Is it important to have teachers from the same ethnic background as the pupils?

Posted by on Jun 2, 2017 in blog, Uncategorized | 0 comments

Is it important to have teachers from the same background as the pupils?

Following the recent decision to throw out the Trojan Horse case, I posted a link, on Facebook, to an article I had published on responsive education (for Pakistani children). In the article I wrote about the importance of employing a diverse teaching workforce; one that reflects the ethnic make up of the pupils. Upon reading the article one of my ‘Friends’ responded with the following comment:
I’ve never bought into this idea that in order for our children to be successful in education, we need teachers, headteachers from our own background. In many ways it can be counter-productive.

The comment triggered the response that follows.

To have or not to have ethnically representative teaching workforce?

Over the past six years, and many more years before that, I have thought about this question. As well as reading everything I came across I decided to undertake my own research. So I explored the question with folks I interviewed and who completed my questionnaire. This young people (especially from the Pakistani community), their parents and teachers.

The vast array of previously published literature was supportive of the idea that schools should indeed employ a teaching workforce that reflects the ethnicity of their pupils. The overarching argument is that a workforce that is representative of the people it serves is more likely to help ensure that the interests of all groups are considered in the decision-making and the policy making process becomes more inclusive. This is based on the theory of ‘representative bureaucracy’ (Bradbury & Kellough, 2011). Such bureaucracies are said to be beneficial to ethnic minorities (Eckhard, 2014), racial minorities (Selden 1997; Sowa & Selden, 2003) and in educational contexts (Pitts 2005). Based on Spivak’s work (1988), there is also the question of whether the minority people (such as Pakistanis) have a right to be represented as teachers and decision makers.

Within the field of education, researchers and policymakers have accepted that the workforce should be diverse and should reflect the ethnic diversity of society. Minority teachers are said to provide role models (Quiocho & Rios, 2000), act as cultural brokers (Irvine, 1989), cultural experts (Ross, 2001; Basit & Santoro, 2012). For Howard (2010), minority teachers fulfilled the role of advocate for minority students. They are able to act as a ‘bridge’ between, and ‘translators’ of, minority and dominant cultures (Irvine (1989), a function which had been identified by Abbas (2004). In his Birmingham-based research he had found working class Asian parents particularly in favour of having Asian teachers.

Minority teachers are said to have the potential to bridge the ever-widening divide between minority pupils and their mainly white teachers (Magaldi et al. 2016). They can, if given the space and opportunity, bring a more authentic perspective based on their own lived experience and firsthand knowledge. Through their counterstorying they can interrupt (white) majoritarian narratives, “defined as a mindset of positions, perceived wisdoms, and shared cultural understandings brought to the discussion of race” (Fránquiz et al. 2011, p282).

For Kohli and Pizarro (2016) minority teachers are likely to have a heightened awareness of educational injustice and racism while Ross (2001) pointed out that they are better at challenging racism; given they might have been its victim, they are more likely to understand some of its subtleties and nuances. He and Howard (2010) supported the concept of ‘inclusive diversity’, where it is not so much important for, say, Pakistani students to be taught directly by Pakistani or Muslim teachers but more an indirect benefit; by having them on the staff, to see them around the school and have occasional contact with them. Teachers are said to do much more than teach content; they also personify content (Howard, 2010). They provide a model of what it is like to be an educated person; something for the young people to aspire to:

If we want students to believe that they themselves might one day be … mentors, guides and educated people, then we need them to see diverse examples of such people, including at least one who looks like they, the students, look (Kennedy, 1991, p2).

Stewart et al. (1989) also supported the ‘role model’ argument. “Black teachers can have a special impact on Black students simply by being in the classroom. A Black teacher serves as a role model for Black students, thereby exposing Black students to other Black individuals who have been successful” (p143). For Steele and Aronson (1995), the presence of same-race teachers may reduce “stereotype threats” and boost minority students’ confidence, esteem, and enthusiasm. Such a threat is said to occur when a student perceives that s/he could be viewed through the lens of a negative stereotype and lowers academic engagement and performance as a result.

