On 20th March, schools went into lockdown. I started teaching my lessons remotely, and, since then, apart from a few face-to-face lessons, I have mostly taught my classes (both English and yoga) virtually. I’ve now entered the summer holidays and can honestly say that I’ve never spent so much time away from the workplace. In some ways this has been difficult but in many ways it has also been wonderful. One good thing (amongst many) that has come out of all this time at home is the societal recognition of the time and effort that goes into teaching children – in ways that can never quite be achieved online, at least not for everyone, and not without some face-to-face contact too; there is something personal and intimate that cannot be transmitted through a computer screen. The other thing that has become increasingly evident to me, as I have been typing endless emails and Teams lessons home to students, is the absence of female and BAME voices in the National Curriculum.
I’m not fully convinced that we should be going back to school full/time in September, which is the current plan, but whatever happens will happen, and I guess we have to find a way of working within the guidelines. Interestingly, I have always focused on including a variety of voices in my lessons, but one thing I’ll certainly be doing more of on my return to the classroom is sharing a wider and more diverse range of literature with my students.
Being restricted over the past three months has given me lots of time to reflect on society and the human condition. The ‘Black Lives Matter’ Movement of recent weeks has given us further food for thought. I’m lucky to have grown up in a diverse area where I didn’t really ‘see’ the colour of skin, just the content of character, as Mr King once wished. But now I reflect: racism has obviously existed around me all the time. I’ve not witnessed it too sorely myself and so it has been easy for me to ‘forget’ that it remains a HUGE problem. The first, and probably only, time I ever felt victimised was on the day of the Brexit vote; this was when I realised that, although I am white-skinned and British, many would vote for some of my family members to live elsewhere. See, my parents were born in Northern Cyprus, my husband‘s father was born in Italy, and my children are a whole blend of English, Turkish and Italian. This country and culture belongs to us but, based on the Brexit vote, my older relatives are not fully accepted. How awful that, in 2020, so many BAME people feel victimised and like they don’t belong?! Why does society make so many of its members feel threatened? Surely we need to address these issues. George Floyd’s death has raised them to such a level that society has to stand up and tackle them now. For too long there has not been enough inclusivity.
As a female, perhaps I have felt discrimination more intensely. Growing up was definitely more restricted for me than my male family members and friends – my parents were reluctant to give me the freedom I craved because I was female and ‘needed protecting’. Then at work, I had to drop my responsibility when my children were born as I was not allowed to hold certain positions whilst working part-time. I don’t feel bitter about this – I loved being at home and having more time to prioritise my family, but some women find this limiting – their careers are cut short because they have a child-bearing uterus and choose to breastfeed. Why shouldn’t they be allowed a short career break, a return to work with the same pay and level of respect as men? There are so many question marks in terms of discrimination and stereotyping that I don’t even know where to begin. What I do know is that male, white denial is the ubiquitous politics of gender and race that operates on its ingrained invisibility.
As a lover of peace ☮️, I’m not fully in support of the aggression at the BLM protests and the violence that a small group of individuals created, but I can see how people’s voices need to be heard, and without action, the government is sticking ear buds in and claiming ignorance. The Suffragettes were aggressive and violent in their protests – they needed to find extreme ways to get noticed. But I ponder: why are we still not, as a society, educated enough to bring about change, without violence, in 2020? Disruption is certainly necessary, but not violence. It’s obvious that history cannot, and should not, be erased, but education is necessary as a catalyst for achieving equality. As Maya Angelou (‘phenomenal woman’ that she was) once said:
‘Do the best you can until you know better, and then when you know better, do better.’
This is not to say I’m condoning the sexism or racism of the past – quite the opposite. But I know that globally, we can learn history, and ‘do better’ now because we ‘know better’ now.
As not only a teacher of yoga but also a teacher of English in secondary schools, I implore us all to bring about change through education. Through the voices of those in our curriculum. Through the younger generation. Regular, constant, varied and diverse voices to create a kinder, less bigoted and more open-minded society. Black History Month, for one, has to go! One month out of twelve for a token gesture?! No thank you. How about enriching the curriculum with diverse voices all year round? So much of what students read at school is written by rich white men, and as progressive as their ideas might have been at the time, it is no longer enough. It is crucial to mix these voices with a) more females, and b) more BAME authors. Why aren’t we reading African, Black British and Caribbean stories in English lessons? Why aren’t we analysing enough poetry from other cultures and traditions? Why aren’t we teaching Feminism in a way that allows society (and young men in particular) to realise that Feminism is not about hating men at all, but rather about supporting gender equality? Why aren’t History lessons full of autobiographical refugee stories and the positive impact that immigrants and minority groups have had on this country? And of worldwide female experiences? If our curriculum continues to be as limited as it has been, then many of our country’s residents will lack the full human experience – it’s not possible without diversity.
But it’s important that this inclusion is enriching. It is not enough for schools and educational establishments to teach Rosa Parks, Martin Luther King, and the Suffragettes and think they have done their bit. Nor is it acceptable to add a few diverse voices as a token gesture because of a knee-jerk reaction to this year’s protests. This is what people who don’t understand racism do to convince themselves that they’re being inclusive. The government can’t direct us in this area as most of its members are privileged, privately-educated, right-wing, white men masquerading as fair and intelligent folk. Teachers and schools need to pave the way. They must consider two areas: one is the inclusion of resources that are diverse and educational in a more progressive and inclusive way than they have been until now. And the other is by looking at its staffing – it is absolutely wrong to employ staff based on the colour of their skin so I will not say it’s necessary to employ BAME staff for the sake of it. But I will say that the best person for the role should not be discriminated against on the basis of race or religion. And I will also say that those employed must be intelligent and sensitive in the way they approach the curriculum to drive forward a fairer and more equal society.
Education is the only peaceful way of bringing about empathy, understanding and equality: in schools first and foremost, and then in other workplaces, in theatres, in family homes, in yoga studios.
I often end my yoga classes with a reading, so I want to end this blog with the words of (Nigerian writer), Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, in a modified version of a talk she delivered in 2012 about Feminism:
‘If we see something over and over again, it becomes normal. If we see the same thing over and over again, it becomes normal. If only boys are made class monitor, then at some point we will all think, even if unconsciously, that the class monitor has to be a boy. If we keep seeing only men as heads of corporations, it starts to seem ‘natural’ that only men should be heads of corporations’.
This is true of gender. It is also true of race, religion and skin colour. The power-hungry ‘pigs’ in government are wrong: some of us are not more equal than others. We all share the human condition: we bleed red, we feel love, we battle with our individual neuroticisms, we hate rejection, and we most certainly hurt if discriminated against.
The time has come to work collectively as a society to celebrate the commonality of the human condition as well as its diversity – not based on race or gender, but rather based on individual genetic and biochemical uniqueness. This is the peaceful movement that is happening right now – we are all part of it. It doesn’t only take place during protests and marches but in our education system, in daily conversations, in yoga studios, and in the way we raise our children.