This blog comes from Understood Mentor Fellow and reading specialist, Shaquala Butler.
As an educator, my main job is to advocate for my students — and to help them advocate for themselves. To do this, I have to get to know my students and see them as individuals with unique life experiences.
But first, I need to know myself. I have to understand my racial identity and confront any personal biases I may have. These biases can affect our work and hinder our students.
This year more than ever, this self-work is important as we head back to school. The current events around racial injustice and the coronavirus pandemic disproportionately affect communities of colour, especially Black communities. We have to understand the challenges our students are facing. Taking a close look at ourselves is hard, but it can ultimately help our students thrive.
Examining my privilege
We must begin with self-work around our own racial identity and how it relates to our country, its systems as a whole, and privilege.
“Privilege exists when one group has something of value that is denied to others simply because of the groups they belong to, rather than because of anything they’ve done or failed to do. Access to privilege doesn’t determine one’s outcomes, but it is definitely an asset that makes it more likely that whatever talent, ability, and aspirations a person with privilege has will result in something positive for them.”
I begin my identity work by naming where I have privilege in the classroom. Once I name it, I think about how my privilege can unintentionally create a space that is not inclusive for my students. This awareness is important to make sure I am removing — not creating — barriers for my students.
For white educators, race is a privilege. As a Black teacher, I do not have racial privilege in terms of removing systemic barriers to learning for my students of colour. But my self-work has made me even more aware of the racial barriers my students of colour face today. Knowing this, I can work to remove these barriers.
Though race may not be a privilege for me, my identity work has made me aware of places where I do have privilege in my classroom. For example, I am able-bodied. The way I arrange my classroom could create obstacles for someone with a physical disability. My awareness of that privilege reminds me to create a learning space that gives access to all students.
This example may make the work seem simple. After all, rearranging a room is something I can do in a few minutes. But this work is anything but simple.
Recognising biases and misinformation
When we have unchecked biases, we ultimately become the barrier for our students. As I’ve done my racial identity work, I’ve realised I have a lot of misinformation — or sometimes no information — about other racial groups.
I had a student who was a second-generation immigrant from Yemen. I had no information about the student’s native country, language, or culture. I took the time to educate myself because I didn’t want my student to have to be my personal teacher about their racial identity. That is a burden students should never have to bear in the classroom.
To learn more about the student’s background, I started by searching for information online. In the end, I learned the most by talking with my student’s family. They shared with me the cultural differences they had experienced so far, especially related to the school system. By listening to them, I realised my student had to navigate several barriers in my classroom. What I learned pushed me to advocate for my student as an individual and to remove those barriers — ultimately giving full access to the learning environment.
Doing the difficult work
This work is not easy. Every day, I try to make myself aware of my biases and then actively work against them. This awareness influences my daily decisions — the books I choose, the quotes and art that adorn my classroom walls, the way I communicate with families, and all the other aspects of my role as an educator.
My students rely on me to disrupt systems of oppression. I am responsible for making sure my classroom is not part of the problem. By modelling this work for my students, I show them how to advocate for themselves.
I give them the language of self-advocacy to use beyond our classroom’s four walls. Every year, we start by establishing goals, including “I know I can do anything beyond me” and “I know there is a resource to help me with my ideas.” This language is just one way I empower my students to disrupt systems of oppression for themselves.
Educators, as we prepare for the next school year, I want to charge you with becoming aware of your own racial identity. This is not an overnight process. It’s not a list where you check off things and declare yourself a “racially self-aware” educator. But you’ll be moving in a direction that makes you a better advocate for your students.
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