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Janet Graham is a black teacher in a school in north west London. She is also an education researcher.
Most secondary schools across Britain are graced with the attitudes and subcultures of girls from all walks of life. My focus is on some black (African-Caribbean) girls in inner London and other city schools.
If as a teacher you’ve had to deal with the attitude, body language, hands in the air or on the waist, of a girl saying: “So what you gonna do about it then?” or “No I ain’t doing it,” and you get a ‘cussing’ from the student, you may have agonised over how to deal with such behaviour.
Some black girls can appear unapproachable and intimidating. When subcultures develop in school they are acted out in ways which are adverse to the main structure/culture of the school. While many girls move easily between cultures, others can be quite destructive in the classroom. As a black teacher in London, I understand and empathise with some of the traits and can provide practical strategies to help teachers understand and break through that ‘crust’ of ‘attitude’.
One consequence of acting out subcultures is that it leads to underachievement as the girls become detached from learning. Many black girls do not excel in secondary education. The focus has been on the underachievement of African-Caribbean boys; girls are thought to be doing well. This is not true; black girls are having to make huge efforts to overcome obstacles and are still falling behind white girls and boys. They are not far ahead of black boys in GCSE results.
Tackling girls’ behaviour is essential, but it is imperative to understand socioeconomic background. Though no excuse for poor behaviour, it is worth noting that some girls face real challenges in their social and domestic lives. Many live in lower socioeconomic areas, are from low income families and care homes or come from single parent families. Most help with younger siblings, do housework and help mothers at home. In contrast black boys are often out with friends, playing sport or pursuing other activities.
Another reason subcultures develop is that the girls see school as hostile and do not feel accepted. Some have learning difficulties and may hide behind the subculture as a strategy for survival. It is important to find ways to bring girls back into the school culture through a pastoral system which encompasses cultural needs, and teaching that caters for the girls’ ability and individual needs.
It can be difficult to deal with the behavioural issues black girls bring to the classroom – and corridors. Fostering positive learning can help in the education of black girls. Teachers are well placed to demonstrate there need be no conflict between subculture and academic achievement.
Breaking through the barriers can be challenging but with understanding we can develop strategies to help them learn and achieve better results.
Ways to help girls achieve
1 Train teachers to understand the subculture, and how to deal with the ‘attitude’ and fear of approaching girls.
2 Develop a mentoring programme to help girls understand the value of education and careers.
3 Set up a pastoral support system which addresses the needs of black culture/history.
4 Develop individualised learning programmes to break through the barriers and create progress in learning.
5 Work on improving links with parents and carers to develop positive relationships with girls.
Teachers can break through the barriers and help the girls understand that there is value in learning.
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