OPINION: We need teachers that reflect our diversity

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OPINION: We need teachers that reflect our diversity

School classroom
School classroom

By Ben Kasstan

Durham J-Soc member Ben Kasstan
Durham J-Soc member Ben Kasstan

As part of the recent Muslim-Jewish Forum at Durham University, a representative from Teach First came to discuss the connection between teaching and the Islamic/Jewish ethical values of tzedakah or tikkun olam.

We also welcomed Shape UK’s project co-ordinator, Naz Hussain, who is actively involved in raising aspirations amongst Bradford’s youth population through education and community enterprise.

The composition and identities of teachers is something I hadn’t given much thought to until I realised that the teacher’s individual character and background can offer an education in every sense of the word.

Some of the thoughts that channelled through the room made this quite clear, especially a reflection made by Naz on just how much of an imprint pluralism can make – ‘any type of faith or values is important in helping to create a map of life for students’.

The event made me question my own school experience, when I was a young warthog growing up in Southern Africa but mainly coming to England in 2000 where the blend of teachers in my local state school certainly didn’t reflect the melting pot of students. Whilst the overwhelming majority of teachers were white and middle class, from the years 7-13 I can’t recall a single disabled or gay teacher and perhaps just one or two from working class or ethnic minority backgrounds.

Naturally some teachers may keep their identities closely guarded and that is their right, but, for me at least, this raises two problems about how the teaching profession reflects the diverse range of school pupils.

For the average Joe Bloggs (or Yossi Blogstein) I wonder if their social reality is represented and whether this affects the way they set their aspirations. I also how much their world view is broadened through the everyday social, cultural and religious influences of their teachers.

Regardless of what class is being taught, I think the real lesson that a teacher can offer a student is a sense of perspective and freedom to understand the world around them, which is sometimes desperately undervalued. Yes, that does come with the teacher’s degree of life experience, but also their ethos which is undoubtedly shaped by faith, culture and background.

Diversity can only enrich the boundaries of a developing mind, and it’s time more Jewish graduates considered teaching and Teach First as a challenging and dynamic career. Schools should be seen as an environment that can teach students, Jewish and non-Jewish, about the positive values of Judaism.

The fact that university is an unattainable dream for many because of how much their parents earn is solid proof of how corrosive inequality in education is in the UK. But this doesn’t need to remain static.

Teach First is a graduate programme that realises the inextricable relationship between social deprivation and educational performance. It champions the idea that ‘one great teacher can change a child’s life’. The emphasis and value placed on education and ethics in Judaism should surely make teaching, or organisations like Teach First, an obvious career choice.

As most might relate to, Friday Night Dinners can be usually spent discussing either the dreams that will be chased or the uncertainties that lie ahead. Despite the diversity of subjects that my Jewish (and now Muslim) friends study, the conversations typically flow towards the standard conversion courses in law or medicine, the gruelling graduate schemes of Accenture or Deloitte, or the latest trend of actuary and risk.

Perhaps there is some pushing in the background from families back home, as I am sure my own grandfather would shudder if he knew I studied Anthropology rather than acting on his words of wisdom to “learn a trade”.

But now as a tutor to undergraduate students, I try and apply my deep, intertwined and slightly chaotic roots at every available opportunity to stimulate a sense of intrigue and openness to the ‘unfamiliar’.

Having French-British-Ashkenazi-Jewish heritage and an upbringing in Botswana, Benin, Djibouti, Mauritius and Lesotho doesn’t make me ‘different’. It enables me to try and connect with an A-Z of people and help them to see that the world is only as big as you imagine it to be.

Isn’t it time that diverse teachers reflected the diversity of students in the UK?

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