Don't back down when pupils play the race card

10th January 2003 at 00:00
Chris Hall, (centre) explains how he handles difficult school situations

I have been teaching for seven years in south London at a 11-16 mixed comprehensive school. As a young, black male teacher my relationship with black students has generally been good. I believe my colour has made a difference: students assume I like the same things that they do and, on some occasions, they're right. They often give me a chance at the start because they feel we have something in common.

I recall one experience in my first year when I went to collect and register my tutor group for the first time. The whole of Year 7 had assembled in the hall and tutors with clipboards stood at the front, calling the register for their groups. I remember three black boys looking attentively and saying: "Who's he? I want to be in his group."

Today, I feel teachers are more than ever aware of equal opportunities. As part of my training seven years ago, I had to do a project on equal opportunities. Later on in my career, along with other colleagues, I had to rewrite schemes of work to include equal opps. I'm convinced teachers are more aware of these issues.

Of the two newly qualified white female teachers that I spoke to about the issue of black boys' behaviour, both felt there were no significant differences between black and white pupils.

However, both said they had encountered difficulties with some black girls and one mentioned that girls tended to be more "racially aware" - keen to distinguish who is black and who is not; who is African or West Indian.

Some students do like to play the race card. Often they will use it as a knee-jerk reaction. Teachers, I'm sure, have always had to deal with it. Even I have to deal with it, but I tend to dismiss it or humour them by agreeing - it's soon forgotten.

As a black teacher I've been called racist by white students and, ludicrously, by black students too. I think those who pull the race card use it to shock the teacher in the hope they will back down. Perhaps a few might - particularly if there is something behind it.

I believe it is important to know your student. Something as small as finding out their hobby can help improve relations and consequently their behaviour. Knowing some that Aaron plays Sunday league football or Kadesha likes to MC goes some way to getting them on your side. After all, everyone wants to be recognised as an individual.

In a nutshell, get to know who they are and show fairness. In my first year I made a mental note on how often I helped or disciplined a student of a particular race or gender. If I felt that I was telling off boys more, I would make it clear to the class when I was speaking to a girl committing a similar act. I was trying to be seen as fair and not discriminatory. I think it helped.

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