Don’t Tuck In Your Labels

I am the woman that always has a clothes label sticking out somewhere.  In any given day, some kindly person will reach behind me and tuck it in.  And I, without fail, will apologise for that label and the fact that someone had to decide what to do with me.

You see, clothes labels are really useful things.  They tell you what to do with the item.  How to take care of it – how to fix the item if it is damaged in some way.  It stays there as a reminder that the item needs to be nurtured.  Lots of us become irritated by them – how many times have we cut the label out because we can’t forget it is there – perhaps it’s rubbing against our skin, making us feel uncomfortable.  I do it all the time with the vain hope that people will not have to fix me up and make me presentable.

I have made many jokes over the years at various conference about winning the competition on how many labels I have.  We categorise people in so many different ways and I have seen it as a laughing matter.  So when I was thinking about my labels, I decided to create a pie chart of the make up of me.  Mostly just in case my Maths teacher is watching – my Maths GCSE started with 30 mins of me panicking because I had forgotten how to draw a pie chart.  

So if you want to see what my clothes label says – this is me.  

 

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It took a long time to decide how much of me I could allocate to the different labels.  I am a woman.  Quite considerably so, according the number here.  I am also equally Asian.  It gets harder when I have to decide just how much of me is on the LBGT spectrum.  I define as bisexual and have been in a relationship with a woman for a long time.  All of these categories I have become comfortable with – while I know they present me with challenges, I have spent my life getting to know them.

I have come to know myself as a Gryffindor too.  This is not in jest.  I will not have anyone disagree.  I’ve taken the test.

It is my last label that is more recent and perhaps the one I struggle with the most.  I learned not long ago that I have hearing loss in both ears and it is more pronounced in my left ear.  I will be wearing a hearing aid soon to help me function in loud spaces, to help me understand what people are saying when I can’t see their faces.

I mean, I know I’m a woman and can’t lift heavy things or be in charge of a boardroom.  I know that I am Asian and therefore should probably be teaching Science and not English.  I know that I am bisexual and this means I am greedy/just not willing to admit I am gay.  

But I was not prepared to be disabled, albeit in a small way.  In some ways I have to confront here my own misgivings about having a hearing impairment in a profession that is built on listening to children in order to teach them.  I sat in a car park and cried.  Because this female, Asian, bi person didn’t want another label – especially one that could literally mean people think I cannot do my job.  How many glass ceilings for me?

It has taken time to adjust to it.  It chafed.  I could feel it rubbing.  But I have left it there because it gives people another way to know me.

Some people will say: if we take away all labels, we can just be people.  I absolutely agree.  I want to be able to teach without any of those.  At the risk of sounding like a below the line Daily Mail commentator, stop going on about your labels – it creates the victim complex.  It’s not important to the way you teach, so just shut up and get on with it.  Identity politics creates resentment. I resent you and your labels.

I don’t think any of us walk around with our labels on our sleeves.  If teaching is a profession in which your authentic self is required for children and adults alike to connect and know you, if it a profession in which people are the centre then I do not want to lie, either overtly or by omission.  

The average 18-44 year old lies twice a day.  I am sure that you are sitting there thinking – well that’s low.  I can smash that statistic by 9am in the morning on any given school day.  But the lies I tell because I have to are now starting to grate.  

There are things I can’t say, choose not to say, places I won’t ever visit with my partner – and it is exhausting making  all of those decisions about who I can be when I am simultaneously juggling the demands of the curriculum, behaviour, marking, meetings, paperwork.  Wouldn’t it just be easier for me and more real for the students if I didn’t have to think about my pronouns so carefully?  Or worry about who is going to see me with my partner in the local area?  

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I spoke recently about the curriculum and how having diverse voices delivering content doesn’t take away from what we teach our students – when we teach the Ramayana or about Malian women’s contributions to local industry, we are not saying do not teach about Wordsworth or Dickens.  Perhaps as a female, Asian, bisexual, disabled Gryffindor, I can enrich rather than detract.  Hiring me, allowing me to be free within a role, means a better education.  Not because I am better.  But because I can bring my knowledge and still teach yours really quite well.  There is enough oxygen for all of our stories, told with pride. Authenticity in teachers allows students to understand humanity in all of its guises.  We actively prevent learning when we lie, when we omit.  

