I Saw Myself
By Yuki Hazlewood
Perhaps it was watching the Linda Linda’s viral performance in a small LA public library, maybe it was celebrating Chloe Zhao’s plentiful accolades following the release of Nomadland, or it might have been when we observed Kamala Harris being sworn in as Vice President of the United States of America. Whatever it was, it was another reminder to me that representation has been severely lacking in my life experiences. In the last year, there has been an undeniable buzz around education in the United Kingdom, you might even have heard people using phrases such as ‘decolonise the curriculum’. What I think we can all agree on, is that seeing more people of colour celebrated and centered in these ways is most welcome.
In the past, I have reflected upon my own experiences at school, and I have always thought of them as being pretty average. I was taught by white, middle-class, British men and women and I really liked the subjects Art and History. However, I was always hyper aware of the fact that I was of mixed ethnicity within this space. When I tried to find an adult at school who I felt had the closest affinity to my life experiences and to whom I felt I could speak openly with, it was other people of colour that I turned to, which in my school were the assistant teachers or ‘helpers’. I saw no issue with me abandoning my Asian-derived first name in Year 6 and instead adopting my western middle name to avoid the embarrassment of teachers mispronouncing it and my peers using it to poke fun at how close it sounded to ‘yucky’ for them.
The playground is a well-known melting pot of emotions for children. I remember receiving racist jabs about my eyes with other students pulling their eyes up into slits while they spoke to me. I remember repeatedly having to explain what was in my lunch box to my peers amongst ‘ewws’ and ‘gross’. I didn’t see an issue with me eventually hiding my ‘foreign’ snacks and food and going without until my East Asian mother agreed to buy me ‘normal’ snacks and food which I was convinced would help me fit in. I only started to understand the impact of colonialism upon my experiences and a lack of representation within my education a lot later in life.
Not seeing myself and my heritage celebrated led to my withdrawal from this half of myself, I never bothered to understand and appreciate it, and indeed I resented this part of me that simply did not fit in with the rest of my peers. But my path eventually led me into the field of teaching, where I again found it difficult to integrate myself into an environment where the rest of the teaching staff were mostly white. I found it difficult to see that many of the students under my wing were bursting with excitement to share information with me that they knew would mean something more because it was about a shared culture or lived experience. I found it difficult to leave these students behind, knowing that there was a lack of representation for these students within the staffing of these institutions. But I write this hoping that you will hear me and be in a position to do something about it.
What is representation in education?
Representation is when the demographics of a student body are reflected in the learning that is delivered in that classroom. Representation is being able to identify with another person because they have a similar lived experience to you. It is being able to imagine a future for yourself because someone else who looks like you has already accomplished your dream. It is also not having to worry about fitting in because differences are not just accepted but celebrated.
Why is it important in the school environment?
In an increasingly multicultural world, celebrating differences and exposing students to other cultures provides them with the necessary experiences and a better understanding of our multi-dimensional reality. Gordon Allport (1954) stressed that ‘the familiar is preferred. What is alien is regarded as somehow inferior, less ‘good’’. Representation therefore gives students the opportunity to find and value their own voices, histories and cultures from an early age as well as recognising and understanding other people’s. Marilynn Brewer (1999) discusses how ‘many forms of discrimination and bias may develop not because outgroups are hated, but because positive emotions such as admiration, sympathy, and trust are reserved for the ingroup and withheld from outgroups.’
The channeling of negativity towards ‘outgroups’ in turn can lead to the discrimination of people who do not conform to what has been presented as ‘the norm’. The Directors of World Afro Day CIC co-authored a report in 2019 surrounding the experiences that black students have had concerning their hair within the school environment in the UK. Their findings saw that, ‘1 in 6 children have a bad or very bad experience at school with their Afro-textured hair and identity’ and that ‘out of the children with bad experiences, 46% of parents said that their children’s school policy penalised Afro hair’. The report includes startling evidence of how students have thus been excluded because their natural hair did not conform to the school’s ‘norm’.
Ultimately, schools should be places of learning and development, where young people feel comfortable and where they feel a sense of belonging. Without this basic human need, research has shown that students are unlikely to feel relaxed, receptive or motivated. Furthermore, students are less likely to ask for help when they need it (Laldin, 2016).
