Black history month – A tale of two quotes

“Are you seriously still teaching it?” 

Years ago, when I taught in Brixton, I had a conversation with my Teaching Assistant – a wonderful woman of black Caribbean descent, who supported me in everything I did as a class teacher. I trusted her and so I finally went to her with my doubts about Black History Month because when I trusted her over so many issues why wouldn’t I over this one?

When I raised my doubts about teaching BHM, she told me that this is what her husband would say to her every year – “are you seriously still teaching it?”. The criticisms made of this version of history from the black community, particularly those who are poor, are neither known or heard. It takes the likes of Thomas Sowell or Shelby Steele to finally speak up and articulate what is already there.

Ultimately, my objection to BHM being taught in schools isn’t ideological (I do disagree with the ideology that drives it but my job as a teacher is to teach more than just what I believe in). What is important and relevant should be taught on the curriculum and we as a society should be able to include aspects of world history or difficult aspects of our own without resorting to an add-on. Teachers, who are already stretched to cover the curriculum, should not have to shoehorn in lessons for the sake of it.

Assigning a month is understandable. It will make it real and the lessons will happen. Yet we are dealing with real children in real contexts. My Year 2s got more out of studying Mary Seacole in the Spring of Year 2 than they would have done in Autumn of Year 1. The irony of me and two colleagues (who were both from black Caribbean backgrounds) arguing against a white senior colleague who wanted us to move the unit forward so it fitted with BHM wasn’t lost on us but certainly highlights the strange situations one can be landed in.

If she has truly wanted to prove her anti-racist credentials then she could have simply trusted our judgement on the curriculum we had created. Unlike me at the time, one of my colleagues was an experienced Key Stage 1 practitioner. She was the one who argued that the children would be a little bit more mature and have learnt a bit more knowledge that would help them understand the story. She was black, the children were black, she passionately believed that the black children should be able to achieve more and succeed as a society.

It’s a ridiculous situation where her experience as a teacher was being called into question because her knowledge of teaching Year 2 did not fit in with a political agenda, which ultimately was divorced from the goals the people who held them were claiming to achieve.

She was right – there is little point in speaking words at children that they don’t understand so that adults can congratulate themselves on being worthy.

This would be the same colleague who I went to after trying to plan my first BHM lesson as a Year 4 teacher. My misgivings were basically that I’m teaching children that black people are victims of white people and that’s all there has ever been if I look at the websites which are supposed to help me plan lessons.

When I was taught about the civil rights movement or apartheid as a child I didn’t walk away with this belief and yet I was being asked to teach lessons where I could see how someone could.

Again she was kind and understanding and said we didn’t have to do it after all. We created our own lessons – she said privately that we would simply take a definition of black that suited us. It meant not white. So we taught about the Maoris instead that year on her insistence.

One of the most interesting conversations I’ve had on the issue was with a young parent who had gone to school and been taught BHM (unlike me). She affected me deeply. She was young, she was a step-parent to a child who could be difficult and who backed me and the school when we had to make difficult decisions about his behaviour. She could have gone down the “you are treating my black boy differently” route. But she didn’t. The most important thing she ever said to me was:

“I want this history taught because it’s important but I don’t want conflicts to be replayed in young children’s head”.

The challenge of teaching history so we don’t is ultimately a challenge for us all.

Tarjinder Gill Written by:

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