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I have seen this quotation many times and it occurs to me that I no longer see it as being about other people.  I see it as being about myself and about all of us that walk in different shoes.  My silence about about me is collusion.  I am colluding with the oppressor.  It is unjust that I should be quiet, tuck in my labels to make everyone else feel comfortable, staff, students, parents alike.  In remaining silent and not celebrating or sharing all of me as I am, I am complicit.  

How can any of these things happen when we are silent?

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I am not asking anyone to stand up and shout from the rooftops about their sexuality, disability, gender or heritage.  But I am asking you to stand, metaphorically speaking.  And speak about your truths without fear.  And perhaps, when you feel brave enough because you have a room full of people willing to support you – to act, in the way that makes you feel that you are authentic.

So, if you see me again and my labels are sticking out.  Maybe don’t tuck them in.

Closing keynote: Diverse Educators Conference, 6th January 2018 

clothes label

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Immigrants Speaking English? Again?

Chuka Umunna’s assertion that migrants need to learn English to avoid living parallel lives is most disconcerting. I heard this assertion over two years ago from less savoury quarters and was moved to comment on it at length. I won’t repeat what I said, as tempting as it is, you can read that for yourselves. When Sajid Javid proffered a similar point in 2014, I was embarrassed to see a man from an ethnic minority background with his feet firmly under the desk waving a stop sign to immigrants following in the same path as Javid’s family. It is not the first time I had heard a person of colour saying that new immigrants to the nation must meet a standard that they themselves had not been set, and it won’t be the last time either.

What irks me this time is that it is Labour minister making the assertion and it irks me on several levels. Let me explain. I am painfully aware, as a Labour voter, of the pressure the party is under to be something new, to reincarnate under a messianic leader and to be a credible opposition to a government that has had very little contest in the time it has taken to sort out who’s in charge at Labour HQ. But is this where the Labour Party is going? Did someone send a memo that said Nigel Farage is doing okay with voters in the north and I think we should put out statements that sort of sound like him?

One of the problems with Chuka Umunna’s declaration is that he is a bit late to the party. The Casey Review was commissioned over a year ago by the Prime Minister and Home Secretary, with a remit to investigate integration and opportunity in isolated and deprived communities. The review was released in December 2016. In its 199 pages, it outlined the reasons why learning English if you are new to the country is a good idea. It outlined clearly and with a sense of compassion that life is much harder for immigrants that do not speak English. No one can argue with that.

Take this and the fact that government policy on requirements for immigrants to speak English to be able to gain citizenship or leave to remain seems to be fairly clear – and I am left wondering: why bring this up now, Mr Umunna? Visit www.gov.uk and check the pages on immigration. It’s there. There’s a 15-page list of where you can take the tests to prove your English proficiency before or after you arrive.

So who is Chuka Umunna talking about? What kind of migrant? Refugees? The government have declared they are exempt from the requirement. Transient economic migrants? How do you enforce compulsory classes on a transient population? Established communities living parallel lives, then. I would argue that it would be even harder – and more expensive – to enforce language classes on high-ethnic minority concentration areas such as Bradford. Not because I think people would be unwilling. Immigrants do want to be able to communicate. But there isn’t a solution to that until somebody coughs up the money it would take to cover it. And who is going to explain that to austerity Britain, already chomping at the bit, that tax payers’ money is being spent on funding for immigrant language classes? I would volunteer, but I’m too busy trying to work out how to provide a quality education to students while the Conservative government merrily chips away at the finances.

Crucially, how do you make it happen when two years ago funding for ESOL delivery was slashed – in fact, when funding for ESOL has halved since 2009? I doff my hat to Sajid Javid for finding £20 million for ESOL for Muslim women, who are less likely to learn to speak English than other newcomers. But it doesn’t fix the gaping hole in ESOL funding. It’s still staring at us, while we stare at already marginalised communities and demand that they learn to speak properly.

That’s why Chuka Umunna’s lack of clarity makes me uneasy. That and the fervent desire to hear a leader say something refreshing and new about the society in which we all live and work. Focusing on immigrants speaking English, without a clear funding plan and without having considered the current government’s stance on this, seems a little pointless. Dear Labour Party: give me more than rehashed UKIP fodder, with a side of Conservative Javid.

