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How to be an anti-racist educator

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Many teachers and school staff have returned with a renewed commitment to practicing anti-racism in their classrooms.

We recently held an event on how they can do this. This is what I learnt.

Event Speakers: Zahra Bei and Ro-Henry Grant, co-founders of the Coalition of Anti-Racist Educators (CARE), Sarah Brownsword, lecturer in primary education with research interests in race and diversity in education and Daniel Kebede, senior Vice-President of the National Education Union.

Why now?

Economically disadvantaged pupils are most likely to have fallen behind in their learning during school closures. We know that Black pupils are overrepresented in this group. In fact, research from EPI indicates that the disadvantage gap in educational outcomes had begun to widen even before Covid-19 hit.

The impact of lockdown closures was compounded by this summer’s grade fiasco. Again, this was more likely to affect non-White students. Research we cited in a blog earlier this summer exploring our concerns about bias in teacher assessment shows that pupils of Black Caribbean, Pakistani or Bangladeshi ethnicity are more likely to score comparatively lower in subjective teacher assessment than white pupils.

There is also the backdrop of dramatically rising school exclusions in recent years. As reported in our Pinball Kids research, Black pupils are excluded at a rate of nearly three times that of their white peers. Our interviews with excluded pupils for that project revealed their experiences of racially discriminatory behaviour policies.

And, of course, we are all aware of the wider societal context. The families of Black and Asian pupils are most likely to have been hit hard by the virus. Black people are most likely to be diagnosed with the virus and that deaths are highest among those from Black and Asian ethnic groups. Meanwhile, the violent killing of George Floyd by Minneapolis police sparked global protests against structural racism.

We cannot let the fight for racial equity and justice end with platitudes on company websites over the summer of 2020. We have to act in every institution that embodies structural racism in our society. That includes schools.

What’s wrong with our schools?

In the event, we talked about the problems faced by the school system.

Surveillance culture

The Coalition of Anti-Racist Educators has highlighted through its campaign the issue of policing in schools.

The physical presence of police in many schools can signal to young Black people who are regularly stopped and searched that this is not a safe environment. The duty on teachers to report students suspected of ‘radicalisation’ under the Prevent legislation can create an unhealthy culture of suspicion.

As Zahra Bei pointed out, this surveillance culture undermines the trust that Black and Asian pupils have in school staff. This is no doubt compounded by the discriminatory experiences that Black pupils report of behaviour codes and discipline in their schools.

Educators have a duty to make school a safe space, where all pupils – no matter their background or the colour of their skin – feel they belong. The wider context of the education system is not making this easy for them.

Teacher and leadership diversity

Ro Henry-Grant spoke powerfully about the need for more global majority (i.e. Black and Asian) teachers in the classroom, and the need to support the career progression of these staff into middle and senior leadership positions.

At present, decision-making in schools – including on governing bodies – is mostly made by White people.

Daniel Kebede also noted that Black teachers are more likely to be put onto capability (underperformance measures) than their White peers. This and other barriers faced by Black teachers were explored in a 2016 Runnymede Trust and NUT report.

All of this highlights an urgent need for action to make sure Black educators – as well as Black pupils – feel they belong in schools.

Myths that impede culture change

However, as Daniel highlighted, there are myths circulating in the education system that mean that anti-racism isn’t always prioritised.

In the National Education Union’s anti-racism framework they explore ideas like “we don’t have many Black pupils, so addressing racism isn’t a priority”.

Our speakers affirmed that from all their experience, it is the schools with the greatest proportion of white pupils where racism is most likely to occur. This is where the role of teachers in confronting language used by pupils is most important.

Teacher confidence

But Ro Henry-Grant argued that there is a real lack of confidence and expertise in the current education profession to teach pre-colonial history and to host difficult, uncomfortable conversations about race with pupils.

This is backed up by Sarah Brownsword’s research into the attitudes of trainee teachers. She found a lack of confidence among a mostly White trainee cohort in having conversations about race. Participants expressed opinions such as that ‘they didn’t see race’ and therefore it didn’t matter. Some also failed to acknowledge their own race and racial history as a White person.

So, what can educators do?

Our speakers shared a range of ideas for how to be an anti-racist educator.

Reflective practice

We were all in furious agreement with Sarah about the need for reflective practice. For trainees to think about their own privileges (race and class-based) and how these show up in how they teach.

To constantly reflect on their practice: asking themselves how they can make their approaches to teaching and classroom management more anti-racist. The University of East Anglia, where Sarah teaches, are actively building this into their teacher training programmes.

Student voice

There was also agreement about the importance of listening to pupils and giving them space to share their experiences.

This means hosting difficult conversations, and Ro Henry-Grant emphasised the importance of these taking place regularly, not just as a one-off when world events require it.

Long-termism

This long-term practice of teachers has to be matched by long-term policy commitments, Ro argued. Short-term funding pledges e.g. to support with post-Covid catch-up are not enough.

We need to see longer-term funding programmes that target expert support for the pupils who are most disadvantaged within our education system.

Pedagogical approaches

Daniel eloquently argued that decolonising the curriculum (to include more Black voices and stories, and explore the history of colonisation and slavery) is important, but not enough. Teaching approaches also need to change.

Rather than just delivering knowledge from the front of the room, we can use more approaches to teaching that shift classroom power dynamics. For example, a ‘dialogic’ approach involves ongoing talk between teachers and pupils, with teachers eliciting pupils’ opinions.

Teacher training and continuing professional development

There was strong consensus about the importance of teacher training. In particular, integrating race across all topics covered by trainees, not just as an add-on module.

Taking responsibility and making it happen

One of the important ideas I took away from the discussion was that all teachers, whether trainees or experienced professionals, also need to take responsibility for their own development as anti-racist educators. Reading widely and reflecting critically on their practice.

This need to take personal responsibility really hit home to me as someone about to enter the teaching profession.

Active anti-racist practice is not just something we should engage in, but an important aspect of the privilege of teaching.

If we’re really committed to anti-racism, and we’re in it for the long haul, we can create inclusive schools where all young people feel that they belong and thrive. That’s something worth working hard for. 

For more support in you quest to become an anti-racist educator, take a look at this reading list.

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