As a student, recalls Bennie Kara, school was a haven. And that haven beckoned to her as she mapped out her career choices, always harboring dreams of being a teacher. And she worked to make that dream come true; after teaching English in Central London and Oxfordshire she is now a deputy headteacher in Derby and a founding fellow of the Chartered College of Teaching.
During her time as teacher, Kara has worked to make sure school can be a haven for all students. She co-founded #DiverseEd as a deputy head at a start-up school in Oxfordshire, and authored A Little Guide for Teachers: Diversity in Schools. That book, produced by SAGE Publishing’s Corwin imprint, has now won Kara the inaugural SAGE Social Justice Book Award. SAGE, the parent of Social Science Space, launched the award to celebrate authors whose SAGE-published work is committed to social justice and furthering diversity, equity and inclusion. The award comes with a £1,500 prize.
The Little Guide series focuses on giving “everyday support to everyday teachers.” In its 104 pages, Kara’s book, for example, addresses topics like why is language important in creating diverse schools and how can we model respect for diverse of identity in schools while offering concrete ideas for creating diverse classrooms and curricula.
To learn more about Kara and her important message, Social Science Space asked her a number of questions via email.
As an English teacher you know the importance of words. So in that spirit, as the inaugural Social Justice Book Award winner, could you define “social justice” for us.
Social justice needs to be defined in terms of its theory and its practice. The theory of social justice is simple: it exists to ensure that everyone has equal economic, political, and social rights and opportunities. It is measured by distribution of wealth, opportunities, and social privileges. However, the practice of social justice occurs in the humanising of marginalised groups, in the adaptations we make to mitigate for structural disadvantage in society. That is where the word ‘justice’ becomes so important – social justice corrects social injustice. To be able to do this, we must recognise that there are structural and systemic barriers that are unjust and need dismantling.
And continuing, could you define “diversity”?
Diversity sits in this work as a broad subsection of and as a mechanism for social justice. To be able to achieve social justice, there needs to be an understanding of the advantages of diverse identities within a curriculum, a school, an organisation and, indeed, our society as a whole. Diversity is intersectional – it recognises that as human beings, we have overlapping identities, as defined by Kimberlé Crenshaw.
Could you tell us a little bit about yourself before you became a teacher? What were your own experiences in education? Did you always see yourself being an educator?
I have taught for my whole career, so my life before then was very much immersed in studying. I think you could well describe me as conscientious and obedient, accepting of authority –characteristics that I have had to learn to contain as my work now involves challenging the status quo. I loved learning, particularly within Arts and Humanities subjects. Literature was a home for me, so it felt natural to develop my studying around the subject. When I finally came to teaching straight after I finished my BA in English and European Literature and MA in English at the University of Warwick, there was no debate about which subject I would teach. School was such a haven; I had brilliant teachers (some of whom I am still in contact with today) who supported and developed enquiring minds. Deep down, I knew I wanted to teach – mostly because I was obsessed with Anne of Green Gables and Anne Shirley was my career role model at that point. I toyed with the idea of marketing, publishing, policy – but teaching was ultimately to become my life.
You have roots in the Teach First programme when both you and it were on the front-end of your journeys. Might you describe your own experiences in the program and possibly offer a critique, both of what Teach First was and how you see it, or similar efforts, today?
When I joined the inaugural Teach First cohort in 2003, I really struggled. I was completely on board – the mission of addressing disadvantage was one that I fully engaged with, and I admired the ambition of it. Even though there were a small group of Black and Asian teachers, I felt out of place and struggled to feel like I fit in. It was my first experience of a predominantly White, middle class and straight environment. I didn’t experience any overt racism or homophobia, but my minority status was thrown into stark relief. We didn’t talk on the programme about the nuances of disadvantage; we couched our ideals in progressing ‘inner city’ children from ‘poor socio-economic’ backgrounds; there was no training on anti-racism, or LGBT awareness. Teach First has grown into itself and now recognises the need for networks for its trainees and the need for powerful discussions on race, gender, sexuality and disability. I’m glad those conversations are happening, however, there is still a considerable amount of work to be done to enable BAME Teach First trainees to move into headships and executive level positions.
You have now taught in a variety of geographic locations. How does place affect what you do, and how it is received? I ask in part because you don’t know who will pick up your book, or where they will be physically (or emotionally or career-wise).
For most of my career, I taught in inner city London. I don’t think I truly understood the impact of working in the capital until I left to work in South Oxfordshire, where the demographic of staff and students was considerably different to what I had experienced in the city. My work on equity was far better received in London than in South Oxfordshire. I am seeing more teachers from locations outside of London picking up the book because they recognise their schools have a more limited understanding of what diversity means. I have to say that my training has been well received, regardless of location.
And drawing on those geographic experiences, can you offer a précis of UK schools? In particular, how do they do when addressing diversity?
The UCL Institute of Education issued statistics on the BAME teaching workforce in 2020 and it is almost hard to believe that 46 percent of schools in England have no BAME teaching staff at all. It is interesting to see where the most interest has been – areas such as Northamptonshire, Lincolnshire, Cornwall, Hampshire, Hertfordshire have shown a huge amount of interest in diversifying their curricula. There are definitely areas of the UK that are less interested and less vocal about their work in this area. Where there are individuals creating networks on diversity in schools, it tends to cause a ripple effect and that’s when you see training requests come in, or orders for the book go up. We have started some really important conversations in some parts of the country about diversity, but even now, we are fighting about what can and can’t be said about ‘contentious’ issues. It scares teachers because they don’t want to be accused of politically influencing children. There are some issues that require exploration – if we are too scared to talk about Empire, or Winston Churchill, with real depth, then the status quo will be maintained.
In addition to being in the classroom, you are both a coach and a trainer. How was the jump to being an author? What was harder than you expected? What was easier?
I always imagined that I would be perfectly happy writing books. It turns out that I am some sort of tortured, procrastinatory, wildly anxious monster when trying to write. I am assured that others feel this way too. I found the leap to author hard because it is difficult to carve out time to sit and think and write in the way that I want to. Moving into training was not as big a leap because it’s a natural extension of teaching; the audience is different but the processes are the same. I am working on my writing processes – including on defeating the imposter syndrome that comes with writing guidance for others.
Who should read this book? And is that the same as who will read this book?
It is well known in Diversity, Equity and Inclusion circles that work on social justice is mostly done by women of all characteristics. For me, the real victory lies in White, straight, able-bodied men picking up this book and deciding to engage in the work of allyship. This is about leveraging privilege to make a difference. What a shift in power systems that would be!
Using whatever metrics you like, how has the book done since it was published?
The book has stayed high in the relevant education charts from online sellers, which is always good news. This isn’t the only metric I use to measure the book’s success; I had an email recently from a work colleague who pointed out that the book was on her university reading list. That made me glow with delight. I want the book to have staying power, so the fact that it is there at Initial Teacher Training level means that it will influence teachers in the earliest days of their careers.