Skin colour, language and cultural background are just a few factors that can signal difference in a classroom. Respect for diversity is necessary, but it can be easier said than established, particularly if the teacher lacks the appropriate tools.
“If pupils are voicing racist opinions, the teacher must direct the discussion towards criticism of racism,” says Professor Heidi Safia Mirza from Goldsmiths College, University of London.
Professor Mirza knows that tackling racist opinions in class is a challenge for many teachers.
“Typically, teachers want to silence the racist commentary without processing it, but this solves nothing.”
Professor Mirza is one of the first women of colour to be awarded a professorship in the UK, and inequality in education is her area of expertise.
Europe’s colonial past holds us hostage
Many immigrants have different ethnicities, speak different languages and grew up in different cultures than what Finns are used to. This poses a problem for teachers, who are teaching topics of race, religion and culture.
“A running theme goes through our entire educational system, from preschool to university, and it is how we speak of and position ‘the Other’."
According to Mirza, this is based on the era of European colonialism, when white Europeans occupied other areas of the world.
“When we study and learn about ‘the Other’ in school, the perspective is always that of the white man, who colonises 'the Other'. We think we are learning about other cultures, but we are looking down on others,” explains Mirza.
Immigrants missing from the debate
Professor Mirza was a speaker at a conference on social justice in education, organised by JustEd, the Nordic Centre of Excellence on Justice Through Education in the Nordic Countries.
“We spoke about migrants and refugees during the conference, but when I looked at the room of around 150 people, I saw only one person of colour. Where are the people we were talking about?” she asks.
Mirza believes that the Nordic countries lack the capacity to unlock the skills that immigrants hold and the perspectives they could provide.
“We must tell their stories, the true stories unadulterated by the dominant European perspectives, to expand our concepts of 'us' and 'them'."
To achieve this, Mirza believes we must first tackle our history and identity. She points out that Europe’s history consists of centuries of colonialism, oppression and exploitation, and that Europeans would do well to remember this.
“What’s happening now is that Europe is asking immigrants, ‘Why are you here?’ The answer is that we are here because you were there,” says Mirza.
Teachers – a part of the problem, a part of the solution
In her research, Mirza has met many teachers who have said that they would like to address difficult topics such as racism, if only they had the time.
“All the teachers I have met have been wonderful. They want to work for social justice and fight racism, but they don't have the time and space in their everyday work to talk about and challenge racism,” states Mirza.
As a result, the teachers wind up supporting the system.
“Teachers need support and tools to tackle the difficult issues and to change attitudes.”
Teacher education at the University of Helsinki can provide such support. A new class teacher education programme, which is launching at the University of Helsinki this autumn, places a significant focus on prospective teachers’ ability and tools to work in an increasingly multicultural school environment.
“We have researched diversity, multilingualism and social justice for many years. When the new teachers graduate, they will have the results of our research at their disposal to use in their classrooms,” says Professor Gunilla Holm, who suggested the new programme.