Talking about Black Lives Matter in the classroom and upholding my professional values
Black Lives Matter

Cross posted from CERES Blogs: Blog post by anonymous Primary teacher

The primary teacher who wrote this blog has asked for it to be published anonymously to avoid repercussions and identifying those involved. We have agreed to do so as we recognise that for early careers teachers who adopt a transformative approach that this involves taking risks. We also wanted to share this blog to encourage teachers to continue to make a difference.

This year, I was struck by the need to discuss the Black Lives Matter movement and the death of George Floyd with my P5 class. I felt that as a teacher, it was my responsibility to tackle these subjects. I also felt that by not addressing it, when it was all over the news and social media, to my class made up of 70% Black and Minority Ethnic (BAME) children, I would be letting them and their families down. I refused to be silent and therefore complicit – I knew that the conversations which might make me feel uncomfortable are the ones which were the most necessary.

I gathered the class in a Google Meet and presented a simple PowerPoint to them. I spent time making sure that my lesson was appropriate for the age group, and that it was not biased or overly political. I asked like-minded teachers to review the PowerPoint with a critical eye – I’m lucky to have a small group of colleagues who share my social justice values. I sought to highlight the issues and inform the children of facts and statistics with the hope that they would draw their own conclusions and ask their own questions. The lesson raised some interesting questions (“but can black people also be racist to white people?”, “are all police bad?”, “when did racism begin?” and “were cavemen racist?”). The black children in the class had clearly been engaging in conversations already at home. They knew a lot about the George Floyd case and could name a few other black victims of police brutality such as Breonna Taylor and Elijah McCann. Some even changed their names on various platforms to ‘BLM’ or changed their avatar to a black square in support of ‘Blackout Tuesday.’ The white and minority ethnic children were asking questions, eager to learn more. There were some lightbulb moments usually by the way of pointing out double-standards. We talked about the destruction and violence caused by the white suffragette movement and how they were hailed as heroes to go down in history while BLM protesters are using similar strategies to gain media attention but are painted as ‘thugs.’ There was a sense of outrage and a yearning for change. This seemed promising. I felt inspired by these children. I felt hope for the future.

This bubble of hope was burst the next day when I opened my emails to a complaint from a parent. The email began by telling me that her son does not ‘see race’ and will ‘play with anyone’ and ended in her asking for him to be removed for future lessons planned on the topic of BLM/police brutality/white privilege. She considered the inclusion of Tweets by Donald Trump to be ‘political bias’ on my part and she labelled me as a ‘leftist brainwasher.’ I felt crushed to receive this email and my first response was to feel shame and regret teaching the lesson in the first place. My shame soon turned into anger. I felt angry that a parent would respond in this way to a lesson based on basic human rights. I replied to her in detail and addressed each of her points. I quoted the General Teaching Council for Scotland (GTCS)‘s Curriculum for Excellence, and Education Scotland amongst others to vindicate myself and to illustrate how problematic her protests were. As a teacher of only a few years, I have been conditioned to bow down to parents; to fear them, to base my worth as a teacher on, and to unfailingly respect, parental views and opinions. That email was a real turning point for me and although my hands were shaking as I typed, I knew that in this instance, I was unrefutably on the right side of history. Just because this email was from a parent of a child in my class, they were not absolved of their outdated and privileged opinions.

I made a promise to myself that day. I vowed for that single lesson not to be the only one I teach about BLM and for that email not to put me off tackling this subject again in the future. The Curriculum for Excellence is so wide, ambiguous at times, and open to interpretation but that cannot become an excuse not to bring these conversations into our classrooms. When there is a discussion of curriculum rationale, I’ll be the one to insist on the inclusion of Scotland’s involvement in colonialism and slavery and for black history not to be pigeonholed into one month of the year. Our school libraries need resources to be diverse and reflect the demographics of our classrooms and teachers need to be aware of their responsibility and their privilege. As a new teacher, I would like more CPD opportunities and training to be given to staff on how to deal with incidents of racism and for discussions of race to become as central to our classrooms as maths and literacy. I would like for BAME children, parents and families to feel safe and understood.

It is my view that there is a distinct lack of primary-aged resources for teachers to use. If I did not have to make up and defend my own PowerPoint, and if I had been given resources by the school, my reply to the parent would have been much simpler. There is also a need for support from senior management but in my experience, headteachers do not want to ‘rock the boat.’ It is easier not to teach these subjects or have these uncomfortable conversations but there is complicity in comfort, an exercise of privilege. We must ask ourselves: who is it easier for? Who is most comfortable when these topics are ignored or are approached with a half-hearted ‘we don’t see colour, we’re all the same on the inside’ by schools and teachers? It certainly is not for the BAME children and families. We surely cannot be Getting it Right for Every Child if we continue with a colour/culture/ethnicity blind approach and by default we focus on the majority groups which in this context would be white children.