The Optimus blog

The blog that inspires leaders in the UK education sector

The Optimus blog

The blog that inspires leaders in the UK education sector

Nicola Harvey

How racism impacts on teacher wellbeing and what we can do about it

The stress and trauma of discrimination takes its toll on mental health. Nicola Harvey explores strategies to build resilience and support wellbeing.

Many of us are starting to think about the new school term and the transition to a ‘new normal’. We also have the aftermath of Covid-19, exam results and the impact of recent events like Black Lives Matter to consider.

While the #BlackLivesMatter movement continues to shine a light on direct and indirect racism, the psychological implications for black people are immense. Many are tired of speaking out against racism and frustrated at the expectation that they will become token ‘diversity champions’ or ‘cheerleaders.’ Racism is something that everyone needs to take responsibility for.

Teacher experience of racism

Around a half of 400 black and minority ethnic (BAME) teachers polled by the NASUWT did not feel confident at reporting racism, harassment and bullying in their school, due to a lack of support. And those teachers that did make a stand said they were typically profiled as being ‘oversensitive’, ‘paranoid’ or ‘aggressive’, experiencing micro-insults, gaslighting and other forms of covert racism on a daily basis.

During the early part of my teaching career, I taught at an independent school in London, which at the time was part of a prestigious group of schools linked to the royals and high society. As the only black teacher in the school, I was surprised at the treatment I received from some of the staff and parents. I felt I had to jump through hoops and work harder than my peers to prove that I deserved to be there.

Senior leaders need to start listening to understand the experiences of BAME teachers, pupils and parents and to take informed, supportive action

My experience and that of many others contribute to the disproportionate low numbers of black teachers, particularly in leadership positions. In a recent interview for the BBC, assistant head teacher Josiah Isles states: ‘Black teachers and students are being held back by a society that needs to fully recognise the depth of the endemic social problems if any meaningful plans are to be made to resolve them within the education system.’

In a previous blog I shared a range of resources and strategies schools can use to support teachers and promote diversity in the school community. Senior leaders need to start listening to understand the experiences of BAME teachers, pupils and parents and to take informed, supportive action.

Your mental health matters

Understandably, the stress and trauma of any form of discrimination in education takes its toll on teacher wellbeing. The associated stigmas, fear of being labelled and lack of representation amongst therapists holds people back until their condition becomes a serious mental health problem.

In Rhona V. Magee’s book, The Inner Work of Racial Justice, she explores how people of colour can use mindfulness to build emotional resilience to navigate their way through unconscious bias, micro-aggressions and systemic racism. She states that by using mindfulness as a supportive strategy, you become more curious, recognise our own biases and over time, develop self-regulation tools to support your wellbeing.

Practical strategies to support wellbeing

The biopsychosocial model is a way of exploring the relationship between the biological, psychological and social/environmental factors of experiencing a stressor like racism. The model is a clinical and therapeutic tool which can also be used to develop better self-awareness and to help a person take ownership of the coping strategies they can use to support their wellbeing.

Here are some suggested ways to promote your wellbeing, based on these three aspects.

Biological strategies

  1. Black people are at higher risk of developing heart and circulatory diseases so if you have any worries about your physical health due to stress or any other related incidents, book a general health check with your GP to assess your overall health and wellbeing. Discuss any specific concerns you may have about how you are feeling. The GP will provide professional advice or signpost you to the appropriate service.
  2. Prioritise self-care as part of your daily routine. Books like the Self-Care Check-In by the African-American author GG Renee Hill are a great way to build healthy habits and devote time to yourself during a busy teaching week.
  3. Take part in regular physical exercise, eat a healthy diet and use mindful breathing to regulate the parasympathetic nervous system, as this helps you feel calm. My book Mindful Little Yogis features over 40 guided breathing activities and more evidence-based tools for teachers and parents to practice on themselves and then share with children.

Psychological strategies

  1. Be kind to yourself by practising self-compassion and sharing your experiences with people you trust. Get support from organisations like Black Minds Matter which connects Black individuals and families with professional mental health services across the UK.
  2. The Black, African and Asian Therapy Network is another service set up to encourage people of colour to get the help they need from supportive a network of qualified therapists.
  3. You can also educate yourself to understand the links between racism and mind-body connection with trauma specialist Resmaa Menakem who has a free online course on intergenerational racial trauma.

Social and environmental strategies

  1. You may want to seek an experienced mentor, speak to your union or join a coaching programme for diverse educators. Then after getting support for yourself, if you feel you can, help others and form a network. There is strength in building a community of individuals striving for change.
  2. Educate yourself and join social networks for opportunities to connect and learn from fellow educators. For example, #DiverseEd host networking and learning opportunities including #FastForwardDiversityInclusion – a weekly video programme with leading experts in the field of  diversity and inclusion.
  3. Read my previous blog for a bank of ideas and strategies on the importance of representation in education, ways to decolonise the curriculum and much more.

The impact of racism affects everyone differently, but we need to keep sharing our experiences and campaigning for change. These concepts may help pave the way to equipping you with strategies to build emotional resilience and strengthen your mental wellbeing.

If you ever feel overwhelmed or in doubt about racism, never suffer in silence. Talk to someone you trust in a safe space about how you feel.


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