Building an anti-racist classroom
Building on her experience as a headteacher in London, education and racial literacy consultant Orlene Badu’s new book, How to Build Your Antiracist Classroom, is a practical guide to tackling racism in schools. Here she discusses the inspiration behind the book, her key advice for teachers, and how to help children build a ‘thriving mindset’.
Can you tell us about your background in education?
I started out as a teacher after having my son. He inspired me to change the system that I had felt unseen in. I then progressed to deputy head before being a headteacher for almost seven years at a primary school in Hackney. I also did a secondment at a pupil referral unit. I now work as a consultant in education, primarily focusing on anti racism.
What inspired you to write How to Build Your Antiracist Classroom?
As a headteacher, I worked with my own staff on being anti-racist in our approach. We worked super hard on ensuring every child thrived in our care, irrespective of background. Every child mattered and we worked really hard as a team with their families to have a positive impact.
Now as an education consultant, I work with a number of schools on what anti racism looks like in practice in [education] settings: this book seemed like a way to answer all of the challenges that exist in education for Black and Global Majority children.
Being out of school gave me the time to write a book and really focus on the actions and support that will make the difference. So often I speak to staff members who want to make a change but don’t know how. The book offers practical examples of how to disrupt inequalities in your classroom and ways to review your own practice.
We know that stopping, reflecting and evaluating actions is the way to disrupt the inequalities that exist and this book endeavours to do that.
What does an anti-racist classroom entail in practice?
Action. There are so many teachers and leaders who are keen to do the work of anti racism. They are keen to disrupt inequalities in schools and settings. But [envisaging] what that practically looks like can be difficult.
This is the book for any teacher or leader who wants to do the work, preferably as part of a whole-school drive but, failing that, [it has] activities that can be done independently in classrooms. It is about being anti racist in our practice, but [also] looking at systemic issues that exist in our schools and classrooms.
How do we ensure we keep a lens on inequality that is present in our classrooms and schools and not turn away? Being anti racist is an active position, one in which we challenge inequalities. But we have to see them first. Without actively choosing to see them we can uphold inequalities.
To be an anti-racist practitioner we must make a choice: will we be the non-racist teacher who is passive, sees inequality and does nothing to disrupt it? Or will we be the active anti-racist teacher who sees inequality and fights to disrupt and challenge it?
'We cannot shy away from this – schools are a microcosm of wider society'
What are the key things teachers need to do to create an anti-racist classroom?
The very first step is to understand that inequalities do exist in our schools and classrooms. We cannot shy away from this – schools are a microcosm of wider society and [they are the] institutions children and young people have their first experience of understanding institutional responses to racism. Therefore, it is imperative we get it right.
The next step is staff developing their racial literacy. To respond to racism in schools and wider society, we must understand how race and racism interact in the UK. It requires that we truly understand that racism does exist in the UK and there are many ways we can deepen our understanding of how systemic racism intricately intersects and impacts across every institution.
In the book, I talk about the importance of schools leading the work of developing their staff team’s racial literacy, but ultimately if you are not in a school that is currently investing resources into this then we must do it ourselves. My book is a way to deepen racial literacy of the experiences of race and racism in schools and how we are complicit in it.
Can you tell us about the ‘thriving mindset’ you write about in the book?
In Chapter 8 [it] was important to really challenge school staff to consider if all children in their class have the environment that is going to create a thriving mindset. This moves away from excuses about why children are not thriving and discusses the responsibility we have in school to create this for every child.
I begin the chapter with the following quote from [US psychologist] Barbara Fredrickson in 2011: ‘People who have the ability every day to do what they do best – to act on their strengths – are far more likely to flourish.’
In [the chapter] we consider the different starting points for the children in our classrooms, challenging the myth that we are a meritocracy. I focus quite strongly on the work we do to create a sense of belonging for every child. Does every child feel seen and valued in their classroom? How do we ensure they have a sense of commitment, connectedness and engagement?
This is not possible without paying attention to the systems we have in place, and also really reflecting on the lived experiences every child or young person has in our classrooms.
How did your experience as a teacher feed into the book?
I don’t think I could have written this book had I not been a teacher. The nuances of the classroom, knowing how systems work in schools, and being able to highlight the practices that we must focus on have all come from my knowledge of being a teacher. Knowing what the barriers often are in education, and working over many years to challenge them, was a big part of me wanting to write this book.
My own childhood experiences of my own teacher underestimating me and having low expectations were also a large part of the need [to write] this book.
What response has the book got from teachers so far?
I have had a really positive response. Teachers that want to disrupt racism in their schools have told me that they find this book really useful. Really practical and with a range of strategies that they can implement today. The book also leaves you with ways to review your practice and actions you can take forward [to] create change.
It is so disheartening working in the space of anti-racism in education if teachers and staff cannot take that learning forward. So to have teachers tell me there are practical activities they can do to disrupt racism is all the confirmation I need that I wrote the right book.
What are you working on next?
Having been a headteacher, I am currently working on how to create whole-school change. Systemic change can only happen when senior leaders lead the work of change at a whole-school level. This requires us to reflect on our school and make system-wide changes that will begin to dismantle inequalities. This is a challenge that needs headteachers and senior leaders who are ready to do the work needed to affect institutional change.
Orlene Badu is an author, education and racial literacy consultant, and former headteacher. How to Build Your Antiracist Classroom is out now.
The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect those of the Runnymede Trust.
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