This blog comes from former teacher, Governor, MAT Trustee and Founding Member of BameEd, Penny Rabiger
On paper, schools have had a duty to ensure that they are places which are safe, happy and equitable for all staff, children and their families.
We know that in reality, this is much harder to achieve than could have been imagined when we signed up for the job as teachers and leaders.
When it comes to race, schools may have been busy with bureaucracy around racial incidents, but it seems like recent events have made many school leaders realise how deeply entrenched structural or systemic racism is in our institutions, and the real impact this has on people of colour, their life chances, access to opportunity, wellbeing, physical and mental health.
The start towards becoming an anti-racist school leader is the understanding that racism isn’t just situated in name-calling or focused attacks on individuals, but is more likely to take place in subtle and insidious ways that are the result of our implicit, inherent, learned, or as it is most commonly known, ‘unconscious’ bias.
We know that schools are microcosms of society, and schools are charged with fixing all of society’s ills. And recently, we have realised that society is very ill indeed. In short, racism is ‘in’ all of us and it resides in almost every aspect of life.
That might sound depressing but the first step to educating oneself as a leader, is to acknowledge that we all have a problem, and to understand that we all have a responsibility to be part of the solution.
Before rushing to solutions, it is important that leaders take steps to properly educate themselves, to learn and unlearn in equal measures. Here are four things you can do right now:
1) You’ll have to read, learn, think
Before launching into action and trying to make a difference, it is really important to fully understand a variety of perspectives, research, evidence and lived experience around the reasons why racial inequity, racism and bias are so embedded in society and in our schools. Give yourself time to think.
Read, listen to podcasts and lectures, watch TV programmes and films. Keep a journal on your learning and note what you feel is important or what you don’t yet have full understanding of. There is a massive repository of articles, book lists, podcasts and more on the BAMEed Network website that can help you create your own learning journey.
Although you may now start to feel an urgency to act, pace yourself. Taking breaks to think and let things settle, will ensure that there is depth to your knowledge as well as breadth.
2) The Journey will require you to be uncomfortable
This is one of those things that can’t be said enough before and during your quest to educate yourself on issues around structural racism. You will come across terms, concepts and feelings which are new to you or which confirm your worst fears about your innermost thoughts or even some of your recent actions.
One of these feelings will be deep discomfort and an urge to separate yourself from feeling you might be bad, to blame or somehow complicit in centuries of oppression and discrimination. Resist such urges and get comfortable with being uncomfortable. Take the time to question how you have contributed and just sit with that for a while before you move forward.
3) Broaden your networks and listen carefully
A huge part of the problem that many of us face is that we don’t know what we don’t know. We will naturally surround ourselves with people we feel comfortable with, and these are usually people like us. One of the best ways to learn is to broaden your networks.
With social media, and learning platforms like Twitter and LinkedIn, this is easy to do. Start by auditing the people you follow now and write a list of voices you might benefit from including in the views, media and perspectives that you consume.
Be intentional in connecting with people who don’t look, sound or express views like yours and that seem like they may have lived experience in the areas that are missing in your own experience. Follow people who you know are ahead of you on the journey towards anti-racism – perhaps people who have a view on particular aspects that are pertinent to school life like recruitment, curriculum, behaviour, research, performance management, CPD, and more.
Before you try out your new knowledge and engage in debate, listen carefully and let people hear that you are curious to know more.
4) Use your privilege and yield to marginalised voices
It’s important to acknowledge our own privilege, both earned and unearned, and to use that carefully to be an ally that promotes equity for marginalised groups. Be careful to educate yourself on what that looks like to ensure you aren’t performative in your allyship.
Keep in mind if you are white, that it can be easy to centre your anti-racist experience around your emerging understanding of whiteness and your own experience of learning and discovery. Take a moment to give voice to those who have not been heard and do not speak for others.
Work in the background by doing things like nominating people for awards, donating time or money to causes, quoting others’ works, attributing correctly when using others’ ideas, letting their boss know when they are making an impact. Yielding to marginalised voices is not accomplished in a moment, and will need to last beyond the immediate calls for action, protests and movements.
Educating oneself towards dismantling racial inequity and leading an anti-racist school needs to be sustained and focused. What are your pledges that will endure once the protests have ended, when CV-19 is behind us, and the summer holidays are over – and how will you hold yourself to account for them?
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