I Heard What You Said by Jeffrey Boakye Review – Reflections from a Black Teacher | Society books

HHow should the education system solve the problem of black boys? This is a frequently asked question in response to statistics on exam performance and exclusion rates in the UK, broken down by race.

Jeffrey Boakye, a black teacher – a rarity in British classrooms – turns this question around in his account of what he has learned over the years. Instead, we should ask ourselves, “How should we solve the problem of an education system that does not support black students?” In fact, he adds, the system does not take into account any pupils growing up in a multicultural society, who need to understand the different communities that make up Britain today.

Boakye, whose main subject is English, asks why many children only encounter black people in GCSE texts if they are studying the 1937 short story Of Mice and Men – in which the main black character is a helpless victim and the n-word is generously invoked. In the case of my own children, the only other book they have studied that demonstrates racial awareness is To Kill a Mockingbird, written in 1960 – the same text I studied for O level in the 1970s. Why, it left me wondering, had there been so little change in the decades that followed? No James Baldwin? No Andrea Levy, or Zadie Smith, or Ben Okri? As Boakye puts it, “They call it ‘canon’, which as far as I know is a euphemism for ‘stuff no one can bother to update’.”

If black children find themselves ignored or written off with only a white savior to save them from their pitiful fate, is it any wonder some are beginning to question the purpose of education? “We cannot expect young people to engage in a program that seems out of place and out of step with the world they are growing up in.”

Boakye describes painful conversations with students who feel unfairly labeled as troublemakers by white teachers, while their white peers benefit from the doubt. “It really hurts, sir,” one girl says of being blamed for something she didn’t do. This book seems timely – the scandal of Child Q, a 15-year-old girl from east London who was removed from an exam to be strip-searched by the police, shows us how negative stereotypes persist in our schools. Even Boakye, as a teacher, was not immune to a sense of disconnection: “It’s a subtle but palpable thing: knowing, instinctively, that the black parts of my identity didn’t have their place in an institution of learning.”

So he decided to do what too few of his colleagues were doing: listen to what his students were saying and respond thoughtfully. He reframed his teaching in a way that allowed them to express themselves: encouraging them to tell their stories in their own way, to be creative, imaginative and intelligent. They discussed music lyrics and wrote poetry. Soon, even those who had been considered problem children became more engaged.

We’ll never get the best out of students if we think of them as square pegs to beat into round holes – the kind of holes that only the most privileged can get through without trouble. Schools must recognize the multiplicity of identities and experiences that children bring to the classroom.

The school curriculum is an important part of this (and don’t be distracted by those who ridiculously claim that activists want to ban Shakespeare – they don’t); but it is also about how teachers interact with children from different backgrounds, making them aware of the reality of Britain’s history and the contribution of all races and nationalities to it. “The average person with a traditional British education is historically illiterate,” comments Boakye.

This book is essential reading for teachers, those who run educational institutions, parents – but perhaps especially for black children who currently go to school without realizing why they feel small, out of place and unworthy. For them in particular, it could be a beacon of hope.

I Heard What You Said by Jeffrey Boakye is published by Picador (£16.99). To support the Guardian and the Observer, order your copy from guardianbookshop.com. Delivery charges may apply.

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