lot has changed between March and now, it has been a year of grief, suffering, stagnation but also growth. Parents and educators alike have like everyone else undergone a period of reflection, adaptation and uncertainty.
As a secondary school teacher and parent I also faced my own challenges with my youngest son of 17 who struggled to stay at home during Lockdown and stay motivated enough to submit his work on time. Like many parents I was out of my depth with his subjects and unable to offer my support with his Maths and Physics work, all I could do was nod my head at the page of work in front of me during my spot checks, and smile encouragingly. ‘Don’t forget to submit your work’ I’d say like a broken record, conscious that to my frustration he often built up his work to the end of the week and submitted it all in chunks, missing the window of opportunity to get feedback. I felt for the teacher that received that as work as I knew that tasks not handed in on time were destined to becomes a homeless child, competing for attention. And like other working parents our own attention is often divided, making it more difficult to be as involved with our children as we would like to be. In the end he became so disillusioned by the support he was being offered from his college, by June he had decided to brave the world by doing an apprenticeship instead. What do you do as a parent in that situation? On the one hand I knew that he was disappointed that he couldn’t participate in his practical engineering course, but also I knew that his lack of support was partially down to his lack of engagement, but this had started before lockdown and reflected a nagging lack of trust in most of the adults he’d engaged with since year 8. Always in the top classes he did just enough to stay under the radar and not get detention, but never reaching his full potential. The more I thought about this I realised that in every inner city school I’d worked at I’d seen this lack of trust and motivation from a large number of Black and other Minority groups repeated in varying forms, that often started at some point between year 7 and 9. And as the anger and horror of the murder of George Floyd gripped so many people and hurt us to the core, young people in particular found their common humanity and took to the streets to voice their outrage and pain. As for myself, as time has gone on these feelings have given way to reflection about my own career and the observations about my own children and students in my care over the years.
Frustrations are often hard to articulate, particularly when emotions run high and the subtle tendrils of systemic racism become entangled within our lives to the point where it becomes the norm. This type of racism often manifests itself as conscious and unconscious bias within people who have authority over others and have the best intentions, rather than simply a bad individual with overt and extremely offensive ideologies. Systemic racism is built into the accepted social norms of how we live, professional practices of companies, education institutions and our criminal justice system and clouds our perceptions, making us more susceptible to believing bias media reporting and stereotypical images of black people and other minorities in the entertainment industry.
The more I reflected, the more I faced the undeniable prospect that the negative experiences against me I had experienced over the years were because of my colour. I had always tried to make excuses for other people’s behaviour saying maybe it was because of my age, because I am a woman, a parent, or living in a particular area. I even examined my own behaviour first knowing that I could be a target because of my colour, but because I’ve always taken great care in my career to conduct myself with integrity and professionalism, I could not find anything in my actions that would explain other people’s behaviour. Or should I say I could find something, the common theme seemed to be that I may have voiced an opinion that challenged the ‘norms’ of a school that were adversely affecting children, parents or other members of staff (particularly teaching assistants). More disturbing were reports from my own children that they perceived policies and people in their schools as racist, creating a conflict of interest for me as a teacher. Deep down I knew that what they were saying was probably correct but knowing that their responses to their treatment were not always the best I rarely spoke to their schools about these concerns. I understood their frustrations and sympathised as I had seen these types of incidents play out in schools I’d also worked in. But I felt powerless to do anything, should I become the naggy parent who stuck up for their child no matter what they did wrong. The only thing I could think of to do was to reinforce the need to be beyond reproach, however observations in lessons in recent schools have shown me that this did not always work and the expectation that a black boy for example would misbehave would often result in him being blamed for something another child nearby did. (Something I’m only now realising was the reason teachers always picked on me in my all white schools) I also observed misinterpretation of types of behaviour like loud talking and banter in the playground in groups being linked to gang culture and well-behaved black girls being sent home for wearing their natural hair out in ‘defiance’ of the uniform policy.
