Theme: Who Educates? A conversation.

Darryl Clifton
  • Hayfaa Chalabi
  • Jhinuk Sarkar

In order to unpack some of the rigid ideas and expectations that exist about who educates, we decided to ask each other a few questions. What follows is an edited transcript of the conversation.

Who currently educates?

Jhinuk: I'll start. Hayfaa, who do you think currently educates?

Hayfaa: Hmm. I always think of educators inside big educational institutions with clean white walls, where teachers have specific qualifications and academic backgrounds. And given the geographical context that I'm in right now, I do think of educators in a very Eurocentric manner. This leads me to have a very specific understanding of who educates and educator-student relationships. I think of vertical dynamics in teaching, the transfer of knowledge, rather than exchange of knowledge. I think of big age gaps between educators and students and I think of certain dynamics of power and strong boundaries between educators and students. What about you, who do you think educates? 

Jhinuk: Wow, that's a big answer to follow and I agree with most of what you've said.  My immediate answer is lecturers and teachers in different formal environments throughout my education, from schools to colleges to universities. I also think about those in work that teach each other because university is becoming quite expensive for a lot of people to attend, and so they are exploring different routes into the working world. There's a lot of education occuring for people in work, inducting people into their workplaces for example; this is still what I would call a formal setting. I think there are many other informal settings where people educate. Formal roles I'm talking about might be scientists, lawyers, administrators and artists as well, but then the informal ones might be family members: mothers, sisters or brothers. Since the global events that we've experienced in the last few years, we've started to recognise this a bit more.

Hayfaa: Definitely, I agree with you, even sometimes strangers. A short conversation with a stranger and you can feel that you’ve already transferred or exchanged some form of knowledge. 

Who has educated you?

Jhinuk: Yeah, exactly. So following on, who has educated you Hayfaa? 

Hayfaa: Well, I do think that I am one of the very lucky people, because every time I meet somebody and they ask me this, I'm like, I loved my teachers and they're like, really, are you serious? I was lucky to have an education that was defined by non-dominant norms. I remember a couple of educators I had, especially female educators, that taught me how to not only become a good illustrator, but also a good human. A better human. I realised later, when I became an educator myself, that those ways of teaching were not spontaneous, and they were intentional, and that kindness itself was a conscious way of teaching. These educators followed educational practicespractises of engaged pedagogy where knowledge needed to be co-created between educator and student rather than transferred from educator to students. I have good memories from my institutional educational journey.

What about you, who has educated you? 

Jhinuk: I’ll start by giving you a picture of my journey through education, both from a student perspective, and now as an educator. I feel like I have been lucky too, but for different reasons to you. 

I attended formal institutions that weren't that diverse and they weren't reflective of who I am. I didn't recognise that until quite late on in my education studying on the PgCert Academic Practice in Art, Design and Communication (UAL). Up until that point, I had experienced largely European white educators, I had maybe two teachers of colour at school. At the point that I did my PgCert it felt like a revelation to have a whole team of staff of colour delivering a unit to me, specifically on inclusivity and diversity in education and that really opened my mind. 

Aside from these formal spaces, I think of my family, both those who are in my immediate vicinity, those I grew up with, and my family that live in Kolkata in West Bengal. They educated me on things to do with life, how you look at things and how you communicate.

But let's not forget about those beings and things that aren't human: animals, plants and things, the technologies around us, have all educated me. I've lived through a special time when the internet began, I can remember before. These things are special and inform how you are educated.

Hayfaa: I agree with that. I also have a special experience with animals as educators. Animals have a very strong value system. I learnt a lot about gratitude, love and compassion from animals. Also family, it's great that you mentioned those forms of education that go beyond institutions because again these questions come with rigid expectations of education. At first we think of education that happens inside of institutions, but it is also important to highlight other forms of education.

How do you educate? 

That leads on to my next question. I'm wondering Jhinuk, how do you educate?

Jhinuk: There's a lot to learn from those people, places, objects, processes that educated me. The way that I could summarise is that going through those experiences, you might have certain turning points where there was a challenge to get through. Maybe one of my educators presented me something, and I didn’t have the kind of reaction they anticipated me having, but I learnt something very important from the reaction I did have. That is something that I really pay attention to. How I educate is to think through my own experiences of learning, whether informal or formal, paying attention to instinct and kindness. You mentioned kindness before and I think that's really important as a learning tool, and an education tool.

