Sometimes it feels like the world genuinely believes that racism is something that doesn’t *really* exist. Or if it ever did, it is something that you find in the pages of a history book.
But it’s not true, is it?
Over coffee the other day, my friends and I spoke in disbelief about the fact that anti-semitism actually exists. It was almost as if we couldn’t comprehend that people still hold beliefs about Jewish people that come from ancient and medieval ages. Disbelief that the politicians we look to might also hold those beliefs. The ridiculousness of it had us laughing. But for one of my friends, it wasn’t even remotely funny. She’s Jewish.
I shouldn’t be surprised. In teaching, you only need to scratch the surface of any school environment to hear and see things that make a snowflake like me clutch my chest in horror.
You want to hear?
“I don’t want to study RS. I don’t want to learn about ninja warriors and postboxes.” Child, it turns out, was referencing Muslim women.
“How am I racist? My mother uses those words all the time. Even my dad says they are ninja warriors.” Child, on explanation that terms used might be offensive.
“There are too many Paki shops in X.” Child, referencing local area.
“He looks like the underside of a shoe.” Child, referencing a black peer.
“His house smells like black people.” Child, referencing a black person’s home.
“I’m not being racist by using the ‘n’ word. I’ve got a black pass.” Child, explaining that he can use the ‘n’ word because he has asked his black friend for a ‘pass’ to use it.
“I called him a terrorist. Because he has a name that terrorists have.” Child, speaking about a Muslim peer.
It goes on. These are recent. From different sources, but recent. And yes, children misunderstand and say things they shouldn’t because they don’t know any different, but if we fail to challenge comments like these, what’s next?
Negative perceptions about race are so embedded in our society that the dialogue about race in schools has to be open and frank.
So, what do we do?
1. Don’t shy away from calling out racism and sanctioning. Children and the adults in their lives need to know what the red lines are.
2. Explain the impact of the terminology. It helps if you have BAME staff to reference (and I know lots of schools outside major urban centres don’t).
3. Pre-empt racism by referencing BAME history and culture in the curriculum. If no one knows anything about Islam other than what’s in the mainstream media, racism will proliferate.
4. Visibly value difference. Embed openness and equity into the culture of the school.
5. Address common misconceptions – actively deconstruct racist phrases or ideas. Don’t be timid.
Timidity and tiptoeing around the issue doesn’t change societies. Only head on discussion can do that. Let me know how it goes.
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.
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.
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 the female 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:
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.
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.
“It takes two flints to make a fire.” –-Louisa May Alcott
You think you’re pretty good at your job, right? At Teach Meet London, I spoke about whether great teachers are born or made. I don’t have an answer; I want to ask the question to get people thinking about teaching and professional qualities that lead to outstanding outcomes for students. In my Teaching and Learning sessions, I want staff to consider how their professional qualities make them great – and I want them to be specific.
There are times when I will find myself seeing the qualities I have listed in people and I will be overwhelmed by how grateful I am to have them on my side. But, as with any job, I have been in situations where teams have become dysfunctional. One can use as many leadership models as one likes to analyse their staff – a team is only as strong as its weakest link. It takes individuals to step up and demonstrate professional qualities. If I was hiring a member of staff, I’d want to see the qualities I’ve listed because those are the qualities I want in myself. It’s no good as a leader writing a person specification that does not tie in with my own values.
Speaking of person specs – how many times have you seen the same qualities flagged up as essential? Organisations pilfer person and job specs, particularly in schools and end up being less than specific about the qualities they want in their teams. I’d like to actually see the list below on a person spec. At least it would be clear and precise. I want to poke out my own eyeballs when I see person specs that outline a requirement for a ‘good sense of humour’. The last thing I want on my team is someone who needs to be told how to do every part of their job, but does a stunning impression of Donald Trump in kindergarten.
The list below isn’t purely a wish list for the ideal team or team member, it’s a reminder to myself of all I want to be. I don’t think anyone can be all of the things below, all of the time – but it’s worth sharing with your teams to see whether they can remind themselves at intervals that the following qualities and professional skills make a team hum positively. And it’s worth having somewhere so you can remind yourself as a leader what you want to be as part of the team you are part of.
