Time for a change

n.b. In this post, I will use the terms ‘people of colour’ and ‘BAME’ to describe myself and others. These are terms which I am comfortable with, but not everybody likes them, and everyone has the right to be described in whichever way they choose. If you’re not sure: ask.

Teachers are the most resilient, creative, empowered people I know. We see a problem, and we find our own solution. We had a lack of agency and decent CPD, so a flourishing grassroots movement started around a decade ago, and everything from huge conferences to tiny teachmeets sprung up around the country. We took ownership of the problem and came together as a profession to do something brilliant. I’m proud of that. I’m proud of us.

The time has come again for us to make a collective effort for change. We are sitting inside a crucible and it us up to us to decide what we become when we finally emerge.

Under our previous grassroots CPD systems, there were marginalised groups. These fit broadly into two categories:

1. The practical/financial penalty: people who, for personal reasons, struggle to pay for and attend a weekend conference.

Consider parents of young children, particularly mothers, who have already taken a hit to their career and professional development because of the time taken out on parental leave. Disabled colleagues face greater challenges travelling and ensuring that venues are accessible for them. Colleagues who are struggling financially (or NQTs and early career teachers on lower pay) may not have the luxury of shelling out for tickets AND travel/accommodation costs. Consider also the advantage gap in the profession based on location – colleagues teaching in, say, a poor coastal community in the North East, have far fewer opportunities to attend high quality events which take place in big cities, and mostly in the South, often London. That means that they have to consider costs which are over and above those of their colleagues who teach in the capital.

In June 2019, my friend Zara and I had a night away to attend a conference in Peterborough. We were both speakers at the event. We both live in Leeds, are both comfortable financially, and both had husbands who would be at home with our kids. We met at Leeds station, posh coffees in hand, enjoyed a leisurely couple of hours on the train (#mumsontour), rocked up at our very nice AirBnB, went for a lovely breakfast in the morning (kid-free!), then spent the whole day at the conference learning, networking and enjoying time with our colleagues. We went to the pub with the delegates before jumping on the train back to Leeds. It was bliss.

Now, imagine that, instead of living in a well connected city like Leeds, we actually lived in Scarborough (beautiful, but hard to access on public transport). Imagine that one of us was a single parent of a small toddler. Imagine that the train fare, accommodation and food out (easily £200 each) was actually the same as our entire budget for miscellaneous family expenses for a month. That trip, despite its huge professional value, would likely have been deemed impossible.

The conference game, as we knew it, was one for the privileged to play.

The incredible flourishing of more accessible CPD as providers and conferences have moved online in recent months has been a revelation to many. I have been contacted by colleagues all over about my own CPD sessions this summer, “I never normally get to see people speak because I’m in the Highlands”, “…because I’m a carer for my mum,” “…because I can’t get childcare,” “…because I can’t travel,” “…because I teach abroad and there aren’t any events here.”

Moving online, recording sessions and allowing people to access them whenever and wherever suits, is a standard which we cannot now change. People have had a taste of how it can work for them, and we must all now demand that our colleagues are never left out in the cold again.

The second marginalised group poses a much more complex challenge.

2. The race penalty: people from BAME communities are underrepresented as speakers and delegates at teaching events

This is a fact. There are far fewer black and brown faces on panels, leading workshops and giving keynotes. This is a problem. Twitter has long been awash with spats about race, representation and marginalisation in the world of teacher social media and professional development. Some have been short lived, and some continue to rumble on – there is a tension in the ether. That tension is the result of a lack of education and understanding of critical race theory and the reality of racist and anti-racist policy and behaviours. I am going to attempt to explain as clearly as possible here:

“I’m not racist” – this statement implies that someone is neutral in the face of racism. Their actions are not racist, they don’t judge or discriminate. They aren’t doing anything wrong.

This is a fallacy. If an entire system is oppressing one group, our neutrality does nothing but sustain that system. If we are ‘not racist’, we are not actively doing anything to change that system, we are allowing it to exist in the hope that it might change gradually by itself…

“I’m anti-racist” – this statement means that someone actively combats systems and attitudes which oppress people because of their race. They speak out when they see and hear things which are unjust, and they take actions to dismantle systems which sustain white privilege.

The only way to work in a positive way is to be anti-racist. Being anti-racist is tiring, it requires us to be more than neutral – to go beyond what is comfortable. For me, being anti-racist means acknowledging that, though I am a person of colour, I have benefited from the privilege of being light skinned. I have to acknowledge the fact that women with darker skin than me have a far more difficult barrier to overcome in the professional sphere. I am given regular opportunities to speak at conferences, on podcasts, to write and have my voice heard. These are experiences which many of my BAME colleagues never see. Let us explore why this happens…

When we organise a conference, we tend to look around for ‘the best’ people in the field – people who have written books, or who have been seen at other conferences. We might ask people on Twitter for their recommendations (this happens a lot). When people give recommendations, the same names always crop up.