Being up for taking a risk is also important. If there is something that you don't know how it’s going to work out, because you haven't tried it before, it's important to be honest and open about that, but try it anyway. If we stay in our own set approaches to education we're no longer going to be educating effectively for the people around us or supporting our own education. 

What about you, how do you educate?

Hayfaa: This is an interesting question because I am labelled as an educator by the institution, this gives me confirmation that I do educate. However, I also feel insecure about this term-claiming even though I do educate, I do transfer and exchange knowledge with people. I was introduced to education through a book that influenced me a lot by bell hooks called Teaching to Transgress: Educating as the practice of freedom and I read it when I was a student myself. I was obsessed. She explains the importance of transgressing the rigid boundaries of intellectual information, to share in spiritual growth and compassion. 

I remember I had an encounter once where a student was struggling, they had autism. I asked them ‘what can I do?’. They said, ‘it's okay, it's not your work’. And I replied, ‘no, no, I'm here to create a safe space’. They told me, ‘safe spaces are not important, it’s intentional spaces that are important’. I didn't know the difference and so I went and learnt about intentional spaces. They are the spaces you enter with the intention that everybody may have something they're struggling with that you don't know. Safe spaces only take into consideration the struggles that you know of. 

I am now aware of entering a classroom with my body, a history, baggage and identity; an intersectional identity. Our identities go beyond what we can see, like disabilities for example, which are often invisible, or emotional weights that we might be carrying. Our students are humans and I'm a human. We must acknowledge this and operate accordingly inside any learning space whether a household or a classroom. I aim to educate in these considerate ways. I don't know if I'm there yet, but I try.

Who doesn’t get credit for educating?

I want to ask you, who doesn't get credit for educating - perhaps because they don't have that institutional label? 

Jhinuk: I enjoyed hearing how you draw upon the ideas in bell hooks’ book Teaching to Transgress because it really opens up the idea of vulnerability, that we should be open and exposing; an exchange of that compassion that you're talking about. 

In answer to your question, I was thinking about compassion and exchange which relies on people feeling inadequate or insecure in calling themselves educators. I have also felt that for a while and I came to my role as an ‘educator’ a bit later on in my working life. This gives me an advantage, I can see how the work that I've done previously provides me the need to be compassionate to those around me and showing how I too am learning from them.

People that I've worked with in community groups often don't get the credit for being valid sources of knowledge. Knowledge that they pass on through storytelling or conversational formats. It’s important knowledge that needs to be carried forward to peers or to other generations. Whether a local knitting group that meets once a week, a group that meets because of a shared traumatic experience or a group of people who have moved from a different country and are trying to settle, they all educate but don't get the credit for it. This reminds me of another book, Pedagogy of the Oppressed by Paulo Freire. Friere talks about a banking system of education, where someone with the privilege and power provided by an education is the fountain of all knowledge, passing it down to those that don't have such privileges. We shouldn't use that system. We should be looking for alternative exchanges such as community groups or those with intersectional identities.

Who do you think doesn't get credit for educating?

Hayfaa: I want to speak about qualifications as an indicator of academic achievement and ability. I think a lot about my grandmother, who was illiterate. She could not read.  She didn't go to school at all, not one day. She doesn't know how to use a pen. She was quite old when I was born and she couldn't do much, she couldn't knit or do any of the other things she used to like doing. But she did a lot of storytelling. She used to tell me folkloric tales, myths and stories of hybrids of humans and animals. 

It was not only entertaining but it also educated me and expanded my creativity. It taught me how to create narratives that keep people's attention. I don't know where she got them from, but probably she inherited them from her mother as well. 

Jhinuk: You made me think of my own grandmother and we probably had similar experiences. Her education was not formalised but she taught me so much. 

Hayfaa: We need to consider educators beyond schools and beyond literacy. We think of literacy in a very specific way. My grandmother was very literate in terms of these stories. She had the skill of storytelling and of keeping a child's attention, which is a very difficult mission! She did not get any credit for being an educator. So that is what comes to mind when I try to answer this question, a personal but important story.

Jhinuk: Very important, thank you for sharing it. Who do you think feels uncomfortable claiming their roles or work as educators - although I think we both just said ourselves.

Hayfaa: You mentioned that you started your education career quite late and feel I started mine quite early, when I was a student. That made me closer to students. I always received good feedback from my students because I speak the same language; I speak from their perspective as I’m around their age. It was a great bonding learning experience. I felt very confident being an educator with those students. However, I felt extremely insecure in meetings or around colleagues because I was always the youngest in the team. I always felt uncomfortable claiming the position that I was given by the institution, and this was because of my age.