Roch and Pitts (2012) pointed out that where schools’ workforce was representative of their communities there was a positive influence on minority students’ performance. Eckhard (2014) pointed out that where there is a bureaucratic drift i.e. there is a lack of bureaucratic representation, policies are not effective. The problem here can be even more profound where the majority-background bureaucrats are prejudiced against minorities. Arshad et al. (2004) reported that minority students appreciated having teachers from their own ethnic group, expecting them to better understand the students and assist them to feel more comfortable. Warikoo (2004) pointed to there being a better connection between teachers and pupils from the same ethnic background arising out of their common cultural background and the teachers’ heightened understanding of the students’ family and cultural context as well as parental interactions with the school.

The attainment level of minority students is said to be helped by the presence of teachers from their own background (Weiher, 2000). Egalite et al. (2015) asserted that an absence of teachers from their own ethnic group can lead to a lack of shared values, dispositions, and symbols which might undermine classroom learning and teacher-student interactions. They also supported the idea of ethnic minority teachers serving as role models and being uniquely positioned to act as advocates and cultural translators for ethnic minority students. They concluded that same-race teachers made a particular difference for their students’ attainment. Their findings confirmed Dee’s (2005) research who had found that same-race teachers made a difference to students’ attainment. He spoke of ‘passive’ teacher effects which were triggered by a teacher’s identity, not by explicit teacher behaviours.

Basit and Santoro (2012) also supported the employment of minority teachers in schools serving multi-cultural populations. They found these teachers fulfilled important roles related to the heritage of the minority ethnic students. Many of them were appointed because of their ethnicity and knowledge about languages and their potential to develop sound home–school relationships. The teachers found that their particular expertise was often drawn upon by their colleagues who lacked the necessary cultural understanding. The minority teachers were able to foster home–school relationships for minority parents who otherwise had little contact with their children’s schools. The researchers concluded that minority ethnic teachers had significant contributions to make to the schooling of minority ethnic students because of their knowledge about their students’ cultural practices, religions and home lives.

The likelihood of discontinuity between minority children and their schools is lessened where the school employs teachers from minority background (Klopfenstein, 2005). These teachers are more able to provide the ‘cultural congruence’ for the students and match their home and school environments. For Howard (2010), minority teachers helped minority students to adjust to the lack of synchrony between home and school culture and made “connections between their own backgrounds and school systems, which are commonly founded on the values and norms of the dominant culture” (p4).

For Delpit (1995) the argument was not so much that teachers must be of the students’ ethnic group but that efforts should be made for the teaching workforce to be diverse. Carrington (2002) had described this as an inclusive form of representation: “for teachers who share the ethnic and cultural backgrounds of our increasingly diverse student bodies may serve, along with parents and other community members, to provide insights that might otherwise remain hidden” (p181).

A word of caution needs to be stated here, so to not present minority teachers as the perfect solution. They may have the potential to make a certain specialist contribution but their limitations need to be acknowledged, one of which refers to the concept ‘internalised racism’ (Padilla, 2001). This is where minorities adopt majority White perspectives and come to accept their own communities as inferior. For Speight (2007), such a process “refers to the acceptance, by marginalized racial populations, of the negative societal beliefs and stereotypes about themselves” (p129). Having lived in the UK since childhood, I have some understanding and experience of internalised racism. Kohli (2014) has suggested that there should be opportunities, through ITT and CPD, for minority teachers to unpack their internalised racism.

Local teachers can also play an important role in schools. Most schools have a small number of such teachers and support staff who are from the local community. Even if they no longer live there, they will have been raised there and will maintain contact with friends, former neighbours, and relatives in the area. They may have a unique understanding of the school’s cultural and social context and may be able to act as a bridge between the school and its wider community. Such staff usually share common ethnic, religious and cultural identities which provide a foundation on which school-community partnerships can be constructed (Reed, 2009). Reed also spoke of “commuter teachers”, who only come into the neighbourhood to work and as soon as they finish, they get into their cars and leave the area. They maybe at the school for many years but may never go outside its gate. They, therefore, maybe unlikely to understand what it is like to live in the locality, let alone understand the community’s resources. Local teachers may be better equipped for the task of delivering, what Flynn et al. (2009) defined as ‘place-based’ education. For them, “using the place as content is a viable means for increasing student achievement, increasing community involvement…” (p137).

See also: ‘National and local responses to teacher diversity’ and ‘Birmingham research on the importance of teacher diversity’

The article has drawn extensively on the PhD thesis: British Pakistani boys in Birmingham schools: education and the role of religion by Karamat Iqbal (2017

Dr Karamat Iqbal

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