We need to move beyond tokenism to ensure genuine equality of access to training and jobs for teachers from minority backgrounds.
By Sorcha Grisewood.
In her memoir, ‘No You Shut Up: Speaking Truth to Power and Reclaiming America’, political activist Symone Sanders recalls her experience of school in America:
“In Omaha, my sister and I went to elementary school in my predominantly African American neighbourhood. Despite this, there was not a single Black teacher in our school (something that is still an all too common an occurrence)…You know what? There wasn’t a single Black teacher at my high school, Mercy High School, either. In fact, one of my classmates had never even seen a person of colour before meeting me and some of our classmates”.
Her words also aptly describe the experience of ethnic-minority pupils in Irish schools. In June, eleven-year old Tré Jones from County Meath read out a heart-breaking poem on RTÉ Radio One’s Liveline programme describing his experience of racism growing up in Ireland, and his eloquent words have been echoed by several other black and mixed-race voices.
Schools have a crucial role to play in tackling racism and discrimination. Our school-going population has become more diverse in recent decades but not our school staff rooms. Teachers cannot simply talk to pupils about tolerance, equality and respecting difference; our staffrooms need to embody those values. We must acknowledge the lack of diversity in the teaching profession as a real problem and then facilitate increased participation by people from minority groups.
99% of applicants for primary teacher training courses listed their ethnicity as “White Irish” and “Settled” but 9.91% of pupils were not born in Ireland or had parents not born in Ireland
Research by Dr Elaine Keane and Dr Manuela Heinz of NUI Galway, for their 2018 paper, ‘Socio-demographic composition of primary initial teacher education entrants in Ireland’, found that 99% of applicants for primary (and post-primary) teacher training courses listed their ethnicity as “White Irish” and “Settled”. Applicants from a minority background are clearly greatly underrepresented. Imagine how students from minority backgrounds feel in primary schools – a formative encounter with a State institution – learning about racism, diversity, tolerance and the importance of respecting difference, but never seeing any teachers like themselves.
Ireland has 3,106 mainstream primary schools and 133 special schools, catering for 567,731 pupils. Neither the Department of Education and Skills nor the Teaching Council keeps official records of the socio-economic or ethnic backgrounds of pupils and teachers, but figures from the CSO for 2019 show that 9.91% of pupils were not born in Ireland or had parents not born in Ireland. The largest group came from EU countries, then the Middle East and Asia, and then Africa. These pupils are extremely unlikely to ever encounter a teacher like themselves in an Irish classroom.
Little data had been collected on teacher diversity, Keane said, before her project with Heinz, with prior discussions of teacher homogeneity having been “completely uninformed by data on the national context”. The research by Keane and Heinz is the first national study of this important area.
Students, schools and society benefit from a diverse teaching profession. “Minority teachers can be ‘cultural translators’ and inspiring ‘role models’ in and outside of classrooms” state Drs Keane and Heinz in their 2018 paper. For this to work in practice, however, we need to move beyond mere tokenism and ensure genuine equality of access to training and job opportunities for those from minority backgrounds.
Simon Lewis is principal of Carlow Educate Together National School. He is Jewish and the only ethnic minority teacher in his school. He would love to see more diversity in staffrooms, but, sadly, he believes that he is “probably as diverse as teachers get”.
A new Migrant Teacher Project at the Marino Institute of Education, led by Dr Garret Campbell and supported by the INTO, may lead to change, however. An INTO spokesperson stated that the union “actively support[s] the Migrant Teacher Project, including taking migrant teachers into our schools on placement as part of this project”.
The Migrant Teacher Project started in 2019 and aims to support migrant teachers in understanding the requirements for teaching in Ireland and facilitate them in finding employment in the sector.
Last year, 34 teachers from 17 countries graduated from the bridging programme.
The Migrant Teacher Project started in 2019 and aims to support migrant teachers in understanding the requirements for teaching in Ireland and facilitate them in finding employment in the sector. Dr Campbell receives four or five queries most weeks about the project’s bridging programme and over 1,000 people subscribe to a newsletter.
Last year, 34 teachers from 17 countries graduated from the bridging programme. Despite obvious interest from aspiring migrant teachers eager to work in Irish schools, significant financial, cultural and bureaucratic barriers, and the denominational ethos of most schools, deny them their dreams.
Overcoming these barriers will require discussion, collaboration, vision, political will and cultural change. It remains to be seen whether our schools, our education system and our society are ready to embark on that scale of transformation.