This is also played out in the usual Twitter love-ins – a new teacher joins Twitter and says “who should I follow?” and they are inundated with lists of recommended tweeters. These are great suggestions filled with excellent teachers and supportive tweeters, but these lists very rarely contain PoC, and if they do, it is even rarer to see black African or black Caribbean educators being promoted. This isn’t a conscious decision – people don’t deliberately exclude these educators. The problem is that they often don’t KNOW who they are! If you don’t SEE them, you don’t go on to promote them.

This means that the same people (me included) are being promoted again and again, to the detriment of other people who have the potential to contribute important expertise and perspectives to the debate. I’ve been doing the same for years – recommending the same people without considering how diverse these recommendations are. If I want to be anti-racist, I must actively seek out educators from underrepresented groups to include in my recommendations. I must make an effort to promote the voices and experiences of others, and if I don’t I am supporting a system which excludes people of colour and, indeed, people from other marginalised groups.

None of this is new – the profession knows it is happening, and people are actively seeking to educate themselves (like I said at the start, teachers are amazing people). The current climate is an opportunity for us to change forever the way we operate and to ensure that, in our professional spaces at least, our BAME colleagues are explicitly brought in, heard and valued.

How can we make a change? Here are some suggestions…

  • Actively seek out BAME educators to follow on Twitter (there is a list to get you started on the BAMEed website here)
  • When you are tweeting out a list of follow recommendations, ask yourself if any of those recommendations are PoC. If there are none, consider how you might be more inclusive.
  • If you are organising conferences and events, make an effort to approach BAME speakers – many people do not put themselves forward as speakers because they do not feel that some conferences are ‘for them’. An invitation would change that.
  • If you are lucky enough to be asked to speak at a conference, ask the organiser if they have made an effort to approach a diverse range of speakers. If they haven’t, make some suggestions or direct them to the BAMEed website.
  • If you feel that a conference organiser is not invested in fair representation, you could decline to participate. I know this is a difficult step, and that it is easy for me to advocate this as someone who already has a platform, but if we don’t take a stand, we sustain an unfair system. If people make it clear that equity is important to them, things will begin to change.

Our profession is incredible. Teachers see injustices and seek to right them. They seek to close gaps, to right the wrongs of an imperfect society. We hold ourselves to high standards and make difficult choices for the benefit of our charges. We must now extend that care to our colleagues. We must look after each other. Let’s not lose the lessons we have learned this these extraordinary months of turmoil.

By re-designing the way we provide CPD, networking and conferences, we can be fully inclusive and move our profession forward without leaving valued colleagues behind.

Call me a ‘ball-breaker’ one more time…

This is a re-post of a blog I wrote for WomenEd in February 2019.

A couple of years ago, a male colleague introduced me to someone as a ‘ball-breaker’. He looked at me and smiled, clearly intending this as a compliment, and went on to make a joke about how even he was a little scared of me sometimes. ‘Ball-breaker’. It makes me uncomfortable. It’s a phrase which implies that the subject is aggressive, and has the power (and tendency) to emasculate men. It implies that the subject is brutal, perhaps destructive. I don’t recognise myself in any of those depictions of leadership. This phrase is also heavily gendered; you seldom hear men described in such terms.

My colleague clearly felt that he was saying something positive about me; saying I am strong and effective in the workplace. In reality, phrases like this reduce women to being defined purely by the impact they have on men. She’s not being called decisive, honest or driven; she’s being called a ‘ball-breaker’, implying that all she does is dominate men and, no matter what she achieves professionally, it is only notable through the lens of how men feel about her leadership. If she makes a decision which a male colleague would not have made, she metaphorically ‘breaks’ his ‘balls’ – he is not the one in control and he is therefore rendered useless. She has done that; the ‘ball-breaker.’
If a man had done it, everyone else’s ‘balls’ would have remained in tact but, because she is a woman in leadership, she leaves a trail of emasculated colleagues in her wake.

How ridiculous. Continue reading “Call me a ‘ball-breaker’ one more time…”

Wellbeing: the subtle art of saying “no”; saying “not yet”, and asking the right questions…

Reading time: 5 minutes

As the dark winter months close in around us, I am seeing a lot more in my Twitter feed about wellbeing and people who are seriously struggling with very challenging work environments.

I have been a teacher for 10 years. My first 5 years were spent working in the wrong way; I made myself incredibly ill every year, and one year I actually fainted back stage after a theatre trip through sheer exhaustion. Working every hour of the day did not make me a better teacher; it made me intolerant, frantic, and did not help my marriage. It also wasn’t really the fault of the schools I worked for – I fell for the ridiculous but attractive idea that I was fed as a trainee; to teach is to be a martyr and change lives by sacrificing your own. WARNING: This is dangerous nonsense. Continue reading “Wellbeing: the subtle art of saying “no”; saying “not yet”, and asking the right questions…”

What I have learned as a pregnant teacher…

Pregnancy is a wonderful thing which, for us, did not come easily. As a new head of department, it has been an especially difficult time for me; balancing the stresses of exam preparation, coursework and leadership with the very profound concerns of becoming a first time parent is pretty overwhelming. I am constantly trying to reconcile my anxieties and neuroses with my happiness and excitement. I firmly believe that open and honest reflection makes us better in all
aspects of life, and I hope that this post might shine some light on this crazy journey so that other expectant mums in the teaching world might feel slightly less alone. It really is an incredible time, but that doesn’t negate the fact that it is also scary, isolating and unpredictable.

