As teachers we have enormous power to influence pupils’ lives and behaviours, but we can only do this if our own behaviours, values and beliefs work to empower the pupils we are lucky enough to teach.
How can teachers empower, rather than dis-empower, their pupils?
Jim Cummins, a Canadian academic who wrote widely on issues around race and language equality, believed that the effects of teachers’ actions and attitudes on pupil achievement are not fully appreciated and massively underestimated.
Cummins’ theory identifies four areas of education that affects minority pupils:
- Assessment – the extent to which BAME pupils and those learning EAL could access fair and equitable assessment systems that reflected their language abilities and cultural understanding.
- Teaching and learning – how teachers assigned identities to BAME and EAL pupils through their classroom practice and the curriculum which could either support or hinder their progress.
- Community participation – how the local community was encouraged to engage with the school and the academic development of its children in a positive way.
- Linguistic and cultural incorporation – the extent to which the lived experiences of every child was reflected in the school as an institution and through the behaviours and attitudes of staff, both collectively and individually.
When all these aspects of education are handled positively by school staff, pupils from culturally diverse communities succeed through greater empowerment. Their identities as valued and valuable members of the school and wider society are affirmed. This, in turn, enables them to benefit from a more equitable and less disabling education system.
Therefore, how can schools show that black lives really do matter?
Check your staff
Ask yourself if your staff reflects the community it serves. Who would you identify as strong role models for your BAME pupils?
Be aware of how staff talk about pupils in meetings and be prepared to challenge stereotyping or negative attitudes towards different community groups or families. Provide regular CPD opportunities where staff can discuss their beliefs and attitudes towards other people while identifying their own cultural practices.
Understand your local communities
Engage with the communities around your school. Talk to children and parents about their lives outside school to find out what is important to them. Are children attending community schools? Find out how these places work and who runs them so that you gain a broader understanding of what your pupils are achieving beyond the classroom.
Talk to parents whenever possible and not just about behavioural issues. Hold meetings for vulnerable families to attend that explain what you are trying to achieve in terms of attendance, for example, and allow parents to tell you what the barriers might be for their families. What are the real issues for families whose pupils attend your school, not those imaged by staff through little or no interaction? Don’t try and guess what others might be experiencing day to day. Find solutions together.
Revise the curriculum
Get staff to review each curriculum area regularly to make sure that it reflects the school’s wider community. Teaching the life of Mary Secole alongside or instead of Florence Nightingale is a start in introducing some BAME history but the world is a much richer and diverse place.
Set the children topics that explore different cultures. Make comparisons across time – while Stonehenge was being constructed in England, the pyramids in Giza were built using far more sophisticated techniques. Read literature from different writers across the world; find accounts that allow pupils to empathise with families escaping from war-ravaged areas of the world but also look for positive and affirmatory texts that show the enormous wealth of writing coming from beyond the English-speaking world.
Allow pupils to express and share their stories as part of the curriculum. Learn from each other.
Covid-19 appears to have taken a disproportionate number of BAME lives. The reasons cited on the news are many, with deprivation included as a possible explanation.
Make sure the facilities you offer during and after school are accessed by vulnerable BAME children. There are many stories of pupils who have found expression through football, boxing or dance groups for example that have saved them from exclusion.
Regularly review your school’s extra-curricular activities and make sure that there is equality of access for all pupils.
Simple strategies such as offering toast and a drink when pupils arrive at the start of the school day can mean the difference between a hungry child sitting in lessons and one who is fed and relaxed, ready to learn.
Listen to yourself
As teachers it is not always possible to reflect on our practice as much as we would like. However, it is really important to listen to how we speak to children and about them – in the classroom and in the more private areas, like the staff room.
Notice who you are talking to in the classroom. Which children do you call on to answer most questions? Who do you ignore? (There will be some children you interact it with more than others, guaranteed!) Which group do you spend the greatest amount of time working with?
Listen to how you praise and who you praise.
Listen to who you raise your voice to and think why this happens.
Notice how clearly you do (or don’t) explain a concept. Think about how you modify what you say to support EAL pupils and what visual clues you draw on to help.
And think about how you talk about children and families in the staff room to other colleagues. Is the atmosphere generally positive? Are particular pupils singled out for comment and how often are these comments expressed in a positive, affirmatory way?