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I Spent a Year Working at an International School with a Black Headteacher, and this is what I learned…

My Reality as a Black Teacher

As a Black teacher, a Black humanities teacher at that, I am used to being the unicorn in the room.

The only Black person on my Geography course at university, the only Black male on my PGCE course, and always one of maybe two Black members of the full-time teaching staff at the schools I have worked.

This reality led to many challenges and feelings of isolation throughout my career. Being vulnerable to the assumptions and generalisations of an otherwise fairly homogenous community. Most notably, when considering the leadership and the people who may influence your recruitment, continued employment, and handling of any concerns. Thus, early in my career, I knew that I wanted to experience working with a Black headteacher and that it would be an essential part of my growth.

We speak heavily of representation in diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI). In my opinion, representation is frequently presented as a ‘cure’ for the challenges experienced by Black people in professional and educational settings. A large part of me wanted to test this; 

Would having a Black headteacher be a life-changing experience? 

Would it be a school where my isolation, vulnerability, and challenging experiences would be washed away?

Would Black teachers and students be drawn to the school and be inspired to reach the same goals and career?

Now, What Do I Mean By ‘Black’?

Let’s set the language straight at the beginning. I have chosen to use the term ‘Black’ for this article. But, I don’t view the term as an identity; rather, it is a part of an identity. You can be a Black woman, man, homosexual, teacher, Londoner, New Yorker, South African etc; no one is simply ‘Black’.

For me, and in my use in this article, ‘Black’ denotes a person with cultures and physical characteristics/skin colour subject to oppression and marginalisation in the Western/European context. Within the world of education, this is someone who may face more significant challenges in the classroom, greater professional barriers, stereotyped expectations, and increased vulnerability.

Hopefully, this sets the context.

My Journey and Challenges

As I racked up my years of teaching, taking the time to complete my MA and transitioning to working in international and private schools, I recognised the absence of Black peers and Black leadership.

Though I have worked with a Black head of middle school or even an assistant head, these experiences were somewhat muted due to the school’s sheer size. Also, for me, middle management was not enough, and moreso reflected my choice of schools rather than a reality where Black leaders are common in schools. I recognised I was working at schools that were the exception rather than the rule, but even then, the Black headteacher was ever elusive.

In fact, based on a 2018 study by the DofE, 92.7% of all headteachers in the UK are white British, and less than 1% are classified as Black. The figures for middle leadership are 89.7% and 1.4%, respectively.

As I began my search for international opportunities, I did further research. Though there was no precise collection of data, the figures for international and private schools were thought to be even more extreme, along with the proportion of Black teachers in general.

I found myself working in a progressive school in China with one other Black person, who was my department head. But this was not enough; this simply reflected that the school is progressive enough to hire Black, but was it progressive enough for a Black person to become a leader there?

 Ultimately, the same isolation and vulnerabilities remained, now compounded by being in a country where ‘Blackness’ is not valued at all.

Now, before we place all the blame on the hiring, there is also a simple lack of Black talent to choose from. Despite there being fantastic Black teachers, proportionally, we are a rare breed. I am passionate about increasing the uptake of teaching roles, especially within the Humanities, by Black students, as I have written about here. Unfortunately, the lack of uptake stems from systemic racism, poor experiences of Black students in education, and challenges Black communities face beyond the classroom, but it still impacts the ability of more progressive schools to hire.

As this dawned on me, it reinforced my desire to work with a Black headteacher and test my hypotheses.

Upon returning from China, I attended conferences run by organisations such as BAMEed and met Black headteachers. I told myself that I wanted, at some point, to work at a school with a Black headteacher and experience it myself.

Finally, it has happened in my most recent school, and it has been eye-opening.

Deciding to Join the School

It was fate; I recall attending the international job fair in London and targeting specific schools I was interested in but noticing that one particular school always had a long queue of interested candidates.

Though it was not a country I was initially interested in, I could not deny the crowd and, during a quieter moment towards the end, went to find out what all the fuss was about.

I spoke to the man who was hosting the booth and was immediately pleased to be speaking to a Black man of African descent (from the US). I was drawn further in as we discussed the school, and we both shared a progressive approach to teaching. Though schools will often pick the leadership and staff that will ‘best’ represent their school to attend fairs, being the only school not on the continent of Africa to have a Black representative spoke volumes.

After a long chat, we arranged a formal interview on the second day of the job fair with the SLT of the school. During the interview with the deputy and Head of Curriculum, I learnt that the man I had initially spoken with was actually the Head of the school!