Pregnancy is hard. Probably the hardest thing I have ever done (and I still have two months to go!!!). Your body takes over and no amount of planning, reading or preparation can change the fact that you are no longer the master of your own destiny. This is a scary thing if you’re a control freak like me. Continue reading “What I have learned as a pregnant teacher…”

The Dyslexic English Teacher

dyslexic_fun_bigIt was only after I had got through GCSEs, A Levels, an English Degree and my PGCE year that I discovered I am dyslexic. My particular brand of dyslexia manifests itself in letter, number and colour recognition. In other words, I misread words, struggle to recognise spelling errors (including my own), read more slowly than average, and have struggled for years with my handwriting. The fact that I am an English teacher just adds to the fun. Continue reading “The Dyslexic English Teacher”

Things I wish I’d known before my first week in teaching…

I am just about to start my sixth year as a teacher, and was having a chat with a family friend who is about to start his NQT year. As he picked my brains over coffee and told me all of the things he was worrying about already, I realised how much I wish I’d known when I had started five years ago. This is pretty simple stuff, but is not intended to be patronising –  in my first week on the job, I struggled to see past my own fear and focus on the things I could control. I hope some of these ideas are useful…

The first week – no need for bells and whistles:

Scott-660x330Don’t dwell too much on overly complicated lessons with 8 parts and all-singing, all-dancing resources. There is no way you’ll get through what you think you will, and you will exhaust yourself with planning before you even start. Just make sure that each first lesson with a new class is solid, and that you give them a chance to get to know you and what you expect in your classroom. Continue reading “Things I wish I’d known before my first week in teaching…”

What I’ve learned from spending a year in the right school…

Young teachers are leaving our profession in droves; between 40-50% have left the classroom by their fifth year. I am just finishing my fifth year in teaching and, despite some monumental challenges over the past 12 months, I am loving my job. I hope this doesn’t come across as a sickening, self-congratulatory blog about how much I love my job, and I am not expecting a pat on the back; I just wonder whether my experience this year could help those 40-50% who are on the edge and struggling to find their motivation again. Continue reading “What I’ve learned from spending a year in the right school…”

Apparently, I will do anything for a nice pen…

When I was approached by @Pen_Heaven about the #backtobasics challenge, I’ll be honest, at the words, “we will send you a free fountain pen”, I was pretty much sold. Abiding closely to the girly, female English teacher stereotype, I am a lover of all things stationery, and have wasted a LOT of time drooling over things in Paperchase which I literally cannot live without.

I am dyslexic, and have always struggled with my own handwriting. For years students have found my scrawl difficult to read, and so over the summer holidays this year, I tasked myself with re-training myself to write so that my script is both legible and vaguely attractive. Switching to a good quality fountain pen over the last week has noticeably accelerated my progress, making my script more fluent and smooth. Continue reading “Apparently, I will do anything for a nice pen…”

What I learned from spending a year in the wrong school…

Teaching is my vocation. I love my job and the challenges it brings, but in the past year I have questioned my planning, decision making, relationships and my worth as a teacher. This post is not going to be a rant about the school or an attempt to air my grievances; I’m not angry, and that would be neither helpful nor interesting to anybody. This post is an attempt to think through some of the lessons I’ve learned about school environments and the importance of finding the right match for the right teacher.

When I was an idealistic PGCE student, I took a job in a private school. My staunch Labour family were horrified, and demanded to know why I was ‘betraying my roots’ and ‘working with the enemy’. My answer was simple: ‘all kids are the same, why does it make any difference?’ Continue reading “What I learned from spending a year in the wrong school…”

My battle with “teacher talk”, plus tips for winning the skirmishes.

I am, fundamentally, a performer. I thrive when in the lime light and love to entertain my students but, if I’m really honest, I must admit that sometimes I run the risk of it all being about me and not about them. I have been a singer since my dad first took me busking (probably as soon as I could stand independently), and am now a semi-professional soprano. When I first started teaching, I thought this would go in my favour. I thought; I’m confident… surely that makes me a good teacher, right? Wrong.

As an NQT I was exhausting myself with whizzy lessons which relied on my personality and humour to carry them through. I could be every character in the play, the proposition and opposition, and always prided myself in sending them away buzzing and eager for more. Continue reading “My battle with “teacher talk”, plus tips for winning the skirmishes.”