Do you understand what it’s like to be a black student in a UK school?

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I’m not usually one for putting my head above the parapet and speaking my mind out loud, at least not amongst those with whom I am unfamiliar. But there are times when needs must. When as a grown adult you need to open your mouth and say what’s on your mind.

This, is such a time. What follows is something I have pondered on for at least 15 years – the thoughts go back to when I was working as a class teacher supporting student teachers.

I loved supporting student teachers. I still do. I enjoyed helping them get to grips with lesson planning, behaviour management and lesson delivery. I would always ask students about their journeys into teaching. It was something that I was curious about. How did they end up training to be a teacher at a university in east London.

Most of the trainee teachers I supported were young, white women and the majority of those were not originally from London.

It was a conversation with one particular trainee teacher that set the cogs of my mind whirring, and those cogs haven’t stopped spinning since.

The teacher told me that coming to study at the university was her first experience of being around such a diverse community of people. Where she came from, there were only cows. Those were her exact words. She had no experience of interacting with non-white people until she came to London.

Now, this was no surprise to me. I grew up in a town called Shoreham-by-Sea which is in west Sussex. This was back in the 70s. I was fostered and lived with an amazing family for the first eight years of my life. At any one time my foster parents looked after at least 5 children, including their own adopted son. The children they fostered were all black. We were the only black children in Shoreham-by-Sea. On Sundays we would go into Worthing for church and occasionally into Hove to visit another branch of the Salvation Army, but the majority of the time we were in Shoreham-by-Sea. For most of the residents in that town, the black children that were fostered by this family were their only experience of another ethnicity.

No doubt, the majority of famiies that lived in Shoreham had lived there all their lives. Occasionally venturing into surrounding towns like we did, but not necessarily anywhere that had a large population of folk of other ethnicities.

To be fair as a child, my only experience of other ethnicities were my foster brothers and sister. It didn’t occur to me that there were many more who looked like me, just a train ride away.

I provide this context because it wasn’t surprising that the only black people this trainee teacher had seen were on the television. That was also my experience.

But the thought that entered my mind and has stayed with me ever since is this: how can a teacher relate to someone with a different ethnicity and cultural identity than their own if they have no clear frame of reference to draw upon?

The reason this came up in conversation with that particular trainee teacher was because she was unsure how to deal with a particular incident. I don’t recall what the issue was, and to be fair, that’s somewhat irrelevant now, but the reason she was unsure about how to deal with the incident was because she didn’t want to say the wrong thing and thus be accused of racism.

We talked through the incident and must have come to some kind of resolution, but it did make me think. How prepared is the white teacher who has spent their childhood and teenage years in an all-white environment, for teaching in an inner city school where the largest ethnic group may be black African, black Caribbean or Asian.

Where the surnames names of children and in some cases the staff, are more challenging to pronounce that Smith or Wilson but not as difficult perhaps as Tchaikovsky or Vygotsky but yet still get glossed over or intentionally mispronounced because they’re “just to hard to pronounce.”

Where culturally as a child, you don’t look your elders in the eye, but this is insisted upon in school because otherwise you’re being rude.

Where being passionate about a topic may mean raising your voice or gesticulating with your hands, but may also be interpreted as being aggressive.

How prepared is a teacher from a rural county for the many different hair styles a black girl may have and if she decides to one day not have her hair in braids or wear a wig or have extensions, but instead chooses to wear it loose, and accept that that’s ok. It doesn’t need to be commented on.

How can we ensure that teachers understand that some parents and grandparents of black and brown children had horrendous experiences when they were at school themselves and as such their ability to fully trust ‘the system’ has been diminished.

When a child is tired on Monday morning, is the assumption made that it’s because they’ve been up all night playing video games, or out roaming the streets? Or is there an awareness that it may well be because they spent most of Sunday in church, and the second service was a prayer vigil which didn’t end until 11pm. At which point their parents helped to pack the chairs away so that the hall that their church rents each week is put back the way the congregation found it.

My list could go on, and on, and on. But I’ll pause there to ask the question, what can we do to adequately prepare those teachers who have no prior knowledge, understand what it’s like to be a black child attending school in the United Kingdom?

I would begin by asking what are ITT providers doing? How are they ensuring their syllabuses really do prepare their students for the first placement in a school? Do ITT providers even bother to find out what prior experience student teachers have of diversity?

How do school leaders ensure that early career teachers teachers understand what cultural diversity actual means and what that looks like in their school? How do they ensure new teachers are made aware of the different ethnicities in the school and why it’s important to understand that just because a child’s parents were born in the Caribbean, does not mean that child associates with the country of their parents birth.

I would also ask what do the trainee teachers themselves do? If I were a white teacher who came from Shoreham-by-Sea to teach my first ever class of which 95% of students were black African, would I read any books on black history and culture? Would I take the time to speak to my black colleagues about what I could do to challenge my unconscious bias and build my awareness of intersectionality?

Some might argue and say, well how does a black teacher relate to students in a majority white school, after all, don’t they also have a different cultural identity?

In response I would encourage the reader to research how many black and brown teachers, senior leaders and headteachers there are in the United Kingdom, and understand that in the profession we are still very much underrepresented.

I would also add, that as a black or brown teacher, living in the United Kingdom we have the frames of reference needed to equip us staring us in the face every single day.

Finally I would say, in the politest way possible…..  “on this occasion, it’s not about you….”

No doubt this is a question I will continue to ponder on for a few more years. The only difference now, is that I’m going to do something about it.

To be continued….

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3 thoughts on “Do you understand what it’s like to be a black student in a UK school?

  1. I really enjoyed your article. Like you. I have moved beyond pondering into doing mode. I’m the founder of World Afro Day and we have created The Big Hair Assembly, Little Big Hair Assembly and Turning Heads & Teachers Podcast. Our mission is to end Afro hair discrimination in schools. It is very obvious that teacher training, knowledge or life experience does not prepare most of them to interact with students with Afro hair. They are even less qualified to write and implement Afro hair policies but the current system says they are able…

    1. Thank you so much for taking the time to read the blog post.

      The aspect young people and their hair will be one of the topics I will be covering in more detail in a later piece of writing.

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