3 ways to better tackle racism in schools

On the anniversary of George Floyd's death, former headteacher Viv Grant says the past 12 months have offered hope for the future

Viv Grant

How schools can better tackle racism, one year after the murder of George Floyd

After George Floyd was murdered on 25 May 2020, a colleague said to me that their “mind was full and their heart heavy”. I felt the same.   

Throughout my teaching career, I have witnessed myriad manifestations of racism and a plethora of race equality and social justice initiatives. 

Yet, despite the good intentions behind these, the single narrative of colonialism and empire still dominated our classrooms, along with deficit models for addressing the underachievement of pupils from racially marginalised groups.

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But I have felt a growing sense of hope over the past 12 months. I saw that when attempts were made to silence those talking about the institutionalised racism here in the UK, people refused to acquiesce. Collective voices for social justice, equality and equity have continued to speak truth to power.

And I am hopeful because, after 30-plus years in education, things feel different. Schools that I have engaged with as part of our Race, Identity and School Leadership Programme are now recognising that new race equality narratives cannot be written overnight.

They are recognising that becoming anti-racist is a lifelong commitment, one that has as much to do with decolonising their own minds as it has to do with decolonising the curriculum.

The legacy of George Floyd: the need to tackle racism in schools

This gives me hope for the future. At long last, teachers and school leaders are beginning to see that, within the context of race, who they are as people carries as much weight, if not more, than curriculum content and what they know.

Even though inter- and intra-personal development have never been strong points of this country’s CPD provision for educators, I have seen teachers and school leaders willing to take risks and to learn in new ways, all in the service of promoting healthier and stronger interracial relationships.

It is important to acknowledge that this work is about authenticity. All students (and in particular those who are racially marginalised) are crying out for authentic relationships with their teachers. For many, the test of authenticity rests on these three things: 

1. Engaging with the key questions 

These are questions as fundamental as “Who am I?” and “Who are we?”. As the American author Parker Palmer says: “We teach out of who we are.” And when it comes to race, students want and need to be taught by teachers who have done their own inner work around race and, as a result, are able to demonstrate both vulnerability and confidence when addressing the topic.

2. Listening to and hearing lived experiences 

No longer can students’ lives outside of school be divorced from what happens inside the classroom. When racism is a reality for young people, they want their teachers to acknowledge this, to understand and to co-create learning environments that allow their experiences to be heard.

3. Accepting emotion

We need to let go of pedagogical approaches that champion reasoning, objectivity and a separation of facts from feelings on this issue. Race dialogue, by its very nature, is emotive and requires a pedagogical approach that can embrace this. There are few teachers in this country whose training or NPQ qualifications have equipped them with the knowledge, skills, expertise and levels of emotional literacy needed for teaching about race. Yet our young people are telling us that schools need an approach to teaching that facilitates the centring of their experiences and the emotional reality of their lives.

It is our young people, our future leaders, who are leading the way. They are our future. We must hear their voices and we must listen to them. As educators, we have a moral duty to not only help them to develop their critical consciousness but to also work alongside them. Together we can, if the will is there, be co-creators of a more just, equitable and humane society.

Viv Grant is founder and director of Integrity Coaching, author, public speaker and a former headteacher. She is also an advisory board member of the UK’s first Centre of Excellence for Mental Health in Schools at The Carnegie School of Education at Leeds Beckett University

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