This blog comes from education content writer at Twinkl, Kerry Griffiths.
Teachers and school leaders are in the uniquely privileged position of standing alongside their young learners as they start to navigate the world and understand the way that different human relationships work in wider society.
Unfortunately, in many countries and cultures across the world, racism is still prevalent and the effects of this discrimination upon students is grave.
However, educators are uniquely placed to affect positive change around racism with their work with pupils, and this change has a ripple effect through the rest of society.
To do this, teachers and school leaders must first acknowledge that imbalance exists – both in the classroom and in society as a whole. Now this is not easy as talking about racism in the classroom can be difficult, but discrimination must be named and acknowledged before it can be addressed.
Teachers and school leaders must also engage with these challenging discussions if our schools are able to create learning environments where Black, Asian and minority ethnic (BAME) students feel safe and all pupils are equally supported to thrive.
With this in mind, what can we do as educators to dismantle these barriers to learning and success and begin to tackle racism in our schools?
1. Recognise and Challenge Your Own Unconscious Bias
Through our lived experiences, each person develops internal biases that, when left unexamined, can become troublesome. These are often unconscious, so the person hasn’t made a decision to think this way, but unless these biases are dismantled they can lead to inadvertent unfair treatment of students in the classroom.
The University of California’s Office of Diversity and Outreach classifies unconscious bias as “far more prevalent than conscious prejudice and often incompatible with one’s conscious values. Certain scenarios can activate unconscious attitudes and beliefs. For example, biases may be more prevalent when multi-tasking or working under time pressure.”
Educator Adam Cole of Grant Park Academy says: “The best thing you can do is make the effort to notice your own biases, not as a teacher, but as a person. Who do you call on in class? Who gets in trouble the most? Is that really a reflection of the students’ behaviour? If some students are seeking attention more, or less, than others, are you perceiving this inappropriately as a characteristic of their race and background?
“When you model differently, your students will emulate you. It’s important to discuss the aspects of history that are frequently edited or omitted, and it’s essential to represent more than a dominant, or comfortable culture in your presentations, your backgrounds, and your conversations. Modelling does more than all of these things, because if the modelling isn’t there, nothing you say to the students about bias will mean anything to them.”
2. Be Prepared to Change Your Perspective
Historically, a white majority has dictated social policy and a curriculum that leaves BAME students feeling underrepresented. The first step in educators tackling racism involves a shift in perspective that favours stories, news and history that may otherwise go unreported.
“We need more voices to stand up and tell the necessary stories and to inspire people to make a stand for an inclusive society that celebrates both sides of any coin,” says Chakita Patterson. “I believe one key to inclusive and welcoming spaces for all students is the dismantling of ignorance. This is true for life in general — most everyday racism arguably stems from a lack of understanding rather than from an innate or bred hatred. And where better than our schools — disseminators of knowledge and the institutions responsible for educating and preparing our young generations — to tackle a lapse in understanding?
“However, the teaching experience here leads to the conclusion that there is far too little attention given to the roles played by persons of non-dominant cultural heritages in essential cases. It is crucial to teach from a standpoint that explores multiple perspectives, and not only from a traditional majority culture point of reference. Apart from bringing more inclusiveness and attention to diversity in the lessons themselves, it is vital to communicate with one another. How do you bring more inclusiveness and harmonious diversity into the classroom? By first talking about it and reflecting on it. Everything starts with a conversation.”
3. Make Sure the Curriculum is Inclusive and Representative
Diversity coordinator and published author Aundrea Tabbs-Smith has extensive experience of being the only child of colour (or one of a handful) and of teaching in predominantly white schools for twelve years. Her time on both sides of education has taught her that it benefits BAME students to see themselves reflected in the student body, the school administration and, most importantly, in the curriculum.
“The curriculum is the foundation. In order to debunk stereotypes and teach children of colour that they are worthy, valuable and have so much to offer we have to teach them about Black and brown people. What we consistently see about people is what we begin to believe and if we are only teaching children from one perspective – which is usually the white perspective – they will begin to associate BAME people as less than. If we want to change the narrative, the contributions of people of colour need to be celebrated and children, ALL children, need to understand the significance and importance of the contributions made by POC.”
How might a non-BAME teacher achieve this? “It’s not enough to read a few books with Black protagonists,” says Tabbs-Smith. “We as educators must read books that enlighten us about people and perspectives that we may not be privy to. When we have acquired that background knowledge we are better equipped to teach our students. We become more knowledgeable about books that should be included in the curriculum, topics that should be focused on, and misconceptions that we must unlearn. Fostering a diverse and inclusive environment begins with the curriculum; however, the curriculum can only be changed if the educator is willing to educate themselves.”
4. Practice What You Preach and Ensure Everyone is On-Side
In order to develop an inclusive learning environment, the whole school staff team must be on board, says Justine González, founder and CEO of EducatorAide. Children learn from watching the adults around them and if educators don’t make an effort to understand the nuanced aspects of race in education, children’s understanding will become confused.
“Classroom environments are a reflection of the school-wide culture. If educators (teachers, school leaders, administrators, and support staff) are not equipped with the cultural mindset (how we view one another) and cultural skill set (how we connect, create, and collaborate with one another) then it will be evidenced in student-to-student interactions,” says González.
“In addition, when educators do not feel comfortable, competent, and secure discussing more difficult subjects, such as racism among students, it will be perpetuated due to a lack of cultural skill within the adults. In order to be culturally relevant and deeply connect with students, we must first dig deep to address our own cultural health and skill (or lack thereof) on an individual basis before we can lead our students well.”
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