Why more people from ethnic minorities need to enter teaching

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The Independent Online

When Saqib Chaudhri walks into a classroom of students he hasn't taught before, they almost always have preconceptions about him. "It's the colour of my skin and my beard. They see I'm a practising Muslim and they make presumptions," says the 25-year-old teacher at Dunraven School in Lambeth, London. Surprisingly, perhaps, it's the very reason he loves teaching so much.

"In an age when people who look like me are somewhat isolated from society, being a teacher and being around young people gives me an opportunity to show that we are in fact normal - that we have a sense of humour, that we can discuss football and that we are basically just human beings like anyone else. It's rewarding to watch the barriers break down and the preconceptions disappear as we build a rapport."

It's not just in the classroom where this happens. "People come up to me in the playground and enquire about me and I welcome that," he says. He believes it's essential for people from all backgrounds to be represented in the teaching profession. "We are living in a multicultural society, so we obviously need proportional representation in the education system."

Regardless of your background, a major reward of teaching is simply making a difference, he says. Having completed his degree two years ago, he decided to do enter teaching via the PGCE (Postgraduate Certificate in Education) route and walked straight into a job teaching ICT. "I couldn't see myself sitting behind a desk in an office all day. I wanted more of a challenge," he explains. "I think I was also influenced by the fact that I grew up in quite a disadvantaged area of London and went to one of the worst schools in the country, which was duly closed down when I left. As I went to better and better schools, I became inspired by the quality of teachers."

Natasha Peters, 24, who is currently studying for her PGCE, was also influenced by her own memories of school. "As a black child growing up, I didn't see many teachers who looked like me and I don't think that was a good experience."

She says the rewards of teaching - and indeed, learning on the PGCE - are second to none. "When I left my last placement as part of my PGCE, the children said how much they were going to miss me and how much they'd learned. That feeling that you've taught them something they didn't know before, or some ability they didn't even know was there, is incredibly powerful."

She admits there can be additional challenges for ethnic minorities in teaching. "One school where I did some training had a section of the syllabus on learning poems from other cultures. One teacher said, 'Oh you'll know about that, so you could teach that.' But that has been my only bad experience."

Other ethnic minority teachers have also complained about being pigeonholed. In one school, Asian teachers reported that they had to interpret for parents whose English is poor, whilst black teachers were called in when a black pupil gets into trouble, even if they had no involvement with them.

But Josh Beattie, head of the Teaching Information Line at the Training and Development Agency for Schools (TDA), says efforts are continually being made to ensure this doesn't happen. "We are doing all we can to attract more ethnic minorities onto PGCEs because schools are mini-communities, so we want teachers to reflect the society that they teach in."

Indeed, since 2002, the TDA has spent over £1.5m on helping teacher training providers to put initiatives in place that will encourage ethnic minority candidates. It's clearly paying off, with 11 per cent of last year's entrants onto PGCEs coming from ethnic minorities - a figure that has grown substantially over the last few years.

For more information on PGCEs, visit www.teach.gov.uk