My decision was made.

I had confidence in this school’s approach based on our conversations and my research into the school. The impression made by the Head and the SLT told me that I was about to begin a very important experience.

Working With A Black Headteacher

I am now halfway through my second year at the school and want to share what I have learnt and experienced in this context.

Many of the things I have learnt and experienced working with a Black headteacher are passive.

No, I wasn’t suddenly offered every promotion I wanted.

No, I didn’t get paid slightly more.

No, he wasn’t magically better than any other headteacher I had worked with.

Yes, I still experience racist events with students and even staff.

BUT, the presence and visibility of a Black headteacher changed a number of subtle and incredibly important things for me. Things I wasn’t distinctly aware of until I reflected upon this past year and a half.

Firstly, there is a reduction in basal stress that is so hard to describe for me as a Black teacher.

When working in schools, especially where you are the only Black member of staff or one of perhaps two, you feel a constant and subtle vulnerability. You are isolated; you do not have people around you who you can be confident of empathising with or perhaps even recognising some of the challenges and micro-aggressions you face daily. Thus, if something more serious arose, you are not confident that your perspective will be taken seriously.

Now, this can happen anywhere irrespective of the diversity present in the school; thus, the rapport I felt during the interview process is still of critical importance to me. Had it not existed, I would not have gone to the school. But with that rapport and affinity being present, the addition of visible Black figures of authority removes a layer of stress.

Confidently knowing that you can speak to people, to the highest level, about concerns and experiences specific to the Black experience of education is so empowering. Non-Black teachers and leaders can provide this support also, yet I would be foolish to deny the impact of it being provided by a fellow Black teacher.

The second experience was of the continuation of racist ignorance from the school community - but also the muted impact of it.

At my school now, students in the Primary division will call me by the headteacher’s name. We are the only two black males in the school, and being in a school in Europe, these things unfortunately happen. Yet dealing with them and addressing them positively and in a way that supports the growth of the students is much easier.

The presence of a Black headteacher did not magic away racism and the endemic ignorance through lack of exposure to Black people. I have not experienced fewer challenges, but I am able to handle them more confidently with the belief that the leaders of my school understand and empathise. I can spend more energy responding in a beneficial way for the person involved and me. When less of your energy is spent gritting your teeth, you have more energy for your engagement with the school community.

The third experience was becoming more familiar with my own voice. Though I have experience with formal actions challenging racism at schools I have worked in, I still noticed less difficulty in raising my voice at staff meetings at this school. I feel as though I am representing myself as much and as honestly as ever before, but it is simply easier, less scary, and feels less radical.

I love it.

Finally, working with a progressive Black headteacher gave me space to reflect on and truly recognise a number of important things.

I have faced many challenges and rejections during my career based on perceptions of my identity. I have worked for several schools and leaders, each with their own strengths and weaknesses. A Black headteacher presents no change to this experience. He is not perfect, and he has not solved all of my challenges and moral quandaries as a Black teacher. But working with him has given me an experience that is incredibly valuable and helps me to understand the value of Black teachers, Black figures of authority, and more diverse representation in our schools all the way to the top.

So What Next? Should I Become a Headteacher?

Another key lesson for me borne from my experiences at this school was the realisation that I do not want to become a headteacher.

As part of the journey as a Black teacher, there are moments where you take the struggle of Black people on your back and are so intent on changing it that you aim for what you think is best - not what is best for you.

I think that the world of education needs more Black headteachers, but I also think it needs more Black teachers in general. I love teaching; I find joy and solace within the classroom and the operational aspects of the headteacher role, though not beyond my abilities, is not currently something I desire.

I am an excellent teacher and can positively impact the learning community through my input here.

I can say that proudly as a teacher who is constantly reflecting and trying to improve myself. And now, as a teacher who has seen my skills flourish in an environment where many of the challenges which limited me have been reduced.

Black headteachers are not the sole answer for the challenges Black communities face in education, but they disrupt the norms and inspire confidence in other Black teachers, which is liberating both for the teachers and their students.

Working at this school has been life-changing. Though I am happy here now, I know that there is much that I have learnt here which will serve me well as I move onto new schools and locations in the future. It will support me in becoming a better teacher and a better member of the school community as a leader aware of my passive impacts.

Recommend0 Simily SnapsPublished in All Stories, Non-Fiction, Opinion Piece, Personal Narrative, True Story