Racism forced me to leave teaching

Reflecting on his teaching career, Rohan Rice suggests racism inherent in England’s school system is driving out teachers of colour

June 16, 2022 · 7 min read
Photo by Redd on Unsplash

A recent survey by the National Education Union has revealed that 44 per cent of state-school teachers in England plan to leave the profession in the next five years. Excessive workload, underappreciation and low pay are cited as the primary motives. In my case, however, these causes are ancillary. The main reason I have decided to leave the school sector is the ceaseless racism.

I have worked in education for four and a half years, first as an English as a Second Language (ESL) teacher, then in support roles within British state schools. At every institution I have been subject to racist abuse – never by the students, but by colleagues and management. This racism has been both explicit and subtle, and far worse than in other sectors I worked in previously.

At one large academy in Wandsworth, London, where approximately 80 per cent of pupils identify as BAME, a fellow staff member called me a ‘paki’ on multiple occasions, while my mother was once described as a ‘smelly Indian’ (not the first time in my career I’d heard this insult). Another senior colleague threatened to report me to Prevent after I casually discussed Islamic customs with some students. A third staff member suggested my beard made me look ‘a bit like a bomber’.

When my South Asian ancestry wasn’t derided, it was my Romani heritage. At a high-achieving sixth-form college in an affluent part of north Surrey, a colleague expressed surprise that I was part of that ‘inbred lot’, while another mocked my ‘pikey’ roots. 

The racism was directed not only at me but at other non-white staff, or worse yet, the students. At the same Wandsworth academy school, a Palestinian member of the catering staff told me of being called a ‘dirty Arab’ by a teacher. A co-worker remarked that she ‘would never sleep with a black man as they all have STIs’, and another requested I speak to several black boys in Year 12 because she found them ‘intimidating’.

Back at the college, lazy racist tropes were casually dropped into conversation, such as all Muslim students being ‘rude’ or all African parents being ‘abusive’. At a voluntary-aided state school I briefly worked at in Richmond, London, black students were routinely the most excluded from class despite constituting a minority of the student body – the first step in the classist and racist exclusion-to-prison pipeline.

Racialised standards

I have witnessed the futility of reporting racist incidents. Senior leadership teams, who were often complicit in the abuse, would normally dismiss allegations. When you raise a complaint, you are swiftly labelled a trouble-maker, and in a couple of cases I have been slapped with negative appraisals by my superiors shortly after highlighting abuse.

As a teacher of colour, I have also been held to a different standard to my white counterparts. At one institution, I was dragged through an investigation because a few of my work e-mails were deemed ‘too friendly’. Meanwhile, white colleagues were privately messaging students on Instagram, giving them lifts home without permission, and making WhatsApp video calls to them from their personal numbers. None of these were deemed safeguarding concerns. One can only attribute this persecution to the racist hysteria about South Asian men as sexual predators that has gripped Britain in recent years. 

Culture of silence

Many white colleagues in the profession are shocked by my experiences. Most tell me that such things would never happen at their school. Yet at every institution I have worked at – and at many others across the country – these incidents reoccur. This is because Britain’s schools are institutionally racist.

A culture of silence is pervasive across the sector as schools have everything to lose and nothing to gain from dealing with these allegations – as highlighted by the infamous cases of racist abuse at Pimlico Academy and of Child Q.

It has been a decade since I finished my A-Levels. My schooling – as a non-white person in a majority white institution – was marred by daily racism. The trauma from that experience metastasised through my twenties, manifesting in self-loathing, cultural alienation, and mental health problems. When returning to teach in schools, I expected some progress would have been made. Woefully, nothing has changed and I have had to relive the racial trauma of my youth from the other side of the desk. 

After the Black Lives Matter protests of 2020, there was a moment of hope as schools began to talk about tackling racial bias, anti-racist curriculums, and inclusive environments. But what use is an anti-racist curriculum delivered by a racist teacher?

An alternative school system

A mass resistance movement against such racism is non-existent. The only solidarity I have received among colleagues has been from the catering and cleaning staff – predominantly migrant workers who face even greater abuse.

My examples are of the racism that has been heard, not of the more clandestine, felt racism that education staff of colour experience daily, including patent structural racism. The number of black male teachers in the UK is shockingly low, while people of colour are chronically under-represented at higher leadership levels. The promotion of racial capitalism in education is evidenced by the government’s banning of ‘victim-narratives’ and anti-capitalist material in schools.

The only way out of the cycle of oppression is an alternative free school system – part of what Lorenzo Kom’boa Ervin calls an alternative public sector – founded on the type of liberating principles posited by educational theorist Paulo Freire and the supplementary schools of the Black Education Movement.

As Freire suggests, we need education workers not inculcated in the systems of oppression propagated by the current school system. We must demand fresh teacher-training programmes which put anti-racist, anti-imperialist, pro-LGBTQ politics at the heart of their pedagogy. 

These teachers should then be introduced into free schools with curricula that respond to the needs and cultures of the student body – not teaching conformity but promoting creativity. Minority groups have in the past attempted to create alternative, democratic schools outside of the state. But many of these schools have drawn their workforce from the existing pool of PGCE-qualified teachers. Only a new education workforce can help build an entirely autonomous, anti-oppressive free school system.

But until the political forces exist in Britain to birth such a movement, this teacher is stepping aside.

Rohan Rice is a writer, photographer and translator based in London, UK

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