This blog comes from Vice Principal and Co Founder of Mindful Equity, Aretha Banton (@Reah_banton)
I don’t want to be positioned as the angry Black girl in the corner, who when she tells her truth is isolated, unheard and ignored. But, when we have discussions about race and equality with our colleagues, this is too often the reality.
So, what do we do? We stop speaking, we conform and we accept the unacceptable in the hope that one day, we will make it to a level where we can influence change. Our compromise… our pact… is silence.
I recently came across this tweet:
‘Calling white educators! Check out the links below… Learn something new about BAME and education. #BlackLivesMatter’.
This got me thinking. Why did my fellow educators need a tweet to call them to action? Why didn’t they speak to me when they passed me in the hallway? Why didn’t they speak to me when we had lunch in the canteen or a drink in the pub? Why didn’t they speak to me when we were planning the curriculum? Why did the tweeter assume that Black educators somehow have an innate knowledge of Black history and therefore do not need to learn more? Why are we so scared of speaking to each other about race?
Bold Conversations about Race
Silence is a major issue. The ability to speak openly and freely is heavily tainted with fear and judgement. In order to really move forwards we need to ensure that our schools are safe places — safe for students, safe for staff, safe for governors, safe for parents.
It takes a lot of courage and energy to speak to colleagues and SLT about race and equality. Whenever I have these conversations, it takes me hours and sometimes days to even book the meeting. I rehearse like crazy so that emotion is stripped away from my semi-scripted conversation. I don’t sleep well or eat well. There is a constant pit of anxiety in my stomach.
When having the discussion, I know that I will leave controversial bits unsaid. I use terms such as ‘can I speak freely’, ‘I don’t mean any offence but…’ I am not GI Jane so why do I feel like I have to ask for permission to speak freely. I am a professional. I am eloquent. I am able to navigate complex situations. So why don’t I trust myself to speak freely, and why don’t I trust those around me to listen to what is actually being said?
Our compromise… our pact… is silence.
For my colleagues, it is difficult to discuss race and equality unless we are speaking about civil rights history or black history month. I get it. When is the right time to discuss these issues otherwise? What if what you say causes some offence? What if you say the wrong thing or it is taken out of context? You too need to trust your ability to navigate these challenging conversations.
But now is the time to have open, non-judgemental discussions about race and equality. As SLT, we need to ensure that we create the space for this to happen, even if this has to take place remotely. We also need to ensure that we are prepared to have these discussions with staff ourselves… frequently.
If leaders close down debate and discussion and fail to model how positive discussion can be achieved, there will be no change. We need to be mindful of the experiences some people will have been exposed to. We need to build a sense of community, tolerance and kindness that supports all colleagues to engage in this debate without fear of repercussion or damage to their credibility.
We need to be reflective about our own practice and any role that we may have served in maintaining the status quo. We need to deal with being ‘called out’, and then commit to doing something different.
Transforming the Curriculum
We have a diverse British community and this is not yet reflected in our curriculum. Issues relating to ethnic diversity are limited to very few subjects, and do not form parts of the curriculum that lead to monitoring or assessment. Therefore, it is often one of the things that gets ‘dropped’ or condensed into a couple of drop-down days.
There is no clear national approach to diversity in education and so schools teach and promote diversity ‘as they see fit’. We need to adapt our curriculum so that it consistently and accurately reflects our real-world diversities.
Our curriculum also needs to provide a wide range of enrichment opportunities allowing students to find out what they are good at, instead of steering them into the usual stereotypical activities. How can a student know they are great at debating or coding if they have always been pulled out to attend the football club? We do not need to wait for sweeping curriculum reform to make a change. We can do this now.
Not a Quick Fix
This is going to be a long-haul journey, not a quick fix and so it is vital that we dedicate some time thinking about exactly what we are willing to engage in.
If you are a black educator, colleagues may wish to speak to you about your views, but you have to be comfortable to share your ideas, experiences and knowledge without the pressure of engaging. If you do not wish to engage, do not be afraid to say no. There should be no assumption that you are the school expert on these matters because of the colour of your skin. We also need to think about how we can convey our thoughts in a way that has the greatest impact. We are in a society in which labels get banded about far too freely, and often to discredit a point of view. We need to be better prepared to counter this labelling and continue discussions regardless.
But we also need time out. I have switched off the news — it was not doing my mental health any good. We need to take some time for ourselves — for me, that time is in my garden. Looking after yourself is crucial — so remember to take some time to do whatever keeps you centred.
If you are a white ally, please, please, please stop apologising. Do I hold you personally accountable for the situation we are in? Not at all. I am glad that you are open to discussion and debate — this is a positive and key step forwards! It is great that you ‘see me’.
It is great that you ‘hear me’ but now is the time to listen, join together and take positive action.
Through the Black Lives Matter Movement racial equality and social justice have now been firmly placed back on the agenda and schools must be at the forefront as agents for change.
Black children and black teachers need to know that in the UK education system their lives really do matter and see this evidenced as part of their lived daily reality. Headteachers and senior school leaders have a key role to play in making this happen.
Together, you shape the culture, the vision, the ethos for your school. Together, you determine in practice what racial equality and social justice look like. And together, you must decide the leadership that is needed for these times.
This is a courageous path that you will have to travel, because it will require you to explore issues of identity and integrity and what they truly mean in the context of your own school settings. It will require you to have difficult conversations and face uncomfortable truths.
Yet it is these sorts of conversations which truly define leadership and are fundamental to growth and positive change. What’s more, it’s only by leaning into the uncomfortable spaces and finding with help and support that something new, something better can be brought to life.
That’s why we have now developed our new ‘Race, identity and School Leadership’ Programme to provide a safe spaces for reflection and discussion for school leaders to explore the implications of recent events and begin to unpick implications for themselves and their schools.
The programme will provide spaces for school leaders to explore:
– Identify key principles of racial equality and social justice and what best practice looks like in individual school contexts
– Question and reflect on the prevailing narratives that have shaped the discourse on race, identity, education and the achievement of Black pupils
– Use a narrative enquiry framework to identify how to create personal and organisational narratives that support the achievement of Black pupils
– Equip senior school leaders with the necessary psychological and emotional tools for engaging in difficult conversations about race
– Increase leaders own sense of personal agency and ability to act as an agent of change