By Khadija Mohammad
Black and minority ethnic (BME) teachers in the Scottish teacher workforce are severely under-represented (Scottish Government, 2018). At the same time, the few BME teachers who are working in educational institutions face challenges as they navigate their workplace and integrate with the majority White teaching population. Current research has shown that BME teachers continue to be marginalised and experience both covert and overt acts of discrimination in their school settings and, as such, lose trust in their employers and are leaving the profession (CRER, 2018; EIS, 2017). The same research has identified that BME teachers also experience difficulty in gaining promotion in the workplace.
BME teachers speak openly about their own schooling in Scotland and discuss how they have internalised the racism they experienced within a system which did not challenge discrimination – some can still recall the racist remarks that were made in the playground and the failure of their class teachers to address this (Kholi, 2014).
As qualified teachers, they continue to fight racism in their schools from both pupils and their colleagues and this ranges from colour blind structures and policies, school-wide practices and extending to racial microaggressions within personal interactions. Aisha, a probationary teacher, recalls when her Head Teacher called her into her office and interrogated her about her ‘Muslimness’ (Mohammed, 2020):
‘She asked me how I had been settling in and then questioned me about my hijab. She said that there were not many like me in this school community and questioned if I could fit in. I was in shock, I think more so because I did not expect this level of ignorance from a senior leader’.
The majority of school leaders, it would appear, take little or no responsibility to address the behaviours of staff or students. When challenged, BME teachers are often reminded that they should expect that and should learn to get to used it. In many cases, the racialised gaze that BME teachers face leads them to end their career as a teacher – fight or flight! Moreover, Howe Yi (personal communication) remembers how she felt over scrutinised in school with the Principal Teacher asking why she spoke in her first language:
‘I was speaking to a pupil in Cantonese to explain a homework task and she walked in and said “why are you talking in Cantonese, I can’t understand you and neither can the rest of the children, this is rude and you are wasting your time”. This really upset me as I felt she devalued my language. I was only trying to help’.
Furthermore, Waheed (personal communication) has been teaching for 22 years and he discusses his frustration at being unsuccessful in gaining a promoted post. He has undertaken many leadership courses but each time is told that he does not have enough strategic leadership experience.
‘I help train others and they end up getting the job… how does that work? Some Head Teachers are a law unto themselves… I am convinced, it’s nepotism… it really is who you know and clearly, my face does not fit! I have applied for a promoted post seven times… it is not a glass ceiling but a concrete one… I am stuck, as if frozen in time. I have given up trying… this will not happen in my generation…’
Such experiences leave BME teachers feeling demoralised, disenfranchised and disengaged. This can lead to severe mental health and wellbeing issues where they are left questioning their own ability to teach. Hardy (2013) explains that those who are often marginalised because of their ethnicity experience racial trauma:
‘Racial oppression is a traumatic form of interpersonal violence which can lacerate the spirit, scar the soul, and puncture the psyche’ (p.25).
In an attempt to encourage BME teachers to re-channel their frustrations and their hurt into a powerful energy source, helping them to discover and cultivate what is great in and about them – in other words, the added value they bring to their teaching – SAMEE was established. SAMEE is a nation-wide organisation led by Black and Minority Ethnic (BME) educators which empowers professionally isolated practitioners. SAMEE not only offers a space for learning and healing for marginalised practitioners but provides opportunities for BME teachers to explore their cultural and linguistic skills, developing agency and activism (Pour-Khorshid, 2018). SAMEE has a presence across West, East and Central Scotland, with heightened visibility in areas with the highest concentration of Scotland’s BME practitioners and learners in nursery, primary and secondary schools. SAMEE education professionals provide support to the BME educators and learners through continued professional learning: workshops, seminars, conferences, one-to-one consultations and bespoke mentoring activity. SAMEE’s bespoke leadership and mentoring programme places emphasis on the significance of a diverse workforce which recognises and values the mentees culturally specific contributions to the education sector.
CRER (2018) BME Teachers in Scotland – An overview of the representation of BME Teachers in Scotland’s Local Authorities. Coalition for Racial Equality and Rights.
Hardy, K. (2013) Healing the Hidden Wounds of Racial Trauma, Reclaiming Children and Youth, 22, 24-28.
Kholi, R. (2014) Unpacking internalized racism: teachers of color striving for racially just classrooms, Race Ethnicity and Education, 17:3, 367-387.
Mohammed, K. (2020) Celebrating Professional Identities: The Case of Black and Minority Ethnic Teachers. Unpublished thesis. University of the West of Scotland.
Pour-Khorshid, F. (2018) Cultivating sacred spaces: a racial affinity group approach to support critical educators of color, Teaching Education, 29:4, 318-329.
EIS (2018) The EIS Members Experience of Racism Survey. A survey of minority ethnic members on their experiences of racism and Islamophobia in education.
Scottish Government (2018) Teaching in a Diverse Scotland: Increasing and Retaining Minority Ethnic Teachers in Scotland’s Schools.
Khadijah Mohammed is a Senior Lecturer in the School of Education and Social Sciences, University of the West of Scotland. She is also the co-founder and Chair of the Scottish Association of Minority Ethnic Educators (SAMEE) which aims to support BME teachers, parents and young people. Her PhD thesis focus explores the lived experiences of Black and Minority Ethnic Teachers in Scotland. She was the recipient of the Scottish Trade Union Congress Equality Award 2019. Khadija is the chair of the Scottish Funding Council/Advance HE Race Project: Tackling Racism in Our Universities and Colleges.