Unless you work on Orkney (and maybe not even then), you probably teach classes that could delight an ethnographer from now until Brexit. I’ve been fortunate enough to teach in London for my whole career – I say fortunate because I appreciate the peculiarities of those islands, while celebrating the many advantages of being somewhere else. And London really is somewhere else.
I arrived from Glasgow in the early 1990s; I might as well have rocketed here from the doomed planet Krypton. The diversity of ethnicity, and the sheer breadth of facial tone and hue, which spanned the entire Pantone back catalogue, was striking to someone who came from the relatively monotone lowlands of Caledonia. In fact, I dived into the deepest well of cosmopolitanism by working in Soho for the first eight years of my life in the Smoke. There, plurality was so pronounced that meeting two people with the same accent in a row was an oddity. My colleagues were Albanian, French, Australian, Polish, Nigerian, and a hundred other nationalities with place cards at the UN.
I remember the first shock was no longer feeling like a migrant; I brought with me a childish assumption that I was special because I came from a land where smoking was a competitive sport and “gonnae no” was an acceptable variant of “could you not”. But it was obvious that to be different here was to be the same.
The second shock was trying to be understood, and understand others, in the great melting pot of accent, idiom and vocabulary. The solution, of course, was a sort of Esperanto to which everyone deferred – an inoffensively simple English with a soft RP accent, perhaps. And once that lingua franca was mastered, everything else was easy. In fact, everything else about that situation was extraordinary and exciting.
I met people with views and cultural assumptions that stood parallel and perpendicular to my own; I learned the names of places that had never been real to me before; I heard stories that challenged and changed me. The wider world had come to this one place, and it was no longer possible to ignore that it existed.
There were other benefits to it. For a start, it was clear that the economy of London’s West End could never survive without its migrant workforce. In all my years of managing clubs and bars, I had perhaps five, maybe six British people apply for jobs with us, compared with hundreds and hundreds from abroad. The rest of Soho was the same. Without this labour, business would have frozen. How many prosperous Western economies have been built on the muscles of international labour?
Cultures can clash, but they can also cohere and converse. Classrooms are the same. Like many teachers, I have taught, and enjoyed teaching, children from every corner of the map.
Sometimes we wrestle with issues of integration and transition (from both sides), but as teachers we wrestle with countless other circumstantial factors emerging from the microcultures of family and community. This is no different. And the joy we can bring each other – the gift of our perspectives – outweighs any friction.
It grieves me that any child would feel unwelcome in a British classroom because of their ethnic or geographic origin. In these days of uncertainty, it falls to teachers to ensure that their classrooms are cauldrons of multiplicity and celebration, rather than intimidating and monocultural. As role models for our rooms, it is essential that we set a standard: that we challenge and contain attitudes and behaviours that marginalise students, and that we exemplify inclusion, compassion, and mutual appreciation and respect. It all starts with us.
Tom Bennett is a secondary teacher in East London, director of the ResearchED conference and the government’s school behaviour expert @tombennett71