The conspiracy of silence
Let’s talk about race
I was delighted to read Ken Muir’s article in the previous issue of Teaching Scotland and hope that teachers do respond to his plea and read the report, Teaching in a Diverse Scotland: Increasing and Retaining Minority Ethnic Teachers.
I often reflect on my own experience as a Black and Minority Ethnic (BME) teacher – I was respected and well-supported with many opportunities to grow and develop. I belonged to a “community” of teachers working together and we each valued the unique cultural and linguistic skills we brought to our teaching. I developed a naive sense that no teacher could cause harm to another. Sadly, for many of my fellow BME colleagues, their experiences were – and still are – very different, often fraught with tensions and many challenges that are linked directly to their ethnicity.
I was also a member of the short-term working group that undertook fieldwork for Professor Arshad’s report. Findings from the EIS survey on members’ experiences of racism and Islamophobia, and Glasgow City Council’s report on Ethnic Diversity in the Teaching Profession were also reviewed. The findings presented were shocking but not surprising.
I am Chair of the Scottish Association of Minority Ethnic Educators (SAMEE) and we have more than 80 BME teacher members. This group was set up, initially, to offer advice to BME parents, helping them to access the curriculum. However, what we found was that more and more BME teachers were coming to us, seeking advice. Some were very clear in describing their experiences of being excluded, and some were finding it more difficult to articulate what was happening on an almost regular basis, leaving them feeling demoralised and lacking in confidence.
My PhD study has explored how BME teachers negotiate their professional identities. The findings raise grave concerns over retaining our newly-qualified BME teachers who join the teacher workforce as excited probationers, keen to learn and engage, but who begin to feel that something is “not quite right”.
One particular probationer said: “I don’t know what it is … I feel like something is amiss...but I dare not mention ‘race’…I will be accused of playing the race card…and can kiss my career goodbye”. This forces BME teachers into silence and, in doing so, they feel compelled to separate their personal identities from their professional. Some have simply left the profession.
This is deeply concerning as the racism they are experiencing is often subtle and covert: sweeping generalisations about particular communities, comments about individual accents and Islamophobic remarks are just a few examples. An experienced teacher commented on the number of times she had put herself forward for leadership roles and said: “It’s not a glass ceiling for us, it is a concrete ceiling. I was told to undertake further training and attend courses yet – despite this – I have been unsuccessful.”
Another teacher commented that: “Management just hope the situation will go away and don’t want to deal with it”. This silence makes colleagues complicit.
Furthermore, a recent encounter with a BME teacher was deeply worrying as she despairingly said: “I will not encourage my child, nor any other BME child, to choose teaching as a career!” This is tragic and is unacceptable as we are losing potentially good teachers who will reflect our diverse Scotland. We must galvanise and work together in addressing the issues raised in the report.
Of course, the narratives above have implications on the future recruitment of BME teachers, but I stress that while we must focus on increasing this recruitment, we must also look to those who currently exist in the workforce and the conditions in which they exist.
At SAMEE, we have developed a bespoke coaching and mentoring programme for BME teachers which offers opportunities for them to share their experiences but also begin to explore leadership that is race-conscious and culturally specific and that acknowledges the “difference that difference makes”.
There is a real focus on valuing both personal and collective identities and being comfortable about who you are and what you stand for. To this end, our aim is to work in partnership with GTC Scotland in leading a national mentoring network for minority ethnic staff. We are also hoping to work collaboratively with education providers to review leadership programmes to include content that develops an understanding of how everyday racism, institutional racism or biases have an impact in the workplace.
Moving forward, it is vital that we have some honest conversations about race – it is difficult for many because there are misunderstandings, assumptions and a range of strong emotions at play. Our schools have become more diverse and yet we still find that even the most well-intentioned teachers feel unprepared to deal with issues related to race and this could be due to a number of reasons. There is often a complacency, or perhaps a nervousness, to discuss race for fear of being politically incorrect or – more seriously – there is a reluctance to challenge one’s own underlying, negative assumptions. However, honest, open dialogues on race can be very powerful in heightening consciousness about some of the issues and serve to improve our understanding of it.
Our classrooms and staffrooms can and should promote an ethos where difference is acknowledged, nurtured and celebrated.
About the author
Khadija Mohammed is a Lecturer in the School of Education, University of the West of Scotland. She is a co-founder and Chair of a national charitable organisation, Scottish Association of Minority Ethnic Educators (SAMEE), which aims to support BME teachers, parents and young people. She is also vice-chair of the Scottish Trade Union Council Black Workers’ Committee.