I understand what it’s like to be a minority ethnic student in a white-dominated school – and I feel their struggle acutely, says teacher Aveninder Kaur
Aveninder Kaur is a supply teacher Warwickshire. She is also branch secretary for the Association of Teachers and Lecturers in Warwickshire.
When my son joined middle school, he changed. Before he’d always enjoyed school, but suddenly he seemed down and never wanted to go. One day, when I’d dropped him off, I followed him to see what was happening; I saw the other boys trying to pull his topknot off (we are a Sikh family) to see what was under his hankie.
I went into the school and told the headteacher what was going on. Her response was: “Why doesn’t he just have his hair cut? All the other boys have their haircut.” I explained that my son’s father is Sikh, that he wears a turban and we wanted our son to wear a turban too. Cutting his hair was not an option. If I really felt that strongly, the head said, I should come into the school and tell the children why it is important that he has a topknot. I did – and this was my first experience of teaching.
I took a more serious interest in education when I began helping children read at my daughter’s school as one of “the mum’s army”. I enjoyed getting involved, and one day, when the usual class teacher was off, a supply teacher told me to take a group of eight students to the library – I’d always been told to ignore these students by the main teacher. When we sat in the library I asked to see their reading books: silence. Eventually one boy produced an old tobacco tin from his bag, full of high-frequency words – the type you’d expect to teach to a child four years younger. The group could barely read.
I was horrified because half of the children in this group were ethnic minorities (in an otherwise mostly white school). I felt really angry because I knew that my son had been in the same woman’s class and, had he not spoken English, he would have been one of them. When I spoke to the class teacher about the group she told me it wasn’t her problem: “If they’re too lazy to learn it’s not my job to teach them.”
I walked out of school, down to the local college and asked, “how long does it take to become a teacher?”
Up until that point, I’d been working in retail. When I was younger in the late 70s, university wasn’t a place where Asian women went, it wasn’t the done thing. But as a mature learner, I enrolled on a GCSE maths and psychology course, passed within a year and won a place at Warwick University.
Running a family, a home, a weekend job and training was tough. Fortunately I was married at the time and my then husband worked nights, so he was able to sort the children while I studied. But a lot of the time it was left down to me. There were also pressures from the Asian community, which disapproved of me going to university.
I think some felt I was trying to “better myself”. But it wasn’t about me – it was about bettering my family, and more importantly helping children like that of my community, who were falling foul of the education system.
I remember coming here aged five, and what it was like to not speak English. I used to have English lessons in the freezing cold PE hut; we’d be sent in with our coats, hats and gloves. The teacher would ask us to cut out pictures and stick them into a book. We’d have to write things like “This is a coat”, “This is a red coat”, “This is a red coat with buttons”. I remember getting into fights with other children because, although I knew what I wanted to say, they had no idea. When you’ve been through it yourself, you feel it acutely for other people.
Working as I do in what is considered quite a provincial county it’s even more obvious in schools here that no ethnic minorities are represented. When I got my first teaching post, the head said to the staff: “I’m really sorry guys, but we had to hire the Indian on the day, she was the best candidate. If you don’t look at her though, she doesn’t sound Indian.” This is 1995, not the late seventies.
Now that I work as a supply teacher, children can be more likely to make racist comments than when I had my own class because they think there’ll be no repercussions. I had one lad who said as I came into the classroom: “I hate effing Pakis.” I asked him to repeat himself, so he did, really slowly: “I hate effing Pakis.” I said: “Well thank god for that, because I was born in India, so that makes me Indian.” Of course, I pointed out that Pakistan is actually a different country, and that its people should be called Pakistani, not the offensive, lazy term “Paki”.
I never take issue with the child personally. They are primary age; their opinions are based on misinformation and come from home or peers.
When I go to black, minority ethnic (BME) meetings I talk a lot about how we in the BME community can create positive images for ourselves. One way of doing this is by going for jobs like teaching, which BME people don’t typically apply for. A big problem at the moment is that, because of the way that free schools and academies were brought in, we are finding a polarisation of faith schools and free schools that are set up with an agenda and will only have certain types of people working in them. Consequently there will be only certain types of pupils they want to go there too. It’s dangerous because it goes against the idea of community cohesion.
Now, as well as supply teaching I also go into schools to give day lessons on faith or multiculturalism. I became a teacher because I wanted to help children from minority backgrounds who might otherwise slip through the cracks – but also because it’s the role of education to produce rounded, tolerant young people. School isn’t just about teaching children to pass exams.