In 2018 Sofia was contacted by BBC radio Scotland for the GMS programme regarding the issue of lack of BME representation in the education sector. A damning report had been released and a viewpoint of a person in the position was sought after. The leading question was ‘Why is there an underrepresentation of teachers in Scotland and what could be done about it?’
Here is some of the exchange.
Q: Why did you become a teacher?
A: Because of my love for maths and passion to spread this appreciation for it. Because I wanted to inspire the next generation, I want to firstly help get rid of the negative connotations attached to maths, and secondly, to guide young people in their development and instil appreciation for education and critical thinking skills.
Q: What have your experiences been like?
A: Moving up from London, I was very much in the minority and felt it. I felt like pupils couldn’t see me as a teacher past my headscarf. I was treated like a Muslim lady talking maths, rather than given professional respect. Pupils found it easier to complain about me over the most trivial matters as though they doubted if I had teaching skills at all. Over the past year, things have improved.
Q: What stops ethnic minorities entering the profession?
A: The lack of BME in promoted posts highlighted very limited career progression opportunities. Unconscious bias is only believed by the one who suffers it, so this remains a visible invisible attitude that prevents progression. We have to stand out and abnormally excel to be recognized whereas our white counters don’t; they just do their job well and progress. Then the issue of representation, it’s a downward spiral. When looking at career paths, young people from minorities don’t see many of their own and automatically don’t feel like they belong. We need to address this issue the way we have successfully changed the culture on LGBTQI and gender equality in careers and society. By having role models of colour, the future generation with consider teaching a viable option. Lastly, even if we do enter, confidence is an issue. Having faced every day racism growing up, it is very difficult to believe in one’s capabilities to excel regardless of effort. Perhaps that’s why those of any kind of minority put in more effort than their mainstream counterparts. It’s because our journey is longer and tricker.
Q: What can be done to improve the situation?
A: As mentioned before, modelling professionals who don’t fit the stereotype to pupils contemplating careers is powerful. Equality training for staff, especially leaders, is required. Just because there is a very small proportion of BME people in the school doesn’t mean the staff should not be aware of issues arising. We need to educate our pupils to prepare them to contribute to wider society, which means we need to be aware ourselves. Currently leaders dismiss this particular issue of racism because it’s not their story, therefore not their concern, and there is no political buy-in.
Mr Smith* asked me how it for me as an ethnic minority teacher at his school. I smiled compliantly and said it’s ok and I enjoy working here.
That’s not an untruth; I love the ethos and collegiality, and my pupils. I do feel pupils see me as a teacher, although for some the difference their eyes see looking at me takes time to adjust.
I didn’t mention to Mr Smith how grateful I am that “AllahuAkbar” isn’t shouted down the crowded corridor at the change of period anymore; that I don’t get asked where I come from or get called Bin Laden’s family. I do get asked if I am a real teacher, perhaps because my demeanour is strange as well as my ‘oppressed’ look. I didn’t tell Mr Smith how beaten down I feel when pupils are quick to complain about me to parents, questioning my teaching skills as though my colour and identity hinder my abilities.
Although the snap chat impersonation incident could have happened to any teacher, it happened to me. I think to myself, what person with self-respect works non-stop, break, lunch, after school, CPDs, marking at 11pm, ignoring the husband, taking frustrations out on her own children, just to be humiliated, singled out and disrespected on a daily basis? Where do I draw the line? What do I do about the “Allahu Akbar” written so discreetly just to eat at me inside, thought after thought? The hidden fears or prejudice are present, not seen in the mainstream but only for those who see through the everyday work of the classroom.
It's not your world, Mr Smith*, to be made felt the enemy of the very persons you strive to nurture. To be made to feel like a demon instead of a role model.
I don’t think this school or any in the authority are ready to accept the benefits of a diverse workforce. One where people’s backgrounds bring in new flavours and character into the classroom, with unique experiences and additional values.
I don’t think people like to be made to rethink and re-evaluate to represent the reality of the world in which these young people will be sent to flourish in. How will they act and react to future colleagues if they aren’t taught to actively challenge attitudes in society and amplify the voices of the minorities?
I am now re-evaluating my stance. I work among adults who, well meaning, won’t have a clue how marginalised I feel. The underpaid salary that I earn, is it worth me turning a blind eye on my dignity and self-respect? I am beginning to think I have been stretched and tested too far now.
*not actual name
I have never had it that direct before.
Usually it’s a comment loud enough for me to hear, but not for witnesses – “AllahuAkbar”.
This time, I had witnesses. Not ones I would have chosen.
The younger two kids were sat in the car in sweltering heat, desperate for ice cream. I found a store and took a turn looking for parking. The window rolled down, passing three females. Two teens and their mother.
“That’s an asylum seeker”, female one
“She’s a suicide bomber”, added female two.
My son turned towards her, confused. I questioned my hearing, as I have been become accustomed to whenever something like this happens. But this time these two reinforced my short-term memory. I made a snap decision to pull over but there was no space. So I made an impromptu stop at the side, on the kerb and jumped out, looking back.
“OI, WATCH WHAT YOU SAY! WHO DO YOU THINK YOU ARE TALKING TO?!”
That’s all that could come out. They were too far away, as they made a hurried escape down to the main road. A lady walking by, a worker from the store, stopped in her tracks and my face must have given away what happened. That was the first time I have received explicit, unconditioned validation from a white person. A cyclist coming in the opposite direction also stopped. And acknowledged the wrong. The power of supporting a victim of abuse is underestimated and actually not used enough.
A wave of emotions swept over me, crashing in my face, catching my breath. So many thoughts all at once.
Hold on, I am more educated than you, my existence benefits more people than you. I teach the likes of you. I have a position of respect and authority, unlike you. I am better than you in every respect as a citizen of this country. I WAS BORN IN THIS VERY TOWN. I GREW UP HERE. THIS TOWN WAS MINE BEFORE YOURS!
My daughter is watching. Is this going to be her perception of high school? Being abused for her headscarf?
The next day I processed my son’s feelings about the matter.
“What did you think and feel when this happened?”, I questioned.
“I was confused. Like, how can you be a suicide bomber if you are still alive? How can we attach a bomb to our car? They would have been dead too then. How can we be able to make a bomb? Why did she say that? What’s an asylum seeker?”
He goes to ask Siri. Siri promptly gives him information.
“That’s not us.”