April 30, 2024

Race, Identity and School Leadership

Guest Blog from Viv Grant, Founder & Director of Integrity Coaching

How white educators can learn to become effective anti-racist practitioners

It has now been four years since the world witnessed the brutal death of George Floyd. A period during which there have been a plethora of responses to try and eradicate the scourge of racism from our schools.

But as many in the education sphere have discovered, it takes more than a few well-meaning policy statements and audits to bring true healing and change. In addition, for decades, race equality focused predominantly on the black experience of racism and strategies for enabling the black community to overcome huge systemic injustices and inequalities. However, increasingly, since George Floyd’s death, the education world has come to understand that white educators also have a role to play. The onus of responsibility for addressing racism can no longer lie solely with the black community.

Anti-Racism Work in Schools: Where are we now?

While many white teachers and school leaders are gradually coming around to understanding this, many still struggle to find ways to align their professed professional values, such as equality, equity, and respect for all, with society’s dominant behavioural norms and attitudes that have taught them to ignore matters relating to race. Hence, we have a majority white school task force (according to 2021 DfE census data, 85.7% of teachers in state-funded schools in England and 92.7% of Headteachers identify as white) that have absolutely no idea of the deep psychological and emotional work required to enable them to let go of culturally engrained behaviours and become effective Anti-Racist Practitioners.

If the pace of change is to be quickened and schools are to become the places where our children learn to be true global citizens, then to be effective allies in the battle against racism, white educators need to be able to demonstrate agency as anti-racist practitioners and undertake their own race and identity work.

New Territory

Exploring one’s racial identity has proved to be new territory for most white educators. This is partly because understanding whiteness as a social construct and how it impacts efficacy, agency, and the shaping of both personal and professional identities has not been a prerequisite for teacher training, the ever-growing range of NPQ qualifications, or the movement into senior leadership.

Unfortunately, little within the education sphere appears to be aware of the ‘Psychic wound of racism’. That anti-racist work has a profound psychological element concerned with piecing back together the fragmented parts of personal identity so that divisions within individuals and society can be healed.

Healing the psyche and developing a new understanding of one’s racial identity requires a shift from one concrete sense of self to another. Cognitive and emotional dissonance are all a part of this liminal transformation process. It is deeply personal work that requires individuals to develop the capacity to live with ambiguity, uncertainty, and a high degree of paradox, to stay with the uncomfortable, and to trust that something better is on the other side of the process.

This approach to anti-racism requires a deep excavation of race socialisation and all that has been suppressed as a result. What has been pushed into the unconscious must be made conscious if white school leaders are to become effective agents for change.

Identity Work: A New Way Forward

The American author and social activist Parker Palmer states, “Seldom if ever do we ask, ‘The Who’ question. Who is the self that teaches? How does the quality of my self-hood form or deform the way I relate to my students, my subject, my colleagues, my world?”

I believe that within the sphere of anti-racist education, this is the question that many white school leaders must ask. The fractured white racial self has shown up in our classrooms for far too long. An over-emphasis on the ‘how’ and ‘what’ of teaching has neglected the ‘who’; An individual’s core sense of self and how this has been projected into their learning spaces and ultimately onto the children they have taught.

To be truly anti-racist, white educators need to be involved in the type of identity work that enables them to:

  • Understand how they have been racialised
  • Engage with the uncomfortable feelings that will inevitably arise
  • Begin to see how race has shaped their lives and their own racial identity
  • Grow in confidence and understanding of the emotional and psychological permutations of anti-racist work
  • Honestly, answer the “Then who am I?” question from a race perspective.

What’s in a story?

Generally, teachers are very good storytellers. Teachers know that stories capture the imagination and can reveal aspects of ourselves or our subject that can add depth and meaning in a way that is simply impossible with abstract facts and figures. The power of a story can sometimes be even greater if the subject is ourselves.

