Donavere Benjamin-Mahon is in his second year teaching at Ark Elvin Academy. Alongside teaching History and Sociology at GCSE level, he's also head of events, focusing on raising aspirations across all year groups.
Before going into teaching, he worked in the Ark Ventures team. Previously he had been studying Politics and International Relations at Dundee University.
In celebration of Black History Month, we are speaking with colleagues to hear about their experiences. For our first article, we talked to Donavere to delve deeper into the issues facing black teachers. This article is part of our #ArkPeople series.
What led you down the teaching path?
I was curious about teaching, but I didn't know whether I wanted to be a teacher after working in different careers or start it sooner, but I knew education was something I was passionate about.
I chose Ark Teacher Training because I went to the sixth form at Ark Burlington Danes. The number of opportunities I had as a student was fantastic and enabled me to study in Scotland and have the confidence to participate in opportunities to study abroad in Hong Kong and Australia.
My teachers supported me throughout my sixth form – they were relentless and driven. So, when I decided now was the time to get into education, I wanted to become a great teacher, not a mediocre one. I knew Ark Teacher Training would be a challenging programme, but the training would be excellent, and I'd be learning continuously.
I like the benefit of being in a network, and when you have training inset days, you're training with other staff, thinking about your pedagogy. I'm not sure other networks have that collegiate feel, and somewhere that cares about classroom development practice.
I wanted to be a teacher because I love education. It's such a fascinating sector. You get to change lives. It's powerful when you can shift a child's mindset into believing in themselves. As a teacher, you're the cornerstone of helping to think about the future, especially with the community we serve in Wembley. We have a lot of students from different countries who don't have primary schooling; many come from challenging backgrounds, and it is exciting to remove the barriers that our pupils face.
Being in this profession means giving children the knowledge to help them get into a world where they can be articulate, where they can be curious, and where they can be thinking about their future. They need to believe that they also can be the next Prime Minister.
Why did you want to teach History?
I think it's a great subject because you're teaching students about the past and the progress that society has made. I enjoy seeing students thinking deeply and articulating their ideas on a range of complexities in the past and linking it to current affairs.
There's this idea that white, old men always teach History, but at Ark Elvin, our department is diverse, with young teachers from different backgrounds and experiences bringing the subject to life. It makes a difference when students can feel they have someone that they can relate to.
I think the History curriculum can be much more diverse, especially at GCSE, but we are piloting a much more varied curriculum at KS3, which is positive as the demographic we serve is rich in different culture, with a vast selection of languages are spoken in the school.
It's important that schools ensure that their communities are taught about different cultures, to build a better understanding and appreciation of other cultures, and don't grow to be ignorant.
What do we need to do to get more black people into the profession?
I think black people who want to enter the profession should ask, what's the DNA of the school culture? Do they actually want to employ and value our experience? The other question is, how easy will it be to progress, and what does that route look like? How many people like me are in senior posts – is the school empowering us to be in leadership positions?
From speaking with my peers, ethnic minorities in leadership positions usually lead on pastoral care - it's often the black teacher who deals with the naughty students. Where are we in headship roles or leading on the quality of education? As a sector, we still have much further to go.
As a black male teacher, do you feel pressure?
Yes, I feel like I have to work 200% harder. I feel the pressure as I want my lessons to be great. However, there is also an undercurrent pressure to do well as I have more barriers to overcome. Nevertheless, I don't allow that to stop me from doing what I enjoy or stop me from applying for opportunities.
I'd love to become a young principal before I'm 35, but there will be significant barriers that I will face. So, I need to ensure that I am ready by going the extra mile, doing the additional training, getting all the qualifications and probably having something slightly different to make me stand out.
There are also the biases that can't be ignored – in so many sectors – the question is, does our face fit, do we look the part, do we look like someone you can put on social media and bring the crowd, do we sound the part, do we dress the part? And it's all these little things that people don't speak about but have a big impact on the chances of success.
What do you bring to the classroom?
I grew up in the area, so I understand and know the challenges that our students face. I know they will have to work a thousand times harder to achieve. So, it's important to have high expectations, but with high expectations, it's a balancing game between being warm, showing compassion and reminding them of the purpose of the expectations. Ultimately, we fail them when we let them off. They need us to cheer for them.
And finally, looking at Black icons, who inspires you?
I have to say David Olusoga. I really enjoy his documentaries regarding black History. I think sometimes it's great to mention those who create impact but with humility, which is David, as he never shies away from what he does but also uses his platform to make a difference.