Roma Dhameja portrait

Written by Roma Dhameja

Secondary Vice Principal responsible for Teaching and Learning with a particular passion for Student Voice and teaching students Business, Economics and about Money.

Google ‘What is Diversity’ and you will see it defined as the ‘process of involving people from a range of different social, ethnic, gender, sexuality backgrounds.’ However, the way we often portray it is through a lens of polarisation. White or non-white. Male or Female. We know life is more complex than that. I, as a woman in her 30s of Indian heritage, cannot speak for every woman with that background and in that age bracket. Our experiences vary. It also doesn’t mean I have nothing in common with a middle-aged white man.

 

This doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t endeavour to ensure diversity in our board rooms/staff body. It means we have to pay closer attention to experiences rather than the way we classify ourselves, and that’s why I want to focus on the element of ‘involving people’ in the above definition. Because unless the communication channels are open, our understanding of unique experiences and similarities will remain stunted.  

 

With this in mind, I have loved conducting student voice activities throughout my teaching career. Our students’ backgrounds affect the way they engage with education. I know this, I have experienced this. At age 4, I joined the British education system with English as my third language and not entirely fluent in it either. Rather than celebrate my trilingual abilities, I was always innately aware that having not mastered English first I was seen to have a disadvantage. This became more apparent as I studied English Literature at A Level and whilst my peers could reference Greek Gods I had a wide variety of Hindu God’s I could refer to with an impressive array of powers but none that were going to make me understand references in the poetry required on the syllabus.

 

Often this lack of exposure to Western cultural references can be seen as a gap, something to fix and fill, and I understand that. After all, we have to prepare our students to pass exams and wrestle with the demands of the English language. But we also have an opportunity to unpick what they come to the table with.

 

I recently spoke to a group of students with English as an Additional Language and was in awe at the experiences not only they, but their parents had. One spoke to me about his parents being refugees from Pakistan and how his dad had obtained a degree in the Netherlands, which is where he was born and had then moved to the UK at eight. When I asked him of his experience moving to the UK he spoke about how he was going to one up his dad by making sure he did his A Levels in the UK, degree abroad and then an MA in another country. To him the world was his home, he just needed some time to figure out society in each country. He was a global citizen.

 

I’d gone to speak to these young people to look at home/school communication. Many of the questions had been asked before.

  • Do your parents receive the letters we send home?
  • Do they read them?
  • Is it ok to send them in English or would you prefer them in a different language?

 

Yes, Yes English is fine, had been the response.

 

Digging a little deeper, it became apparent that the students were reading the letters going home to their parents. When asked if they read everything, their initial reaction was yes, of course. When I asked them to translate a paragraph for me in Urdu, it became apparent they would skip some bits. This made the school simplify the language of their home communication further, with students giving feedback.

 

I learnt a lot that day about the way we communicate with our young people and their parents. I learnt a lot about ensuring that we know who we are writing for. I learnt a lot about how many students are happy to talk about their background if they feel comfortable, and we are willing to listen and celebrate the richness of it.

 

On another occasion I learnt a lot more about why some of our students from diverse backgrounds were not applying to Oxbridge despite having the grades than I ever would sitting making assumptions. I won’t tell you why because their reasons may not be the same as those of the young people not applying at your school. And that’s what we need to unpick, all of us, through regular, consistent student voice activities. What I did love however is how many of them were making the right choices for them, taking into account their culture and the lifestyle they wanted to lead.

 

We also need to be careful about the way we interpret student experiences. For instance, students’ parents may not attend parents evenings because they have no experience of the British education system and may send older siblings, uncles or aunts instead. In these instances you can have a very engaged extended family. How do we work with that? The cultural experiences of our young people can be very rich and we have to ensure we are not, at some level judging them as good or bad when they may just be different.

 

Listening to our students’ voices can teach us so much: what our students value in their homes… what shapes their perspectives… who are their role models… This is all powerful knowledge. It is a two-way gift. Not only does it give us an insight into their world, it also encourages them to talk confidently about their experiences, no matter how different to the status quo they may be.

 

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