Unorthodox Geography Teacher

Unorthodox Geography Teacher

Unorthodox Geography Teacher

Experiencing the classroom environment for the first time as a British Muslim Pakistani Geography Teacher.

Written by Iram Sammar

Date: Rabiʻ Al Akhar 6, 1443 AH (11 November 2021)

I recall my first day as Newly Qualified Geography Teacher, a colourful political world map was the first thing that caught my eye in the classroom. This made me reflect on the Headteacher’s welcoming speech earlier that day.  The Head informed the staff that he had plans to offer the IB programme and was “excited about becoming a world school”. It was then that I felt nervous about teaching my students geography.  On my own, the way I want? I wondered, how I, as a teacher of geography could represent all those different places, especially as the new national curriculum required teachers to consider the “global dimension”. I particularly feared teaching about concepts such as “global citizenship” or as geographers understood it, the global dimension. My passion for geography was evident from my huge smile as I roamed the classroom and looked at the blank walls. Just one political world map, Mercator projection at that. It made me nervous that I had the power to teach students about people and places I had never experienced myself – do I say it all in the first lesson? I gave my own teachers a very hard time when they would even mention Pakistan, or various Asian, African and Gulf Countries, with the slightest negative connotation. I would say “Sir, don’t call Pakistan a LEDC (Less Economically Developed Country)”. My teachers, all who were predominantly White English from primary all the way through to postgraduate level, except one professor who supervised my BA dissertation. But it was now my turn. What about all those countries I don’t know anything about? What if the children I teach feel offended by my lack of knowledge – what a scary moment!

Fast forward in time, a young Somali girl shouts out ‘Miss, ma country ain’t no LIDC’.  This time it was not me.  I was the geography teacher.  The topic was UK in the 21st Century, the case study was Somalia: What is the UK’s political role in global conflict?  This bright young girl flicked through the book to the Dynamic Development section to find the map of International Monetary Fund (IMF) country classifications.  “Yup, Miss, look at Somaliland…it’s green, it’s an L…I…D…C!”  The class burst into laughter, just as mine did.  This time I took the reins to the situation and let her speak. Her face reflected her deep disappointment. Why was her country of heritage so poorly represented in the textbook?

“Ok Sauda (pseudonym), tell me. What is Somalia really like? If you could write to the author what would you say?” Interestingly enough, I managed to control the anguish in her heart by allowing her to share with the class what Samaliland means to her. Sauda began by saying that she would definitely ask for there to be better images. What struck me was that she summed up the pictures as “a bunch of stereotypes: poor Black people; violent people; and dirty people who are helped by the White Christian man” (Sauda).  I then shared my own story with the class, as detailed above.  I spent 20 minutes of the lesson expressing the need for critical thinking in geography.  The student in question gave me the confidence to begin the process of decolonising the curriculum “unconsciously”.

Reflecting on that experience, my positionality, more importantly who am I? influenced my interest in the ‘decolonising the curriculum’ (DTC) movement.  As a geography teacher I make a point to reflect on my own identity in terms of ethnicity; being an anti-racist academic; geography teacher; and a former ‘ethnic minority’ secondary school geography student. I know how it felt to be ‘different’ the ‘other’ in the classroom space, which often felt ‘white’. For this reason, I share my ideas through teaching about ‘race’ and ‘racism’ and my concerns about curriculum planning when using textbooks with my students. In my view, this is being an anti-racist. The ethnic/race identity question is an important one, as many of my students have more often than not, been from ethnically diverse backgrounds too; not necessarily the same as mine.  Not excluding British White students, as many in my experience also have diversity that needs to be explored, as they have an ethnicity too.  In conclusion, I have discovered that to be an anti-racist and decolonial teacher it is good to be an unorthodox geography teacher. 

Thank you for reading my blog, if you liked this or would like to contact me, please do get in touch with your comments and feedback.

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