Originally published as ‘It Costs Money to Teach Immigrants English, Mr Umunna’ on Huffington Post UK

Edbite: Verbal Feedback Self Audit and the Drill Down Teachers

This is the first of a new series of mini-posts sharing the work I have been doing in developing teaching and learning, through a weekly forum and bulletin, observation and feedback.

If feedback be the food of love, verbalise on…

So ignoring the tenuous Shakespeare reference, I’ve been scribbling down some ideas on how to develop verbal feedback. It’s my teaching and learning forum topic of the week.

In all the observations I carry out, there is a striking difference between the teacher that nails it year in and year out in terms of outcomes for students.  This is the teacher who understands how to orchestrate the best verbal feedback.  The teacher who gives feedback like their life depends on it. The teacher who can turn the feedback into molten gold.

I call this kind of teacher the ‘Drill Down’ teacher.  They take a response and drill down into the core of it.  You can tell when you watch the Drill Down teacher that they have heard the student response and these questions are going through their heads:

  1. Is it correct?
  2. How correct is it?
  3. How might it be more correct?
  4. What’s the flaw?
  5. What’s missing?
  6. What’s the misconception?
  7. How can I show them without just telling them?
  8. What do they need to be able to do?
  9. What are the stages of this learning?

Bear in mind I’m not talking here about quick-fire recall questions here.  When students give a opinion or process response, that’s the pivot moment that tilts to stagnation or to progress.  Learning is most visible in these moments.

What kind of verbal feedback do you give?  How do you get even better at it?  The Verbal Feedback Audit attached here is useful for you as an individual to review your practice, or as a tool for development of groups of teachers. I’ll be combining it with filmed practice from an experienced teacher, asking less experienced teachers to analyse the ways in which effective feedback is given.

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effective-verbal-feedback-strategy

 

 

The Red Pledge

I’m about to make people uncomfortable.  If you’re of a sensitive disposition, or if you’ve ever said the words “why can’t we have a men’s movement/party/international day?”, then it’s probably best to look away now. We can’t talk about leadership of schools without talking periods.

There.  Did you squirm?  Did you move away from the computer screen (checking your seat surreptitiously as you did so?) Look, I have some questions for my female colleagues on this most female of issues.  As women leaders, I’d like you to ponder on the following questions.

1) Does your institution provide free pads/tampons for staff? (And stop calling them ‘sanitary items’!) In my experience, if you’ve been caught short and you work in the back end of beyond, then nipping out to the shops is pretty much a no-go.  Why haven’t you demanded that this essential item be provided and staff told where they are?  Dispensers would do, right? Can’t we at least ask someone?

2) How does your organisation make provision for menstruation-related illness? How many times have you gone to work in agony, thinking I’ll just take some painkillers and I’ll be fine?  I’ve known vomiters, fainters, heavy bleeders, pelvic pain heroes and all sorts.  No where is it noted that leave relating to menstruation is acceptable.  What if we have a clause in sickness policies that if you have a genuinely horrific experience every month, you won’t be hauled in to the HR office to discuss your absence that morning, that day, that afternoon when you thought your insides were making a swift, sharp exit?

3) Gynaecological issues.  I have a misbehaving uterus.  This summer I experienced a hystersoscopy without anaesthetic and I thought I was dying.  I had to wait until a holiday to have it done, because I knew I’d have to take time off to find a rogue Mirena coil and that it would bloody hurt.  Could I have done that in term time without struggling to explain that a piece of plastic was lost in my nether region to my male headteacher? I’d like to think so. But I would have been mortified doing so.  What do we do as women leaders to make it easier to have these discussions?

I appreciate that not everyone experiences menstruation and gynaecological issues in quite the same way as I do – we are unique flowers after all. But when do we start making it easier for women to talk about all of this? When do we start feeling like we can without feeling like wilting reeds?

Join me in my Red Tent to discuss.  Bring your own incense and rags. And pledge to speak more openly about periods with everyone.

Where are the Female Headteachers?

