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.
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?
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.
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?
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
In 1848 a religious advice pamphlet observed: “Some boys laugh at poor cripples when they see them in the street. Sometimes we meet a man with only one eye, or one arm, or one leg, or who has a humpback. How ought we to feel when we see them? We ought to pity them.”
Why did you come into teaching? I’m guessing this is a question that teachers across the country will be asking themselves whilst clutching at the last of the Christmas chocolates and knocking back the last of the Christmas wine. Indeed, I’m sitting here, eyeing the half-completed pile of marking, making optimistic plans to eat less and exercise more, regretting that last tub of Heroes and wondering where the hell my school shoes are – and I know this week, I will ask myself that question at 5.45 every morning…and possibly for the next three months at least. I have a sneaking suspicion that I will be less and less grateful to be employed as the week wears on.
But it is an important question. When we rock up to the university/training training programme, new folder and notepaper in hand, ready to learn about Vygotsky and Freire, we have all chosen to do so in the knowledge that the old adage about teaching is just not true. At least I hope we realise that ‘if you can’t, teach’ is an insidious misrepresentation of the worst kind. Some of us absolutely love our subjects and want to be employed using the knowledge we have gained in our education. Some of us do it because teaching is a craft to be mastered. Some of us because it is the least altruistic profession, in the same way giving a birthday gift might not really about the joy of giving to another person; it is simply the desire to feel that warm glow that says ‘I’m a good person’. To borrow a phrase I am rapidly coming to dislike, teaching might be for some folk a Jedi-level ‘virtue signal’.
So why do I do it?
I was once fresh-faced and enthusiastic, I thought I wanted to teach because I loved my subject and I wanted others to love it too. But it turns out that wasn’t entirely it. So here it is, on a blustery Sunday evening. The reason why I do it.
When I started teaching, I was given a Year 7 English class. They were also my tutor group. In that entirely mixed ability class, I met Vikesh* and I realised that I had absolutely no understanding as to how to teach him anything. Vikesh had been born with microcephaly; alongside having a distinctively small cranial cavity, he had the cognitive ability of a six year old boy. On top of that, he didn’t speak English. It was a lucky coincidence that we spoke the same home language and Vikesh didn’t judge me for having a six year old’s linguistic ability in Gujerati. I panicked. I became frustrated. What was I supposed to do with this boy? I had thirty other students and I wanted to teach. I couldn’t because he couldn’t learn like the others.
You’ll be reading this thinking that he should have been in a special school. I agree. But he wasn’t. He was there, with me in that classroom and I had to do something. My LSA – one of the best people I have ever met – embarked on a programme that meant that he would have some meaningful education. We learned letters. We learned sounds. We learned verbal communication. We played cricket in the aisle of the classroom when he achieved something small. The other students didn’t get any less of my time. It’s just that Vikesh got me in the blank spaces in my lesson when the others were scribbling away furiously. It as the most tired I had ever been in my life but I was finding something. In the midst of the madness of learning how to teach, I learned why I teach.
Because Vikesh – like so many students with additional needs – didn’t choose to be there. Society put him there. There was no provision for a child of his needs within a reasonable distance from his home and his parents knew he had to learn to be around people. I’m pretty certain that as much as he learned the basics, the children around him learned just as much about humanity and acceptance. He wasn’t to be pitied. He was a member of our community. And just like society is legally obliged to make reasonable adjustments to be compliant with the Disability Discrimination Act, I was obliged to make reasonable adjustments to my teaching. The discussion about what constitutes ‘reasonable adjustment’ is a valid one and it needs to be had. But exclusion on the grounds of special education need is much more problematic.
When we separate the act of teaching from its intended or unintended effects, we ignore that fact that whether we like it or not – for whatever reason we came into teaching in the first place – we change someone’s world. And we can either show the love and acceptance that comes with that, or we can move people into boxes. To teach is to change someone’s world, in a million ways, in a million moments.
If I believed that Vikesh should have been in a special school, or that Jenn* (blind, autistic, impaired mobility) or Henry* (a descendant of Dickens with Aspergers) should have a school for themselves, I would worry about the line. Where is the line in separating out students with additional needs? Who stays in a mainstream school? Vikesh is an extreme case, but if we start to categorise who we can and can’t teach, that way trouble lies.
This brings me to the other reason. The fundamental belief that teachers, not politicians, are the engineers of society they want to live in. I don’t want to live in a society that places people in neat little boxes so that I can get on with it. By believing that teaching is more that a knowledge-delivery system, we subscribe to William Temple‘s school of thought:
‘Are you going to treat a man as he is or as he might be? Morality requires that you should treat him as he might be, as he has it in him to become…Raising what he is to what he might be is the work of education.’
As I put in the years at inner-city schools, I came to know that exclusion in any form is wrong – either in segregation according to educational need or as a method of managing behaviour. And the statistics on exclusion and SEN make for horrible reading. The brilliant and well-informed blog, Ed Yourself, points out:
The single biggest reason for permanent exclusion from school is “persistent disruptive behaviour” and two thirds of pupils who are permanently excluded have some degree of special educational needs, with 1 in 10 having a statement.
