Normally the only black adults working at Christelle Bekombo’s secondary school are the cleaners.
But the 26-year-old French teacher, originally from Cameroon, has become a role model for black students at Le Chéile Secondary School in Tyrrelstown, northwest Dublin.
“It’s made a huge difference for them,” she says. “I understand them. They are happier. They participate in class more. And I’m showing that it can be done. If the system doesn’t come to you, you go to the system.”
Against a backdrop of anti-racism protests across the world, and allegations of racism in a number of schools here, it has prompted some to ask if the Irish education system has a racism problem?
Bekombo is better-placed than most to give an informed view.
After arriving in Ireland as a 14-year-old, she went to secondary school in Tallaght and trained as a teacher at Trinity College Dublin. She has been teaching at Le Chéile for the past three years.
“Yes, I think there is a racism problem in Irish schools but not just Ireland, it’s everywhere. It’s across all of society,” she says.
She says she has had eggs thrown at her, been spat at, told to go back to her own country, as well as being misjudged and underestimated.
“These are societal issues and school is just a small part. It comes from home. We need to tell our kids that they will meet people with different-colours skin and different hair and different backgrounds. But that doesn’t mean they are any more or less intelligent than others.”
Many black students Ireland, she says, are discouraged by their own families from teaching because it’s not seen as “their” profession. This, she hopes, is about to change.
While the Irish classroom has become much more diverse over the past decade or so, with one in 10 students from non-Irish backgrounds, this is not reflected among the teaching profession.
In Ireland today about 95 per cent of student teachers identify as “white Irish”, compared to 85 per cent of the population.
Bekombo teaches at what is one of the most diverse secondary schools in Ireland.
There are, at last count, 67 nationalities represented in the school. The biggest cohort of students are those from Nigerian backgrounds, followed by white Irish. Many of the young people here have either arrived directly from their country of birth, or they are the first generation of their family to be born in Ireland.
While it could be a source of tension, the school says it celebrates its diversity as a strength.
Dr Áine Moran, who was principal of the school until recently, before being seconded to become ethos and leadership officer with Le Chéile Schools Trust, says the school is built on the idea of being “united in our differences”.
“It has become a real strength,” she says. “When we established our school we asked what does a real Catholic education mean? And it was that it had to be in the community, inclusive and difference was to be celebrated.”
Is there resistance to message of diversity?
The challenge of diversity, she says, is not trying to make everyone the same, but genuinely embracing difference.
Students are reminded of this principle, both inside and outside the school gate.
But it isn’t all sweetness and light.
When the school took part in a Mass that was broadcast on RTÉ, she says she was shocked to see online commentary afterwards from white supremacists and racists.
There are times when the world of politics intervenes and there can tensions between groupings. And there can also be challenges in mixing, with some groups sticking to themselves.
“But in [my] experience, schools are working really, really hard around building a sense of community,” says Moran. “The pastoral piece has always been important in Irish schools . . . it means there is a focus on the care of students and school as a place of community, which isn’t the case in many other countries.”
Bekombo feels schools are part of the solution to racism in society.
She says there is a lot of work to be done in encouraging people of colour to become teachers. This can be key to tackling racism and making children from non-Irish backgrounds feel included.
"I know that may some students will have a idea of black people in their head . . . but when they see me in class and hear me, they come to like me. It opens a door for them to understand who I am . . . and for black students, it gives them a chance to see that black people can be teachers too."