I have tried over my 14 years in schools to follow the firm but fair rule setting high expectations of all my students and instilling in them the expectation that they deserve to do well. This issue of lack of motivation and confidence from some students and low expectations from teachers goes far deeper than simply a colour or cultural bias, it is also about class. I was shocked in a recent school to have several white working class children speak about themselves as being dumb and unable to achieve, with a level of defeatism that made me want to cry. These moments of me speaking confidence, self-love, belief and high expectations into these young people of all colours and cultures who sometimes carry this label with them in a multitude of different ways, are more valuable than what is being taught. It demonstrates the necessity of pastoral systems that provide true support between the child, family and school. It should never be a situation of ‘them and us’ but even as I sat getting my first hair cut the other day since lockdown, I listened to the visceral mistrust of the hairdresser as she spoke about the attitudes of staff at the school both our children had attended. I knew that experience all too well having been on the receiving end of more condescending staff members over the past 15 years than supportive staff. Again, something that I highlighted to colleagues frequently in various schools. You are unlikely to gain the trust and respect of the student if you do not show that same trust and respect to the parent.
What pupils are being taught has always been a source of frustration to me. As my Dad used to say, he was never interested in History as there was never anyone that he could relate to. It seems to me a most basic concept that buy in from students is dependent on them being able to relate to what they are learning. I only started to understand Maths GCSE when I understood how what I was learning could be applied in real life. Studies show that only a few people are able to learn something abstract and with no context, the rest of us need something tangible to help us grasp concepts. I also teach Geography so for me to link History to the world today was not a big jump and has always provoked an ‘Aha’ moment from students, along with smiles, nods and further questions. But what creates the most amount of engagement from students is breaking the shackles of eurocentrism and promoting diversity that links with the area they are living in. Primary schools are good at promoting Global Learning but for some reason it seems to get lost in the march towards teaching exam content. The government is adamant that more British History is taught, however the NC excludes much of Britain’s colonial roots, economic development, and migration patterns. All integral parts of understanding this nation. I do not understand how teachers are teaching the Industrial Revolution, a key component of British History without talking about Slavery, Empire and Trade – no disrespect to my colleagues but it simply cannot be taught properly without these topics.
‘De-Cololonising the Curriculum’ has become a movement in universities with students at the heart and has slowly been gaining support, although some academics clearly feel it is a challenge to the foundation of their white, male conventions so are vehemently apposed. Schools and departments have slowly started to implement changes such as wider reading lists that include people of colour, links in science and maths to techniques and historical origins outside of Europe. For me as a KS3 and 4 teacher I see opportunities at every point in History to diversify the Curriculum. Whether this be comparisons between Medieval Europe to Medieval African Kingdoms and Empires, Jews and the Normans, Renaissance to the Muslim world, Blacks in Britain during Tudor times or the economic wealth of India before Britain invaded, the list goes on. It is important that students see positive images of those outside of Europe to combat this notion that ‘white is right’, ‘west and the rest’ and the concept of the ‘other’. Concepts that lay the foundations of unconscious bias against those not White and western European and encourage implicit negative self-worth by some Black, Asian and other Minorities. I think that my friends’ 17 year old summed things up beautifully when she wrote this letter to her school after the murder of George Floyd. The letter can be viewed in the gallery.
This brings forward the issues of who is educating our students, particularly here in inner city schools. I have participated in some very interesting online discussions and park discussion circles with other educators interested in challenging their own bias and overwhelmingly they say the same things. Many talk about coming from all white areas outside of London who never had discussions about race within their families or friendship circles. They also talk about not knowing much about Black British History, I know that I only found out about the British Civil Rights movement as an adult, but we are all taught about the Peasants Revolt, Chartists and the Women’s Suffrage Movement. Many feel passionate about wanting to connect with their students but struggle to understand the cultural differences and challenges of the students they teach in the Ethnically Diverse schools they work in. I was touched by the humility and willingness to question their own racial bias which for me is where we all must start from. We are all products of whatever community we have been brought up in and so we all have conditionings learned through our families and the wider society. I know that I have been surprised at times when meeting different people from various backgrounds because they challenged a conscious/unconscious stereotype that I had. It is my job to educate myself further about these differences so that I can gain a better appreciation of that person’s background. Openness, reflectiveness, and willingness to learn and adapt is what will change the unfair disparities that People of Colour face. It is this HOPE that has led me to create this business so that young people can reap the benefits of a more diverse curriculum and educators that are more aware and knowledgeable.