Sign In
Sign In
Register for Free

Representation and leadership – “My first placement school was an eye-opener”

illustration showing a white man and a black women representing diversity within leadership

Joy Mbwake reflects on why having diverse leaderships within schools is so important, and the far-reaching good it can do

Joy Mbwake
by Joy Mbwake
DOWNLOAD A FREE RESOURCE! Year 7 English worksheets – Jungle descriptive writing lesson plan and resources

Looking back on my own school days, two teachers immediately come to mind – Ms Powell and Ms Sule. Both were black women, and the first teachers to treat me with unreserved love and kindness during my time at school.

It was my first experience of what happens when people who look like you are in positions of power and authority. The significance of my race didn’t intrude upon me until I left that school and entered institutions where I was deemed a ‘minority’ – a term which, until then, I was unfamiliar with. It seemed my father was right all along, in that I had to work harder than everyone else just to be seen as equal.

My first placement school was an eye-opener. The school was predominantly white and male, and left me feeling as though I was the sole representative of my race. My second was at an all-girls school that was majority black and faith-based, where I hoped I could be myself.

However, the students were studying Jane Eyre – a text I’d never read before, which meant lesson preparation entailed spending hours Googling the meaning and pronunciation of each word.

I spent the next year attempting to prove myself worthy of the label ‘teacher’. I worked harder than colleagues in similar roles, but the weight of trying to convince those around me that I belonged in education kept me on the ground when I should have been flying.

Years later, I no longer feel like an imposter. I’m now a department head on a mission to have teachers create a curriculum which represents the students it serves.

Decolonisation was, and remains my intent. The rich, diverse curriculum now in place at my current school speaks to the necessity of representation and diversity we clearly need.

Teachers – think about who you choose to answer questions in your classroom, and which students are selected to attend trips reserved for the ‘gifted and talented’. Who is reprimanded most in your class? What do your ‘problem students’ look like?

The kindness extended to me by those two black women all those years ago validated my presence in the classroom. They looked like me, loved me and saw me in ways I’d not experienced prior.

Representation allows the ‘change’ we so often talk about to become actualised. It enables new questions to be asked, new voices to be heard and new people to be seen. It helps young people who are habitually forgotten to become leaders and thinkers in spaces to which they might otherwise have not been invited.

Please, think about representation.

Joy Mbwake is head of English and assistant headteacher at Lilian Baylis Technology College; to read further insights from teachers on diversity and inclusion in education, visit

You might also be interested in...