I decided to go out on a Tuesday night in the middle of exam season.  Before you get carried away with a largely inappropriate vision of me out on the proverbial, my days of wearing purple wigs and sashaying the night away to trance music are long behind me.  My idea of a night out these days involves some sort of teaching event that carries the promise of a glass of wine or two and sure enough, one came along last week in the form of a panel event organised by Teach First on ‘Women in Leadership: Education, Business and Beyond’.  I was happy to accept their invite to be a panel member, alongside Hannah Wilson, one of the co-founders of the WomenEd movement and Henrietta Baldock- Chairman of European Financial Institutions at Bank of America Merrill Lynch – one of Teach First’s partner organisations.  We were ably chaired by Fiona Rawes, the Director of Community Impact at Teach First, who ensured that as many voices were heard as possible at this important event.

We dealt with two official questions on the night, as well as a raft of well-thought out and provoking ones from an audience that was made up of about 100 women in teaching and business and precisely 2 men.  Hannah and I wryly noted that had the event been entitled: ‘Leadership: Education, Business and Beyond’, there may have been a greater balance between male and female delegates.  I do wonder whether taking out the gendered title at these events is the right thing to do.  We were due to talk about the lack of female headteachers and how to raise aspirations in the girls we teach.  To me and many of the women in the room, this isn’t an exclusively female issue.  As the night progressed, the ideas became more and more central: for more women to enter into positions of responsibility in schools, in businesses and in politics, support from male colleagues is essential.

When I left, I realised we had covered so much in the time given to us as panellists that it would be hard to capture all the ideas and questions in one place.  What I can do is provide a run-down of my points in response to the main questions.  And possibly leave with you with more questions to consider.

Question 1

Recent figures, released by the Future Leaders Trust, show that the overall proportion of women taking on headteacher positions is not reflected by the number of women in the workforce. A government report on the school workforce in England, issued in 2014, showed that the state education sector is 74% female, yet only 65% of headteachers are women. If these percentages were equal, there would over 1,500 more female headteachers in the UK – a number that the Future Leaders Trust believes could potentially fill many long-standing headship vacancies.

Recent research by the Guardian showed there are more men called John running FTSE 100 companies than all thfemale bosses put together. Among chief executives and chairs of FTSE 100 companies, there were 17 men called John (or Jean) – and seven women.

What in your view is the most important way we could influence a change with leadership positions?

In a groundbreaking study in 1975, Don Zimmerman and Candace West tracked the interruption rates in conversations between men and women.  The study can be read in its entirety at the link provided but the findings can be summarised succinctly in these tables:

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Source: Zimmerman/West, 1975

Interruptions are interesting interaction mechanisms.  They serve to assert dominance and control in a conversation.  Ask a Year 10 student how Lady Macbeth asserts her dominance over her husband in Macbeth and she will tell you that she interrupts and questions.  It is ironic that she is seen as a manifestation of a witch for doing so and ‘corrected’ at the end of the play for her foolish attempt to control her husband and usurp the Elizabethan natural order.  The rota fortunae turns. Exit Lady Macbeth.  And yet we have a study here that shows that mixed gender conversations are rife with interruption.

How does this contribute to our understanding of where all the female headteachers are?  I explained that the results of this study, and all of the subsequent studies that proved the same phenomenon, are still being played out in education institutions and businesses today.  Women make up the majority of the teaching workforce and disappear as you climb the ranks into senior leadership, headship and governance – a fact reinforced by Warwick Mansell in The Guardian here.  If the daily experience of leadership in schools for women is working in environments not only physically, but verbally dominated by male colleagues, then why would anyone want to do it?  It is exhausting and demoralising.  And we might not even be aware of the issue and the reason why.

Rather than just pose the problem and pondered, I spoke about solutions.  The solution doesn’t involve flinging down your meeting agenda and storming out of the room, neither does it involve shouting louder than your interruptor.  It is the rain that grows flowers, not the thunder (thanks Rumi).  Women have to train themselves to deal with interruption so they can be heard.

