I Can't Breathe – Implications for Schools

Like many in recent weeks, the death of George Floyd, has left me almost daily swamped by waves of emotion. 
I heard someone say the other day that their “mind was full and their heart heavy” and that’s just how I have been feeling. It’s as though my whole nervous system has been experiencing some kind of historical trauma.
The flagrant disregard for the life of a Black person, has surfaced many painful memories from my past and times when I had been made to feel ‘less than’ simply because of the colour of my skin.
As a young Black woman growing up in the 70’s and 80’s incidents of racism were peppered throughout my life.  When I was 15, I was told by my career’s teacher, that my aspiration of becoming a Nursery Nurse was too high and instead, I should consider becoming a cashier in the local supermarket.
On another occasion, I was reprimanded for talking in class and told to “Go outside and swing on the trees, like my friends and relatives the monkeys do.” During those times, complaining or expressing my hurt was never an option so I simply learnt to swallow the pain, some of which is undoubtedly bubbling to the surface today.
When I eventually qualified as a teacher, the weight of carrying this fear only intensified.
Throughout all of my teaching career, I taught at schools in Brixton and Stockwell. One of the schools that I taught at  was on the borders of a road that had been a flash point for the Brixton riots in the late 80’s. A time, when just as we have seen in recent weeks, Black people protested against the level of police brutality exhibited towards them. And it was here, at this school, where I faced some of the worst levels of racism.
It was a one-form entry Church of England primary school, where the majority white teachers believed they were there to ‘save’ the Black children and expectations for them were incredibly low. In the early days, children spoke down to me. Why? Because the only other Black staff were cleaners, and on a daily basis, pupils witnessed the derogatory ways their white teachers spoke to them (and to me) and so it perhaps seemed inconceivable that I could be there to teach them.
There were times too, when I cried in the staff toilets, because teachers referred to Black boys as gorillas and I found my own voice stifled by the staff room hostility when I tried to counter these abhorrent views.

The Black American Trauma specialist Resmaa Menakem believes that ‘historical and racialised trauma is carried in the body and soul’ and is carried over time from one generation to the next. Personally, I think there is a lot of truth in what he says.
The level of hurt, wounding and pain that is being expressed in the Black community has a long tail. It did not just start with the death of George Floyd. It has its roots in slavery, empire and colonialism. An uncomfortable truth for some, but a painful lived reality for many of us who identify as Black and have had to struggle to find ways to fully express ourselves, in a society that has so often sought to keep us ‘in our place.’

Can the education system help to turn the tide?


“ The educational system is probably the most influential of all institutions…in shaping the interpersonal politics of the growing person”

(Carl Rogers)

If ever there was a time, for education leaders of all hues to seize the moment, it is now. We cannot let this moment pass.
Shortly, after I became a Head, I gave birth to my first son. He is now 22, he has a brother who is 18 and a sister who is 16. Fortunately, their experiences of school were far better than my own and yet… there have been times when they have also felt  judged because of the colour of their skin. I don’t want this for them and I don’t want this for any black child.
I want my children to be able to breathe. I want all black children to be able to breathe and to show up as their wonderful, glorious, beautiful selves. And  all of us in education, black and white, need to play our part.
For my part, to quote Rosa Parks, I have long determined that:

“I will no longer act on the outside in a way that contradicts the truth that I hold deeply on the inside.  I will no longer act as if I were less than the whole person, I know myself inwardly to be”

For white teachers, School Leaders, Governors and other educational professionals who are committed to bringing about a brighter day for us all, I simply ask you to consider a few questions and take some time to contemplate your answers:
1. Am I willing to listen to the black communities stories of pain, discrimination and hurt?
2. Am I prepared to let down my defences and look at my own unconscious biases?
3. Am I willing to engage with the weighty feelings and emotions that are a necessary part of this terrain?
4. Am I willing to shine a light on every single aspect of my school and our education system and call out all the policies and practices that have limited the progress of black children and black educational professionals?
5. In this struggle for racial equality and social justice what is mine to do?
I ask these questions, because over the thirty plus years that I have been in the profession, I have seen how an unwillingness to truthfully engage with these questions has hampered progress for all. We can do better and we must do better.
These questions will require leaders to face uncomfortable truths about themselves and their schools. Yet it is these sorts of questions which truly define leadership and are fundamental to growth and positive change.
Furthermore, 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.
This is what true moral and ethical leadership is about. And it is only by going on this journey, that School Leaders can effectively model what leadership for racial equality and social justice really look like.

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

Find out More



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