- Resilient – reflects on failure and self-motivates to move on
- Intuitive – senses when others are struggling and steps in
- Empathetic – is able to see the work environment from another’s perspective
- Pitches in – doesn’t need to be asked
- Optimistic – comes in with a smile and keeps shoulders up and head up
- Constructively critical – can spot where errors might be made and flags up
- Solutions focused – finds the problem and suggests the solution
- Determined – for students and the rest of the team
- Productive – often underrated – can get a lot done in the time given
- Anticipates problems – and finds ways around them before making mistakes
- Intellectual – you don’t have to be a genius, just someone who ponders, reads and knows their stuff
- Precise and careful – someone who proofreads, checks and double checks
- Independent – doesn’t need their hand holding beyond the start of a role
- Organised – plans, schedules, lists – throws them out – does it all again
When a team gets to the point where these qualities are not evident – or certainly not evident in the majority of team members, the only possible result is underperformance. And more pertinently, for education professionals, the result is good people leaving. Workload is intense, the external pressures on staff can make or break people – but in my experience as a school leader, what makes people leave is other people. That could be a member of Senior Leadership who forgets that they are part of the department team, whether they like it or not; it could be a staff member who doesn’t pull their weight, whose lack of enthusiasm for the job leads to tension and resentment; it could be that the middle leader isn’t precise and careful enough.
With a new half term about to swing into action – one that requires teams to be the best versions of themselves – I’m going to pin this up on my wall at work and give myself a daily reminder of the qualities I want to display. And then I think it is important to hold people to account – not in having these qualities instantly – but to hold people to account for working towards them. That’s professional development and quite often we forget as leaders that we have to develop the whole professional, not just their hard skills, knowledge and the mechanics of how they do their job. We owe it to the education sector, in any case. We need to develop good people. We want good people to stay.
A bit of froth for the holidays. I found myself having the same thoughts I have every Easter break and realised that being an English teacher is part of my DNA now. It doesn’t matter what position you take in a school, your inner-English teacher never goes away.
- It’s the Easter holiday and you are thinking about controlled assessment whilst consuming the last of your Waitrose Easter egg haul. There are still children who were absent, or who missed an hour or two. You need to catch them when you get back. Maybe you can find a way to ring home in the holidays to remind them they need their texts. Maybe you could go to their house to pin them down and make sure they don’t escape.
- You’re panicking because time is going too quickly. You’ve counted how many weeks, no – days – are left before the first exam. And plotted out what you are going to teach lesson by lesson until study leave. Why is study leave even allowed? Why is the iGCSE so early again? How many more Speaking and Listening exams do you have to record?
- You’ve mastered the art of teaching poetry at super speed. One poem a lesson? Check. Two poems if they’re both short? Check.
- You are not free on a Saturday morning between now and the end of June. This is just how it is, right? Other subjects have this too? Lie ins? Who needs lie ins?
- You harbour huge resentment against Maths – the subject and the department. You all face the same pressure in theory. School is measured by Maths and English – making or breaking a school’s reputation. But – you secretly feel a superiority that you’re not ashamed of – English has to deliver not one, but two GCSEs in the same space of time as Maths. Pah. You do it every year.
- You pride yourself on not having taught the same curriculum consecutively since 2004. You don’t understand what Science and Maths are complaining about. Science has stayed Science. Maths has stayed Maths. English, however, is the nation’s political football. And we know how to handle this. What are we teaching next term to Year 9 anyway?
- You quote Of Mice and Men incessantly. Eating baked beans. I like mine with ketchup. Reassuring your partner. You got me and I got you that gives a hoot in hell about us. Asking a sheepish question. George…?
- You wonder whether there’s any need for a new, Summer term notebook. You’ve seen a lovely one and you’re coveting much.
- You own seventeen copies of An Inspector Calls/Animal Farm/Of Mice and Men/Lord of the Flies and Macbeth. They are all on your shelf at home and yet you can never find a copy when you need one. You do have all the copies of every poetry anthology ever published and you’re holding in to them just in case Gillian Clark and Ted Hughes ever come back onto the curriculum.
- You know you’re about to embark on the worst part of the year but you’ve realised that it’s like being in labour. Every year this bit is bloody painful, but when Year 11, 12 and 13 go, you experience a state of bliss that makes you forget. Then you do it again and it’s bloody painful again.
In all of this, we continue reading, teaching, learning and being the best pedants we can be. Because we secretly love it. Even this bit before exams. Honestly.