Tak-Sang Li portrait

Written by Tak-Sang Li

An English teacher of twenty years and counting - most recently as a Head of English, and now an Assistant Head. Also a doctoral candidate on the EdD programme at UCL Institute of Education.

When I first became an English teacher in London almost twenty years ago, my father – who, along with my mother, had emigrated to the UK from Hong Kong in the late 1960s / early 1970s – found it amusing that I, the son of a Chinese immigrant, would be teaching English to predominantly native speakers of English. I paid little heed to this at the time, as my father is known for his off-the-cuff remarks, and, in some respects, I believe it was his idiosyncratic way of expressing paternal pride in the fact that I had secured a job upon graduation. Whilst my father found the notion of a Chinese English teacher amusing, I have been fortunate enough to have worked in schools where my ethnicity has not been an issue. I can only recall a couple of instances where I have felt otherwise. I have a vivid memory of a parent eyeing me up and down during a parents’ evening, as their son walked them over to the table I was seated at, and remarking in a rather sneering tone, “That’s your English teacher?” (I am fairly certain that this comment was directed to the fact that I’m Chinese rather than anything else about me – as anyone who knows me will tell you, I am otherwise quite inconspicuous.) At another point in my career, when I was one of two Chinese male teachers in the school I was teaching at, I had begun to lose count of the number of times that pupils (and, occasionally, some colleagues) would mistake me for him. That grated – with no offence intended to my colleague – though I realise that it was likely to be an innocent mistake on their part.

Aside from this, as aforementioned, I have been fortunate to have been appointed and accepted as “part of the furniture” at the schools I’ve taught at over the years. You might argue that this can be partly attributable to the fact that I’ve been based in schools in London and the South-East during my career to date, where the pupil bodies are especially diverse in terms of ethnicity. To a lesser extent, and anecdotally, I would argue it has been less well reflected in the staffrooms of which I have been a member: I have always had colleagues of differing ethnic backgrounds, but they have been few and far between, and that remains the case even after two decades of teaching. The number of times where I have attended courses or examiners’ meetings, as a Head of English, and been the only person, or one of only a few people, from a BAME background, have been innumerable. Importantly, I say this not as a metaphorical stick with which to beat schools: in my experience, I believe – genuinely – that I’ve taught in schools which appoint the best people for the job irrespective of race and ethnicity, or any other defining characteristic for that matter, and long may this continue.  

I’m equally aware, however, that this may not be the experience of colleagues in the teaching profession elsewhere in the UK – something that has been increasingly documented, as is the relatively low proportion of senior leaders in schools from ethnic minorities. It is something that I’m increasingly aware of as I step up this autumn, from being a Head of English to an Assistant Head post, with a responsibility for teaching and learning. Much has been said and written over the last few years about the increasing need to diversify the curriculum to reflect the diversity of those we teach. In my own subject, English, it has been heartening to see the inroads that have been made in featuring texts on the curriculum reflective of and authored by those from diverse backgrounds – crucially, I believe, texts that can sit alongside those from the UK’s rich literary “canon” and heritage (I write this as an English teacher who is especially fond of “dead white men” – in particular, I have a passion for all things Chaucerian). Yet, as a teacher and now senior leader from an ethnic minority, I do believe yet more needs to be done in school recruitment to (a) encourage people from BAME backgrounds to enter the teaching profession, and (b) to encourage colleagues from such backgrounds to have the confidence to apply for positions of responsibility in schools. For me, this is much more than simply ticking a diversity box. We owe it to our pupils to see that equality of opportunity is open to all in the teaching profession, as much as any other profession that they are interested in exploring in their respective futures.