Australian academic Glenn Martin argues that the “Who am I” story “gives others an insight into who you are” better than a list of facts and figures… These stories are an act of self-disclosure.”

In becoming the strong anti-racist leaders that society needs, I believe that exploration of the ‘Who I am?” story can help white educators in three critical ways:

Engaging with their biographies can help them to:

  1. Better understand themselves and identify the factors that have shaped their lives and the sense of who they are in terms of their racial identity. Within the context of race, reflection on critical events, encounters, and relationships will help them identify where there have been misalignments between their values and the anti-racist leaders they aspire to be.
  2. Find their own sources of wisdom and paths towards healing and wholeness; a more profound psychological perspective can be fostered by applying an in-depth reflection process that appreciates the narrative arch of one’s life. Individuals will be able to identify the deficiencies in past schemas for engaging with race. In the hope that insights gained will support the development of new schemas for supporting more positive expressions of their racial identities as anti-racist educators.
  3. Be active in creating new anti-racist narratives for themselves and the communities they serve. They will be encouraged to see anti-racist education as a movement towards wholeness, building connection at both the intra and interpersonal level, and creating what the recently deceased social activists bell hooks and Desmond Tutu both described as ‘beloved community.

Undoubtedly, this work requires courage, commitment and passion. It requires a willingness (no matter how difficult the terrain) to stay at one’s growing edge and not to turn away from the uncertainty, anxiety and ambiguity that naturally accompany the growth process. And to know that abiding in this place and staying with the uncomfortable is exactly what is necessary if white educators are to grow and become wise, centred, whole, anti-racist school leaders that our children need.

Would you like to learn more about changing your race biography and leading race work with increased confidence and agency?

On Tuesday 11th June (16:00) Viv Grant, Director of Integrity Coaching, will host a one-hour FREE webinar specifically for Heads in and around Norfolk. Viv is passionate about race work in schools, and her PhD research is on ways to enable white school leaders to claim their agency as anti-racist educators. Viv will create a safe space for individuals to explore related themes and discuss collaborative opportunities for building on race work that some schools may have already started.

Questions to a Headteacher and previous programme attendee:

It will help you not only look at the school, but at yourself. If you believe that society can be better, if you believe that there is a right for the human race to see themselves as part of one piece… If you believe in race equality, then if you want to do that, you need to be part of the solution. So, stepping into a programme like this is not about you improving a school. It’s about you saying: I want to be part of a societal and a human piece of progress because the world should be more equal. But if we don’t all do our individual piece of work in that, how can we then step to a world where there’s a paradigm shift (where people do see racism being a nonsense, it’s not a divider). So, if that’s the society and human experience you want, as somebody who has the capacity of leadership to change minds and mindsets, you need to start doing the work.

For the other 3 members there was that fear of feeling you have a right to be in the conversation, that you have anything to give or say, a fear, a big fear of saying the wrong things, that sense when you’re talking about race and race equality. That “damned if you do, and damned if you don’t”, that not quite knowing what is okay to say, feeling worried about admitting when they didn’t know something, because then it would seem that maybe they would be cast as being racially insensitive. So, masses of fear, quite astounding levels of fear, and part of it for me was seeing people go through those layers of fear.

Because the program was around thinking and talking, it didn’t have a sense of right or wrong, and I think, over time, with the coaching element included, people became more comfortable to talk around thorny conversations without a sense of backing themselves into a corner. I think the approach and the design of the of the course meant that went over time, and that head and heart element of this programme meant that you could approach these conversations and not feel that you were… It changed over time because people took the time to explore their own self-perception and saw that the facilitators allowed that self-discovery time. I don’t think it would have changed people’s perceptions in a different model.

"Race, Identity and School Leadership" Webinar from Integrity Coaching

Navigating the Landscape of Race, Identity, and School Leadership. FREE Webinar
Tuesday 11th June, 4pm-5pm.
This webinar is led and hosted by Integrity Coaching.
Spaces are limited so please register your interest directly with them to book your place. Find out more...

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