Reshaad Al-Ghailani

In the first of our guest blogs, Reshaad reflects upon teaching History in the UK at secondary school

A History teacher has a lot of power and influence over a young person. The lessons we deliver, the topics we teach and the insights we give can be transformative.  When I think back to my own History lessons in school in the late 1990’s, there is no doubt that I enjoyed them. I chose to study History at University and become a History Teacher, so I was obviously inspired by my teachers and what I had been taught. I still have my old books and on reviewing them, I followed what is probably a similar path to many others, studying traditional topics such as the Romans, Battle of Hastings, Tudors and Stuarts, The British Empire, the Industrial Revolution and the World Wars. 

I became a teacher in 2006 and in general I was now teaching what I had been taught. There is no doubt these are all valid topics to study and I am not about to debate that. However, it is the lens through which one studies a topic that truly offers a person greater understanding. The lens through which I was taught was narrow. The lens through which I started to teach was narrow. As the old saying goes, ‘with great power, comes great responsibility’ and it is our duty to make sure this lens is as wide and representative as possible and if we are to produce the insightful and well balanced individuals our profession demands.

My teaching journey has taken from Bradford to Nairobi, Manchester to Liverpool and my own particular moment of enlightenment came to me around 2010 just before I left for Kenya. I was teaching an A Level Class a unit on the ‘Making of Modern Britain 1951-2007’ and there was a small box that described the Mau Mau, a Kenyan group who revolted against the British in the 1950’s, as a group of terrorists. At the time, this moment passed me by, but 6 months later I was in Nairobi talking to Kikuyu elders (the tribe the majority of the Mau Mau were from) and posed this question to them. You can imagine the reaction!  My lens as a teacher had been narrow and it was from this point I would ensure that it never was again. (If you want to find out more about this particular topic I would recommend Caroline Elkins’s book Imperial Reckoning which was truly transformative for me and my understanding of the History I thought I knew).

This widening lens is not ‘woke’ as some of the mainstream media and questionable personalities may like to say, but giving our students a more thorough and accurate account of events in the past. This is true History – not a convoluted, colonised, winners story. I went to school in Manchester, the city that was known as ‘Cottonopolis, yet it was never mentioned where this cotton had been coming from.

I now want to know about the role of my forebears in WW1. If I were a young Black student, I think I would deserve to know about the great African civilisations that preceded the Transatlantic Slave Trade. If I were a young woman I need to know that my role in History did not start with the Suffragettes. If I were a white British student I would need to understand Britain’s diverse past and the richness of its migratory story. The list could go on, but in essence, we owe it to our students to weave these narratives into the bigger picture of those traditional topics I myself studied in the 1990’s.

I will finish with a quote that has been displayed on my classroom doors, has appeared in my lessons and was even printed on a mug for me as a Secret Santa present such has been my numerous references to it; ‘Those who do not learn from History are doomed to repeat it’ (George Santayana). Now, more than ever this is so pertinent. History is defined as the study of change over time which covers all aspects of human society. As History teachers we have a duty fulfil this definition, to enrich our students with the whole truth and the widened lens. The best way we can do this is through a developed, evolving and diverse curriculum. Britain is changing, the world is changing and it is time our curriculums also did. 

Reshaad Al-Ghailani

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