Let’s throw race into the mix just to see what happens when we start to see children as categories and not people…
Combine some of the greatest risk-factors for exclusion and you have this: a black boy, with SEN and claiming free school meals is 168 times more likely to be permanently excluded than a white girl with no additional needs, who does not claim free school meals (Institute of Race Relations).
Add to that the fact that exclusions are on the rise in academies and free schools due to a lack of legislative clarity on the mandate to use alternative provision in educational establishments that are guided by their funding agreement and not the Education Act – we have a bigger problem than we think in how we deal with students who do not fit the ideal.
Add that to the study that outlines the correlation between permanent exclusion and crime and you have a problem that exists not in the classroom, disrupting your teaching of a poetry anthology, but in your streets, in your prisons, in your morgues.
I don’t have the answers to the challenges of teaching students with all sorts of different needs because I don’t think there are any hard and fast answers. What I do know is that these children – the dyslexic, the dyspraxic, the rich, the poor, the able and not so able – are in our care. And we have a duty to make sure that we make reasonable adjustments to ensure that they achieve their potential. Because that is what changes worlds.
When I get up tomorrow, as hard as it might be to prop my eyelids open with the burnt-oust matchsticks of a great Christmas, I will remember that my job is to teach. And that ‘teaching’ means more that being in the room, delivering content.
Speak to me in a week and you may find less fighting spirit in me, but for now, before I go and find those shoes, this is it.
I don’t know what is more upsetting: watching a 14 year old fail in the ‘last chance’ boot camp, where screaming in boys’ faces is the de facto method of retraining corrupted young minds, or recognising in that boy so many of the students I have taught. Louis Theroux’s ‘Miami Mega Jail’ instalments have certainly left me thinking, if not feeling more than a little physically ill.
Louis questions, in his inimitable way, the 14 year old, who is facing a ten year sentence for armed robbery. He asks his opinion on why he has ended up here, in an adult jail. The embarrassed smile, a faint shrug, the half-hearted assertion that he went to a violent school, was surrounded by violence from an early age, all feel chillingly familiar. So many of the boys who have been charged with serious allegations of violent acts, in or out of school, at that age cannot reason, cannot justify their actions. It is a consequence of a nebulous menace, a feeling-in-the-dark for answers. At 14, who has the power to recognise the culmination of a lifetime of failures? Not his own, but the failure of the lone parent, the failures of institutions too busy filling in self-evaluation forms for Ofsted to notice the slide of a child into the darklands of inner city crime.
This 14 year old is heartbreaking simply because he is one step on from what teachers in inner city schools already know. We have seen that boy before. He doesn’t articulate the reasons why he has done something; he just knows that there are reasons, some of them related to his immediate environment. We have heard him with his friends, playing at being a man; yet in conversation with an interested adult, he clams up, shy, perhaps, or just without the vocabulary to express himself.
Yes, the 14 year old in question is in Miami – a world away from the one we live in. We can distance ourselves from the ethics of his situation, or else judge from afar: He’s too young to be in an adult jail or Isn’t the US system of incarceration brutal? The questions we fail to ask ourselves are much harder to stomach. What did I say to that child who was involved in that burglary? Have I ignored my guiding role as an adult because social services are involved? Is it my job to show this child what is right or should I leave that to the police, his parents, his Head of Year?
If that 14 year old in jail was more articulate, less shy and more able to comprehend the complex nature of why young boys are left to slide into lives whose endpoints are incarceration or death, what would he say? Perhaps his inability to speak allows all of those who let him get to that point off the hook. It’s lucky for them he can’t find a way to speak the truth.
Is it me, or does Theresa May’s ‘temporary cap’ on immigration sound an awful lot like the latest attempt by BP to curb their little oil spill?
It has only been a couple of months since The Big Tory (liberal democrat) Takeover and already, the deluge – of legislation that provides enough anti-immigrant sentiment to keep the most vitriolic Daily Mail reader happy for the next ten years. “Introducing this temporary limit is necessary to ensure that we don’t get a rush of people trying to come through into the UK before that permanent limit is put in place next year,” said our Theresa. Oh good, I was really worried that some highly skilled migrant workers might come and camp on my doorstep and demand that I quit my job so they can do it for less.
It’s not that I don’t understand the arguments about immigration. Those of you scoffing at my left-wing liberal, bleeding heartness, I can hear you cry: “But we can’t have everyone and anyone leeching off our soft-touch state!” Calm down, dear. I have witnessed many a debate about the burden on our economy, the awkward race relations (including a particularly pernicious disagreement at work about whether any school should be allowed to serve pork, because it might offend someone) and the concerns about ‘integration’. Anyone who has the dubious pleasure of scanning online comments boards attached to news stories will know the phrase ‘soft touch’ makes more than a few appearances. We can’t be a ‘soft touch’, no, that would be terrible! People would take advantage and then where would we be?
I would like to believe that we could live in a state where debates about immigration aren’t fuelled by our innermost fears about identity and belonging. That we could eliminate discussion about migrant workers being denied access to NHS services. I would like to believe that arguments could be made about the idea of the state having a ‘human touch’, rather than being a ‘soft touch’.
Alrighty then. We could just elect a different political party next time.