Assistant Principal at Harris Croydon, Genieve Bent for the Guardian Labs
'Relatability is a big thing for young people' – this much I know'
Deborah Linton, freelance journalist for the Guardian, speaks to our very own Genevieve Bent Associate Assistant Principal at Harris Invictus Academy Croydon about role models, positive messages and boosting Black representation in the world of science.
Entering a classroom as a student teacher was like turning on a switch. I was a young-looking 22-year-old and mistaken for the new girl. Many of the class were from backgrounds like mine but hadn’t had a Black teacher before. When I began teaching, they were willing to listen to what I had to say. We’d share a joke but they took me seriously too. My second placement was at a boys’ school that was mostly white, with a big focus on sport. It couldn’t have been more different but they took me just as seriously. I realised, then, that this was a career that, with the right support, I could be great at.
I have never been short of role models. As a schoolgirl in south London, my teacher Miss Peterkin inspired me. She was a Black woman and head of year. She was quite strict and some girls didn’t get on with her, but I was hard-working and could go to the staffroom to ask her advice about life in and outside school. I am second generation Black British Caribbean. My grandparents were part of the Windrush generation and my heritage is hugely important to me. My dad worked in automotive engineering and now he’s a college lecturer, where he is well-liked and respected. Since entering teaching, it has been important to me to continue the legacy of people like him and Miss Peterkin.
I feel comfortable and confident in the classroom. I studied chemistry at university and had imagined a career in forensics, but realised I was too sociable for life in a lab. In the final year of my degree, at Kingston University, our project work focused on improving practical skills in secondary schools. My lecturers then asked if I’d considered teaching. I took this on board, particularly as I’d realised how much I enjoyed working with young people, and I knew I was passionate about passing on my knowledge. I went on to do my teacher training at King’s College London, and I was very happy when my mentors said that I had a natural presence in the classroom and an ability to connect with students.
Relatability is a big thing for young people. When I started at my current school, the pupils were excited to have a teacher they considered “cool” and from a similar background to them. Students respond to people they respect and like, so you have to find opportunities to connect with them wherever and however they’re inclined to communicate. I always wear heels and a skirt or trouser suit to school, and the girls love to talk about clothes, music or hair with me – as well as about chemistry. The comments I hear from them, particularly Black girls who tell me how important it is to see a woman like them succeed, have a positive impact on all of us.
At university, I was the only Black woman in my cohort. I am passionate about changing that representation so the next generation can fulfil its potential. In 2018, I was named Black Young Professionals Network Role Model of the Year and given a Harris Federation Transforming Lives Award for engaging young people in Stem (science, technology, engineering and maths) subjects. In 2019, I started up Young Gifted and STEM – an online network to improve engagement in those subjects among Black and minority ethnic British students. We connect them with role models from industry, colleges and universities and provide opportunities to learn new skills with the aim of boosting representation in the Stem workforce.
I want new teachers to feel supported so that the students can always come first. Finding the right school is really important and I was lucky, at my second school, to discover an environment where I could truly thrive. I’m now in my sixth year here and have progressed to head of chemistry, head of science and now associate assistant principal, overseeing the sixth form. Now that I am in a leadership position, I ensure that new teachers can lean on more experienced colleagues for support.
As a teacher, I’ve been on a journey and never looked back. In what other job would I get to be sociable, passionate about my subject, and build relationships with about 150 different people every day? I lead a science department of 11 women and half of us are Black, which sends a positive, representative message to students. I watch them grow from 11-year-olds to confident, educated individuals at 18. For me, teaching a kid to fulfil their potential is a dream.
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