'Tackling racism in society means more black teachers'

by Isaac Acquah - The Times Educational Supplement (TES)

I write this article from many perspectives – as a husband, a new father and a Christian.

But also from one that in my teaching career has been relatively rare: that of a black, male teacher.

Indeed, in my time in education, I can count the number of black, male teachers I have encountered on one hand, and that includes when I was a student myself.

One of those, my form tutor in secondary school, clearly proved to be an inspiration for me as a practitioner, even if it took me a while to realise it.

Racism and the death of George Floyd

Now that I am a teacher, watching events unfold in the US and around the world regarding the death of George Floyd, I am increasingly viewing this time away from my students as a missed opportunity.

This is because I can't put aside what I would normally be guiding my English students through and instead teach them, a predominately working-class white cohort, the history of such an urgent issue.

I remember, earlier in the year, putting on hold my teaching of love and relationship poetry to introduce my Year 9 class to the late Kobe Bryant and his poem 'Dear Basketball', days after his sudden death.

Several of my students went on to write about that poem for their assessment. This shows the potential of this generation to avoid and correct the mistakes of previous generations.

Now, however, I'm at home, watching the news, wondering if they are watching it, too.

Teaching moments lost

This is also missed opportunity because I'm not at my previous school, which mostly consists of black, inner-city students.

I have strong memories my former pupils there, not only because of their fierce intelligence but also their passion to debate, to learn, to understand and to change.

I remember my Year 10 class debating over the news coverage of Nelson Mandela's death, arguing whether the media actually cared as much as they appeared to.

I would have loved to be there, discussing these issues that their ancestors, our ancestors, had to face.

Instead, I'm at home, watching the news, wondering how many of them protested in Trafalgar Square or what they thought about the removal of the statue of Edward Colston in Bristol.

The need for more black teachers

This is a missed opportunity because my newborn, mixed-race son is blissfully unaware of everything that is going on.

On the one hand, that's absolutely a blessing: I'm glad he doesn't know about the longstanding injustices in the world – or coronavirus. But he will one day.

One day I will have to sit him down and explain to him that these injustices exist, why they exist and that he might experience them himself.

Of course, I dread that day, but I also welcome it, because I will hopefully empower, strengthen and protect him by preparing him for it. But he is just one person. The question remains: what about everyone else?

This may come across as a slightly arrogant perspective: what makes me think that people like me are the only ones who can educate others about racism?

And that would be a valid question. I have been privileged to work with incredibly aware, articulate and knowledgeable colleagues from different backgrounds and races, who are just as passionate as I am about equality.

However, the fact remains that those from a black, Asian or minority ethnic (BAME) background are horribly underrepresented in the education sector, as well as many other aspects of society.

A diversity of voices

If this continues to be the case, how can we expect students like my own, children like my own to fully appreciate the history and the heartache of racism? How can we expect them to appreciate and embrace black culture as opposed to fearing it?

My experience suggests that they are willing to do so. The protests around the world suggest likewise. But the best way to educate them on black issues is to have more black educators. To have a stronger voice.

To have more black role models like my form tutor.

You may be reading this and wondering how you can have your voice heard as a person of colour. You can help to do so by looking into teaching.

Yes, there are many challenges, but there are so many blessings – most of all to know that you are empowering the future. Trust me, I know from experience.

You may be a white person reading this and wondering how you can make this voice clearer in your school. Hopefully reading this article is a start, but ensure it is a start. Talk to your black colleagues, your black friends, your black students.

Be willing to set aside a lesson to properly debate these issues, and know that by doing so, you are not only empowering them but also yourself and those around you.

Trust me, I know from experience.

Isaac Acquah is an English and film studies teacher who has been teaching in Essex for five years

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June 8, 2020