‘[Young people] need to see and hear stories so that they know that there are options of existence available to them – dreams can be reality!’Dr Ronx
According to the Department for Education (DfE), in 2018, nearly 92% of teachers in England’s state-funded schools were white (DfE, 2018a) whilst DfE data shows that in 2019, Black, Asian and other Minority Ethnic students accounted for 25% of primary and secondary school cohorts, which highlights just how important it is that teachers are taking the time to learn about the students in their classrooms.
A report by the Runnymede Trust (June, 2020) published an interview with a teacher where they stated, ‘it is rare that you will see anyone of ethnic minority within a deputy headship or a headship’. The report further detailed that other teachers observed black staff within their schools as ‘only present in roles such as teaching assistants, personal assistants or dinner-time staff, and in behavioural management and support roles’. It would be negligent to brush over this issue and assume that students do not observe what these adults have. What is at risk here is a message being perpetuated to students within the school environment that people from Black, Asian and other Minority Ethnic backgrounds are less suited to senior roles than their white counterparts and this simply isn’t good enough (Joseph-Salisbury, 2016).
What can be done?
In a society with such range, equality and diversity must be promoted throughout our schools with a call for more representation in the classroom.
Of course, there are numerous factors within which the school curriculum must operate. But does this mean that we continue to teach the same topics every year? Consider how often your curriculum is placed under scrutiny and the reasons why topics remain in your scheme of work. As educators, the priority must be in delivering a curriculum that best prepares your students for their present but also their futures. Regardless of whether curriculum overhauls are available to you or not, adjustments can always be made to the way in which lesson content is delivered.
Audit your practice.
Think about embedding positive campaigns in the literature made available to your students. School resources should celebrate and affirm identity and diversity and provide a balanced and inclusive representation of world history and culture throughout a student’s academic learning.
When planning lessons consider:
- Do your lessons include a wide range of different ways for pupils to explore and learn?
- Is the diversity of your students reflected in your lesson plans? Do your lessons equip students to live in a diverse and global society?
- Whose stories are told? Do you actively reference and use examples from different traditions, cultures, and religions rather than simply providing a Eurocentric viewpoint?
- Do the illustrations and content allow pupils and communities dignity and respect?
- Is the curriculum meaningful for pupils with English as an Additional Language? Do pupils need certain cultural capital to fully access content?
- Are the language and themes in your learning materials inclusive and non-discriminatory? If there are problematic themes or language, do you take the time to acknowledge them and address the issues with students?
- Do you review and share your resources / lesson plans regularly with your peers?
Get your students involved in the process of choosing what they would like to learn about. This doesn’t have to be a portion of a scheme of work, it could instead be a ‘guest topic’ for an afternoon for example.
Listening to the experiences of others and ensuring that the young people in your care feel able to be their true selves at school provides a secure foundation for their development into adulthood. It is therefore important to be open and willing to discuss topics such as school policies, considering for example as to whether the uniform policy allows for religious and cultural accommodations for both students and staff.
Involve the local community or the wider school community in your curriculum and PSHE, especially if the teaching staff in your school perhaps does not reflect the diversity within your classroom. This could be through the capacity of a guest speaker who might discuss a topic that they are an expert in or even discuss their own culture or religion.
Investment in the knowledge of your staff is imperative. Equality, diversity and inclusion literacy amongst teachers and staff should be an ongoing process, ensuring that issues pertaining to race and racism become the responsibility of all teachers. Give your teachers the tools to be able to identify, and therefore respond to, the ways in which the education system can and does reproduce racism and racial inequalities.
Resources online are plentiful in claiming to assist schools in embedding equality within the classroom but choose these with careful consideration. Some of our suggestions include:
EqualiTeach Faith in Us:
EqualiTeach Universal Values:
The Runnymede Trust: Our Migration Story
The Faith and Belief Forum
Sarah Pearce (2005) You Wouldn’t Understand: White Teachers in Multi-ethnic Classrooms. Chapters 3 and 4
Marilynn. B. Brewer, 1999. The Psychology of Prejudice: Ingroup Love or Outgroup Hate? Journal of Social Issues, Vol. 55, No 3, pp 429-444. Ohio State University
G.W. Allport, 1954. The nature of prejudice. Cambridge, MA: Addison-Wesley.
M. Laldin, 2016 https://www.learningandthebrain.com/blog/psychology-of-belonging/ Accessed: 10th December 2020