Saturday, 19 August 2017

On being afraid

I am a white man, racing headlong towards middle-age. I grew up in a stable and loving home, did well at school and went to a good university. My parents are still married, I still have a living grandparent, a happy marriage, a child. My mum and dad were both teachers so we always had enough money. I'm now a teacher and Mrs Shaw is a lawyer, so we both have good jobs and earn good salaries. 

I am privileged. I know.

Last night though, I experienced something which brought home to me just how privileged my life is. For the first time I can remember, I felt afraid to speak my opinion. And the fear came from the colour of my skin and my background. I wanted to get involved in a recent Twitter debate, but was afraid of the response I might receive if I did. Now, don't get me wrong, I'm not equating me not wanting to receive some mean replies to a comment I make on Twitter with the fear that many people feel on a daily basis through no fault of their own. But it gave me a small insight into what it might be like to feel I had no voice. 

The reason for this is because, over the last couple of days, there has been a huge amount of vitriol thrown around on Twitter about racism and comments made by David Didau in a recent blog. I don't know if there is a link, as the blog suggested, between race and IQ. I don't even know whether there is a link between race and "success" at school (the tiny amount of research I have done seems to suggest that being eligible for Free School Meals is a more relevant measure). I also don't know whether any link which does exist actually has anything to do with genetics, although I hope that it doesn't.

All I wanted to say last night was that, for all my own ignorance of the research and complete lack of any experience of prejudice, the attacks on Didau (and Tom Bennett) seemed wildly over the top, and the response (including accusations of a witch-hunt) equally so. I understand that 140 characters doesn't allow for much nuance, but we are teachers and should be aware that words are important. I have met Tom Bennett (briefly), and have never met David Didau (although I've heard him speak and read a lot of his work), but I can say with confidence that I don't believe either of them are racists. Didau's blog (as I read it) was about being aware of a possible link between race and performance in IQ tests so we can improve the life chances of people who often, and deeply unfairly, have fewer chances than others. And I don't know about anyone else, but that is why I became a teacher in the first place. Disagree with Didau if you like; question the validity of the research he quotes; argue with him (he appears to not be afraid of that). But what happened in response to his blog made me afraid to share my own opinion, and that made me angry. Angry enough to write most of this blog at 4am. Probably I should have been angry already. Angry about the lack of social justice in the world. Perhaps it's time I was shaken out of my privileged safe little world. But I didn't like that feeling, and it has made me even more committed to helping stop other people feeling that way. 

Reading what Didau wrote, and some of what Benjamin Doxtdator has written in response, has raised my awareness of issues, my own ignorance and I'll keep reading. The reality is though that, whenever you look at data in relation to large groups of people (whether that's based on gender, race, favourite ice cream flavour, whatever), you can lose sight of the people themselves. I'm in a fortunate position to teach people, not statistics. I read as much as possible so I am aware of trends that might be relevant to the children I teach, but I don't forget that they are all individuals. When I teach someone I think might be the victim of prejudice in their life (which, by the way, is pretty much all of them), I try to think what that means to them as an individual. There is a Chinese girl at my school. She might be the most committed, hard-working and dedicated pupil I've ever taught. Should I assume that she has pushy parents and might be stressed out? I teach the eldest son of an Indian family who is underperforming. Should I assume that he is indulged by his family and is perhaps a bit lazy? I refuse to do so. Just as I will always refuse to believe that anyone in my class room is genetically disposed to fail. I'll try and be aware of any research which suggests that certain groups of children are likely to face particular challenges, but I won't be slave to it. I won't think about how to motivate "Chinese girls"; I'll think about how to motivate this particular girl. I won't think about how to motivate "eldest Indian sons"; I'll think about how to motivate that particular boy in Period 6 on Friday. I won't think about how to teach "black children"; I'll think about how to teach each child in my room as well as I can.

I tell all the children I teach not to be afraid, so I won't be. I tell them to challenge things they think are unfair, so I will. I don't know if there's a link between race and IQ (I don't even know whether I think IQ is a very good measure of anything very much, other than the ability to do IQ tests), but I do know what racism is and what bullying is and, as teachers, we have a duty to challenge one, but without resorting to the other.