In the 50s and 60s, many black people living in the West UK and US met with serious, bold-faced racism. Nowadays, colour prejudice is no longer as strong or “in-your-face” as before although it’s not entirely dead, as a Ghanaian teacher found out.
Most times, the persons at the receiving end of racism or racial attack are powerless and unable to fight back. Those who can, especially if it’s a case of verbal attack or name calling, usually return the abusive language, name or, better still, invent their own equally derogatory term. For example, a white man calls you a “monkey” and you call him a “pig” and the story ends there – no winner no loser!
But Ghanaian-born John Ampofo had a different mindset and understanding of racism. Therefore, he responded to racism on a London underground train in an unusual way. Face2Face chatted with Ampofo at a restaurant in east London. Here is his story.
It was a cold Winter morning and Ampofo was going home from work. Black and White was the last thing on his mind as he got on the Jubilee Line with dozens of other commuters and night workers, most of them struggling with sleep. A professional biology teacher, Ampofo had migrated to the UK as most Africans in search of a better life, and had just closed from his daunting night job as a security guard and heading home.
Shivering with cold even in a sweater, Jacket and coat, Ampofo located an empty seat at the far end of the train and, hurriedly, went for it. Just as he was about to sit, a white man next to him, jumped up from his own seat and muttered angrily, “you monkey!” and literally fled.
Surprised but not embarrassed, the tired Ampofo, a tall personable science tutor, looked the racist squarely in the face and replied: “For the first time, you’re seeing a monkey speaking laconic English and one without a prehensile tail.”
Unknown to Ampofo, another white man, a potential employer, was watching keenly. His intelligent remark caught him and he exclaimed, “oh, you’re learned!” The impressed observer requested for Ampofo’s telephone number and followed it up with a call and later, a job-offer.
“That was how I got my first teaching appointment,” Ampofo, who has been in the UK for over 15 years, told Face2 Face.
That experience ended Ampofo’s ordeal as a security guard and brought him back into the classroom as a science teacher. He taught in the college for several years and later founded his own school. He shared his experiences as a teacher in a foreign land, and compared it with his challenges back home.
“The school system here is very good compared to home but the point is they give students so much room and freedom. You end up as a teacher doing classroom management. In fact, I spent a good 80 per cent of my time in doing classroom management – getting students to settle down and listen in class. They’re on their I Pads, I Phones and BBs – pinging, blinging and blogging. It takes time to get them to settle down,” he explained, shaking his head.
“It is a multi-cultural society where you have Indians, Chinese and others, and everybody is talking at the same time. It means that in the classroom, the Indians are talking, the Chinese are talking, and everybody is talking and doing their own thing. You live in a diverse environment and the school system is diverse. You need to understand everybody’s culture. What you consider a taboo in Africa may be an accepted way of life elsewhere so you have to understand that. As a black African teacher, you need to learn the culture of the average person in order to adapt,” said Ampofo, who has now left teaching.
In Ghana, Nigeria, and most of Africa, for example, the use of the left hand is derogatory. A student may not raise the left hand to answer a question. But put that to an Indian or Chinese student in Ampofo’s multi-cultural school and the teacher would have to answer a barrage of questions to explain the ‘why?’ and ‘why not’. Racial discrimination is also not strange in such classrooms, although the school system has laws against it.
“One day an Indian student referred to me as, ‘you black African,’ Ampofo recalled, “I didn’t want to do anything because he was my student but he later came back to apologise. We have a procedure in the school system – if you are treated unfairly or abused by teacher or student, you should report to your head of department. But sometimes you don’t want to go through all that – But you have to have a big heart to stomach all that nonsense,” he added.
Notwithstanding, the school system is properly run and managed by experts and teachers earn their keep.
“There is a quality department that monitors your scheme of work, your delivery and can come for inspection unannounced. So, you have to be prepared. You don’t come to class and rattle and go home,” Ampofo said.
Every child matters, no matter the background. The teacher must teach both the smart and the slow, even if they are put in different classrooms for easier teaching and learning.
“Some of the children are serious and some are notorious. Classes are set in one, two and three. The lower ones, that is, the three are the ones who cause a lot of trouble but everybody has to be taught and teachers must prepare their lesson plans to suit the different intellectual levels.
“For example, I cannot ask those in the lower class to evaluate anything. “No,” they cannot ‘evaluate’ anything, ‘compare’ or ‘contrast,’ all they can do is ‘define’. You have to go at a slow pace but that doesn’t mean the children are mentally challenged. The work is not ended when you leave the classroom, it follows you home,” he further explained.
Teachers can be recruited overseas but additional training is required to qualify them to teach locally.
Ampofo who admitted leaving the school system in Ghana because of a self –esteem issue emphasized that teachers in the west are trained and encouraged to apply knowledge not just to possess it.
“I will say I have learnt a lot and seen different ways of doing things from the ways they’re done in Africa. At home, when you go for a training programme, you come back with your certificate and begin to show off. Here if you go for a training programme, you’re expected to come back to apply the knowledge. People are taught to always be in the mood to apply knowledge and that’s what you try to do,” Ampofo maintained.
The biology teacher, a husband, father and pastor said he has achieved 90 per cent of his objectives in the UK and is ready to return to Ghana. The question is, will he find an enabling environment to apply the knowledge he has acquired?