Jhinuk: That's really interesting. 

Hayfaa: How about you?

Jhinuk: I think similarly, I felt uncomfortable in those situations… surprisingly. It took time to feel more confident. It wasn't so much about my age, more the number of years of experience in formalised, education settings. Slowly I'm beginning to realise that my previous work was in education, just not in a formalised setting and it has value. For example communicating complex information in different formats and making it accessible, is one example. 

Understanding that I have knowledge that someone else doesn’t still feels uncomfortable, but then I think that being uncomfortable is a good thing to feel because it means that you are aware of where you need to educate yourself.

What needs to change for ‘informal educators’ to claim their title as educators?

Hayfaa: We have spoken a lot about the expectations of educators in institutions, and the pressure we have felt in claiming our titles as educators. I would like to end this discussion with one last question. What needs to change for ‘informal educators’ to claim their title as educators?

Jhinuk: There is a lot of performance involved in education and once ‘informal educators’ are aware of that then it becomes easier to act into a role they want to become. I recognise that in myself, the performance element of education.

I think back to when I studied drama in secondary school. I was 15 or 16 and an incredibly shy person, but I really enjoyed drama as a subject. I remember my drama teacher saying to me, ‘I can sense that you enjoy the subject but for the exam we need you to demonstrate it through performance because this is drama!’ I took a risk and made myself vulnerable for that exam. This is the type of risk taking and performance grew my confidence, and that has translated to my teaching practice. It was a way of showing something about myself to the people around me.

I talked about performance specifically, but what do you think needs to change for ‘informal educators’ to claim their title as educators? 

Hayfaa: It's unfair to put the responsibility to change on those individuals. I have witnessed a very protective attitude towards education from institutions and some people that work in them; protecting this rigid dominant definition of normative, a definition of who educates. I sense that institutions and some people feel threatened by this alternative or expanded definition of who educates. It’s as if validating informal knowledge will ruin knowledge. It’s time to acknowledge that informal knowledge existed before formal definitions of knowledge. Formal knowledge is the documentation of informal knowledge. 

Jhinuk: Absolutely.

Hayfaa: They work in parallel and both are needed for education to happen. Institutions and people with privilege who work within institutions need to be less protective around that definition and create space for an expanded definition to exist; acknowledging that the history of education is beyond institutions. 

It is also important to mention that not everybody can afford to attend an institution and we need to acknowledge that as well. What alternatives are we providing for people who do not have access to institutions? Is having an education only a right of the powerful or the person who can afford it financially? Of course not. Education should be a right for everybody and anybody. I think we should end on that optimistic note. 

Jhinuk: Yes, lets end on an optimistic note. It’s good that you mention privilege and access. Lack of access to education can be because of money, but it can also be because of societal norms, cultural practices, class systems, language barriers and gender politics. I hope that through our conversation people will listen to all the different intersections of identity that can affect who educates and who is educated. 

Hayfaa: It's also important for us to acknowledge that there are struggles that we are not aware of as well! 

Hayfaa: Thank you so much for speaking with me. 

Jhinuk: Thank you, too.

About the authors

Hayfaa Chalabi is an illustrator and educator interested in the role of illustration to re-contextualise narratives, histories, and discussions . Chalabi uses her power as an illustrator and storyteller to spark discussions about different socio-political issues. Her work revolves around the intersections of visual culture, sexuality, gender, and migration. Currently, Chalabi works as a senior lecturer at the University of Arts in London (UAL). 

Jhinuk Sarkar is an illustrator and educator with a practice deeply rooted in and inspired by communities. She explores the messages that illustration can transcend around social justice to communities and co-creation, through the translation of sensory experiences. Jhinuk's practice and research into sensory experiences has come together from roles that she has undertaken alongside work as freelance illustrator (roles have included being an illustration agent, creative programme producer and a museums’ workshop leader). Jhinuk has worked with disabled artists for just over a decade in charity arts organisations such as Shape Arts, as a Disability Adviser for UAL, and as a creative access lead at Turf Projects (an artist-led space based in Croydon). Jhinuk has been a Board Director for the Association of Illustrators since 2021. She currently teaches on the Inclusive Practices unit of UAL’s PG Cert as well as being cross-programme lecturer for the Illustration programme at Camberwell College.