If this was the only problem then we’d be fine because women would just do this and make progress.  I talked about ‘Askers and Guessers’ at the WomenEd Unconference in last year and I came back to the topic on Tuesday night.  I read Oliver Burkeman’s article in The Guardian a long time ago and was citing the concept of Askers vs Guessers as his idea.  Only on re-reading the article last week did I notice that the original idea came from Andrea Donderi, a woman, on a discussion forum. Irony klaxon.

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The idea is simple. And it resonates with me as a female leader so completely because I am a Guesser.  I have waited for promotion and hoped someone would notice my work and assumed that if I just worked harder, longer, better, then I would be promoted.  And I stalled.  This wasn’t a result of male oppression.  This was me, not realising I could move into being an Asker.

 

If we want more women in headships, or being CEOs of MATs and global banking institutions, we have to coach and mentor them to be confident Askers.

Question 2

Looking to the next generation, it was reported last week that sexist bullying in schools is inhibiting girls from putting up their hands and speaking out in class because they fear appearing “swotty and clever”. Teach First works in collaboration with other organisations on The Fair Education Impact Goals. Goal 3 is – Ensure young people
develop key strengths, including resilience and wellbeing, to support high aspirations.
A recent report on data taken from pupils at Teach First partner schools explored this too – When asked if they felt comfortable asking questions in class, boys’ replies were between 8 and 11 percentage points higher than girls’. When asked “I am confident in my ability to learn what is being taught” girls’ responses were between 5 and 6 percentage points lower than boys.
 
What can we do to as figures of authority – mentors, line managers, teachers etc – to ensure we foster self-confidence and high aspirations in girls and young women?
I did almost fall out of my seat, so keen was I to answer this one.
Young women already have high aspirations.  The evidence shows that girls have systematically reported higher aspirations than their male peers for years.  They outperform boys.  The issue is not in aspiration.  Somewhere along the line, those aspirations fizzle and it is job as educational professionals to work why a girl who aspires to be an astronaut at the age of 10 not only fails to become one, but actively rejects the idea that she might be one.
I go back to interruptions here.  Because the study on interruptions does not apply only to adults in educational or corporate environments.  Kieran Snyder has continued to look at the phenomenon since Zimmerman and West started the process.  In this article, we can see that the interruption process – the assertion of dominance in conversation and discussion – starts at a very young age.  Snyder discovered the pre-schooler girls are much more likely to be interrupted by their male peers and the more boys there are, the more the interruption rate goes up.  How does this apply to teachers?  I was astonished to read that teachers reinforce the model of interruption in the classroon and reinforce gender stereotypes – both belittling female ability in the STEM subjects and belittling male ability in languages and arts. We are literally creating exactly the kind of society we want to avoid.
Is it any surprise then, as the article from Kieran Snyder suggests, girls are 1.5 times more likely to study STEM subjects if taught in single-sex environments?  I can imagine that the gender stereotyping, the interruptions, the fight for dominance, is less of an issue.  I am conflicted on the benefits of single-sex education, but these ideas are hard to ignore.
I made my views clear on how we raise levels of confidence – and I think this might be the basis of another article entirely – but we are not going to foster self-confidence if we send girls home en masse for uniform infringements.  The recent sending home of 29 girls because the length of their skirts didn’t meet with the approval of their headteacher not only reinforced the sexualisation of those girls, it suggested that their education was less important than the poor boys who may have been distracted or titillated by their ungodly flesh.
We are actively showing girls there is no point in aspiring.  We are doing it ourselves by interrupting them.  We are telling them that what they look like in the classroom is more important than the contents of their minds.
Teachers need to manage their unconscious biases on appearance and sexuality and all teachers – male of female – have to manage their interruption biases too.
I finished my answer to this question by citing my favourite documentary of recent years.  In Miss Representation, the phrases “you can’t be what you can’t see’ is used repeatedly.  Our girls need to see that women can take on roles and responsibilities at a high level. What do they see in school?  Chances are they see a male CEO of the MAT, a male headteacher, a mix of genders at senior and middle leadership and a hell of a lot of female teaching assistants.  The schools workforce data in 2014 shows that 91% of teaching assistants were female.  The message is clear.  There are jobs for the boys and jobs for the girls.
We are only applying for jobs if we are certain we can fulfil every aspect of the job spec.  And girls can’t be what they can’t see.  We have to step up.