Named the most inspirational and powerful women of the year by 'The Telegraph' - Mehreen Baig - a former teacher and trailblazing broadcaster - chats to Female First about her debut novel - which shines a light on the UK’s educational system - as well as being an advocate for women's issues and mental health.

Mehreen Baig shares her time as a teacher and the impact on schools due to the pandemic.
Mehreen Baig shares her time as a teacher and the impact on schools due to the pandemic.

You have recently released your first book ‘Hidden Lessons: Growing Up on The Frontline of Teaching’ – Could you tell our readers a little bit about this?

'Hidden Lessons' is part-memoir, part-social commentary and in it, I recount my decade in the classroom (which correlated with the decade of austerity in Britain) and explore what those ten years taught me about race, feminism, social mobility, through the students I met and the families I worked with. It's the story of a 21-year-old working class, British Asian girl going into the workplace, thinking she will save the world - but knowing very little about the world - and it's her journey as she finds her feet and finds her voice, before leaving as a 30-year-old woman. 

What was your inspiration for this book?

During the pandemic, education was suddenly thrust into the headlines. With home schooling and the results fiasco, everyone was talking about schools and teachers, and everyone became an education expert. But I was surprised at how much opinion came from such little place of understanding. I come from a family of teachers - my brother and sister are both teachers too - and I saw firsthand how hard teachers worked throughout that unprecedented time. They deserved some sort of acknowledgement, some sort of appreciation. I didn't want to write a book preaching and lecturing people, but I knew one thing I could do was share my authentic experiences about my time in teaching to raise some sort of awareness what the job actually entails. Equally, I had so many students get in touch with me who were really struggling during lockdown due to a variety of reasons - whether that was an inability to access their lessons or being stuck in dangerous situations at home - and I wanted to bring their stories to the forefront as well. it's about time we celebrated both teachers and young people for their resilience and indomitable spirit. It is more important now than ever. 

As a former teacher – How do you feel about the current education system?

One benefit of the current education system is the social interaction students get - young people get the opportunity to mix and interact with people from different cultural and social backgrounds and that integration is really important for social cohesion and a sense of community in the adult world. So, when it's done well, it's really significant. The current British school system also provides a strong educational foundation where every child has access to some form of education for free. However, there is a huge disparity between the state sector and private sector - issues like teacher retention rates, student outcomes (Russell Group universities, Oxbridge), expanded class sizes, unmanageable teacher workload, can all only improve through funding. The government must invest in schools and teachers to get some sort of parity between the state and private sector and to ensure that all young people have an equal chance of success. We also need to look at what is actually being taught in schools, putting less emphasis on training students for exams and instead teach them skills that will support students in their later lives when they have left school. 

Do you feel the pandemic will have impacted children and their education?

Definitely - there were many children who did not have access to their lessons because of not having a device or adequate wifi, whilst others were stuck in challenging situations at home, whereas there were many students who were being taught live lessons and will have access to tutors and inevitably have a head start. This disparity in education is not new but was exacerbated by the pandemic - and teachers do not get any additional time to help the students catch up, they just have been told to do it on top of their already impossible workload.

Being a strong advocate for women’s issues - having fronted your own documentary ‘Islam, Women and Me’ – how was this experience and what did it teach you?

'Islam, Women and Me' was the first ever documentary that I led so it was a really special experience for me that I will never forget. I definitely felt a lot of pressure as Muslim and Asian women are barely ever represented on mainstream television, so when you are visible, it is inevitable that you face much more scrutiny and judgement beyond what any other presenter would. But getting a range of female voices and perspectives out there is so important; there are so many people living in parts of Britain who have never ever met a Muslim woman before - people whose ideologies are based around the sensationalised and stereotypical depictions they see on the news - and so for them, simply listening to an authentic voice conveying they lived experience is groundbreaking. Of course, it is impossible to cover everything Islam - or any religion - teaches about the role of women in 45 minutes, but it's a start, and I am proud that I was a part of it. 

You are also passionate about self-love and the impact on mental health – What advice would you give to women who compare themselves to societal expectations of beauty?

Society is always trying to put women into boxes - boxes of how we expect them to live and act and dress and behave and be. Social media encourages this - women have turned into "brands" where they have to decide what they want to be known for and match every post to that image. We have stopped seeing women as human beings who are multifaceted and complex and nuanced. We have to remember that the world created on social media is illusory and superficial which breeds unrealistic expectations for looks and lifestyles and puts pressure on women to match their real lives to the edited highlights of others. I have been on both sides and can tell you that it is far better for your mental health to live in those moments and be present than aspire to reach this unattainable goal.

Do you have any other projects in the pipeline?

I have a 'Hidden Lessons' podcast coming soon, where I speak to interesting celebrities about their time at school, all the things they learnt and how their school experience shaped who they are today - and I am so excited about it! And of course, I would love to see 'Hidden Lessons' on screen... so watch this space!

'Hidden Lessons' delves into the current education system and shares first hand experiences of teaching.
'Hidden Lessons' delves into the current education system and shares first hand experiences of teaching.


‘Hidden Lessons: Growing Up on The Frontline of Teaching’ is out now.

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