A Necessary Journey

My awareness of race and the need for representation in both education and society were not inherent in me at an early age, rather it was a slow realisation of what existed around me but not within me. Perhaps the journey I am about to describe is familiar to those of you who don’t have to deal with the prejudice, discrimination, and lack of privilege that accompanies the colour of your skin. Perhaps it won’t be. Each of our journeys towards this realisation will differ but it’s a journey I hope all educators take sooner rather than later.

In writing this blog, I was struck by how many times I’ve had to look back on moments in my life, from a place of new learning and fresh perspective, in order to identify the significance of what had taken place. I guess that’s what learning is but I’d very much like to learn more, and learn faster in order to contribute to positive change.

Once I left my predominantly white hometown and moved to Newcastle-upon-Tyne for University, so began an awakening of all kinds (not least of all discovering alcohol and later abandoning it altogether). I attended classes where I was challenged to think, I travelled abroad for the first and many more times afterwards. I made some great friends. These friends came from all over the country and from a variety of backgrounds.

Two of my friends were Asian; one was born in Hong Kong, and the other’s parents were Pakistani. It was years before I would really think of their race as a difference. It was one day, well after University was finished, when we headed to an art gallery preview night that their experience of life was made explicit to me. A young man ran past and shouted abuse at my friend. I was horrified. I felt so angry and shaken. This person didn’t even know my friend. He’d hurled abuse at her just because of the colour of her skin. Both of my friends looked at me with bemused looks on their faces. They couldn’t understand my level of outrage and concern. ‘Oh Hannah. That kind of thing happens ALL the time. In fact, that’s not the least of it.’ I was shocked. I’d never heard any racism levelled towards them and had never considered their lives might be different from my own. We all had siblings, we were all on the same course. We’d had very different upbringings but I guess I’d not considered that their lives might be so tremendously unlike my own because of the colour of their skin. I just saw them as my friends. Looking back, I can see how ridiculously naive this was of me.

I began teaching in 2009 at a Further Education college in the North-East. I was a white teacher working with students in the community; accessing basic literacy and numeracy or employability courses. Race was never an issue because I didn’t encounter it. It was once I taught on access to university courses that I began to encounter a more diverse range of students. On one course, students were asked to pen a personal story from their lives. We read some heartbreaking pieces, including a story of attempted suicide, loss of a sibling to drugs and alcohol and one particularly memorable piece from a student who described their treacherous journey from a war torn country to safety in the UK. Looking back, I notice the distinct differences that generally existed in life experiences between the white students and our EAL speaking students. The latter more often then not working night shift to make ends meet before coming to college during the day. I’ve since wondered how these circumstances have continued to play out as they progressed to university and into careers within the health sector.

A few years later, in a very different part of the country I became the sole A Level teacher a couple of months into the job. I had the opportunity for the first time to consider which authors we would engage with. When we arrived at the poetry unit, I began by sharing some of my favourites with the group, and they would research and share their own favourites in return. I played clips of, amongst others, Maya Angelou, Hollie McNish, and Benjamin Zephaniah. I noticed my black students respond with animation I’d not seen from them before to some of the poets I shared; it became apparent that they were responding to writers who could speak to them in a way white writers could not. Looking back, I realise how white the curriculum had been and how excluding this was for our diverse range of learners.

In 2013, I entered a leadership position and I began to notice the distinct lack of diversity that existed at that level of the staff body. FE Colleges are generally known to have decent gender representation at leadership levels but in the kind of representation that would reflect the communities we were serving, my experience is of failure. Across two leadership teams in two different colleges, I haven’t worked alongside more than 4 fellow leaders who were not white. We were serving diverse communities but our staff body making all the decisions about how these communities should be served weren’t representative enough to ensure that we were catering adequately and with aspiration for them. Looking back, I recognise how championing colleagues whose voices I felt should be heard began to have an impact but more often then not, was met by deaf ears and inaction.

There were many more moments I could have included on my journey to a slow awakening but I feel these ones adequately represent my journey to date. The moments have not been earth shattering but their slow rumble has been enough to create a sound loud enough for me to begin listening to.

Every day, I don’t need to look very far to notice the dangerous results that stem from a lack of representation across boards and leadership teams across society.

As an educator, I’ve witnessed the way in which our teaching and leadership teams don’t adequately represent the communities we serve. Schools have a tremendous capacity to affect change. Get things right here and it seems possible for us to influence the rest of society along the way.

For a while now, I’ve been a supporter of the the BAMEed Network and when an opportunity to support their work revealed itself in the form of a Tweet from Amjad Ali, I was keen to be involved.

I’m using the skills I have to contribute to the network’s activities and so I’m helping out with the website. One of my first focuses has been to begin amplifying the voice and presence of BAME educators so that we can start working towards better representation at education events. For the teachers and leaders who attend these events, a strong message will be sent about the benefits of hearing from a range of voices that truly represent the profession.

If you’re planning an education event, or if you’d like to feature on the speakers page then you can view it here.

Perhaps your journey to awakening has been less of a slow rumble and more of a deafening explosion. If you think your journey towards discovering the strength in diversity is yet to begin then I’d recommend the following:

  • Look around you with open eyes. Could your community be better represented by a more diverse leadership and teaching team? Could your organisation become more efficient and effective with a more diverse range of voices?
  • Read Renni Eddo-Lodge’s Why I’m no longer talking to white people about race. Allow her words to affect the lens through which you view the world around you. BAMEed Network have gathered further reading recommendations here.
  • Challenge what you notice around you from recruitment strategies, CPD and career advancement opportunities, curriculum design, resources and images.
  • Follow the BAMEed Network and support their work
  • Listen, really listen, to colleagues and peers with a different voice to your own.
My final recommendation, wherever you are on your journey, is to attend the BAMEed Network’s second birthday conference at the University of East London on January 19 2019 – click here to buy your ticket, and perhaps one for a friend who should really be there whilst you’re at it.

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