The General Teaching Council for Scotland

Enhancing professionalism in education since 1965

Social justice - living the commitment

By engaging in dialogue about issues of diversity, difference and discrimination, every teacher can be an agent for change

Professor Rowena Arshad OBE

Over three decades of engaging in research and professional development I have never met a teacher or school leader who has not tried to do the best for their pupils.

Many deal on a daily basis with the impact of everyday inequalities faced by pupils, their parents and communities. We know that the effort individual teachers put in to address these issues really does matter.

John Hattie, Professor of Education at the University of Melbourne, and known to many Teaching Scotland readers, identified in his research of 2003 (Teachers Make a Difference, What is the research evidence?) that teacher input accounts for about 30 per cent of what impacts on pupil achievement.

Other factors include the pupil’s own dispositions (50 per cent), home influences (5–10 per cent), the school as an institution/ impact of headteachers (5-10 per cent) and peer effects (5–10 per cent).

The GTC Scotland Professional Values place social justice values as core, and these are embedded at every level from registration to leadership to career-long professional learning. However, are these values lived and acted upon or do we see them as laudable and aspirational?

I would like to suggest that to enable social justice values to be a lived reality requires us to move beyond practice based on intuition and a strong sense of fairness. We need to engage in intellectual consideration of social justice concepts and frameworks. Having such knowledge will assist us to understand why we do what we do.

Having information will also enable us to develop greater confidence for engaging pupils in discussions about diversity, difference and discrimination as well consistency in how we address the range of issues that could be badged under the “equalities” umbrella.

For me, to be a socially just educator requires us to be aware of issues that shape human relations and the way we see and understand the world. We need to understand that inequalities have a history. How society has been organised over hundreds of years impacts on us today. For example, colonialism has ensured “race” has been used as a concept to decide who is seen as part of “us” and who is not, and this has played into present discourses of immigration. The impact of patriarchy has impacted on women’s rights and to this day women face gender pay gaps across the world, and men and women continue to grapple with stereotypical gender expectations. Paolo Freire, a Brazilian educator, talks about the importance of conscientisation, to develop awareness (or a presence of mind) of our own values, world views and beliefs and how those impact on the lives of others.

Freire also suggests that we need to consider whether we are engaging in a banking or transformative model of education. The former sees us as the ones who hold the knowledge and pupils as passive recipients of that knowledge. A transformative model locates teacher and pupils as learners. This can change the way we view our pupils. For example, migrant young people with developing bilingualism in English within a school may be perceived by staff as an “English as an Additional Language (EAL)” pupil and someone who needs support to access the curriculum. That may well be the case. Taking on the lens of “learner” ourselves, we might ponder what knowledge and insights that pupil might have that we could learn from or about. The “EAL” pupil may be perceived by their family as significant bridge builders and cultural experts in the new language and customs, putting them in roles and responsibilities which may not be required of their English speaking non-migrant peers.

So if we were to shift our gaze from being knowledge or doctrine managers to being learners that would be one way to live our professional values.

Henry Giroux, an American/Canadian scholar engaged in critical pedagogy, suggests that we have at our disposal a powerful tool to promote social justice – the curriculum! Regardless of the subject area, there are always opportunities to ensure that the formal and hidden curriculum can assist us to live our professional values of social justice. So the question is, how are we creatively using our curriculum to achieve this? Of course, our aspirations can be thwarted on a daily basis by deadlines and urgent matters and so we mediate our practice on a daily basis. In times of resource austerity, it is likely that we will have to make choices. We should not worry if we do not live and breathe social justice at the same pace 24/7, as long as equity front and centre remains core.

I have found that it is important for me to constantly step out of my comfort zone on social justice issues. I focus my attention on issues and topics I feel less confident in discussing for fear of offending or appearing ignorant. One way to gain that knowledge and confidence is to read about the issue; just as importantly, to learn from my peers and to engage in dialogue about the issues. Every teacher can be a change agent.

Professor Rowena Arshad is Chair in Multicultural and Anti-Racist Education, and Head of Moray House School of Education. Rowena was awarded the GTC Scotland Convener’s Award 2017 for her outstanding commitment to the GTCS Professional Values (Trust, Respect, Integrity, Professional Commitment and Social Justice).

Teaching Scotland

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