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.
On Tough Young Teachers this week, we witnessed a delightfully awkward Charles negotiate a fine line between tragedy and farce at parents’ evening when attempting to sternly inform a non-English speaking mother of her wayward son’s poor exam performance. Walid, the aforementioned naughty, made it quite clear that his mum did not have a good enough grasp of English to understand the gravity of his poor performance, a fact picked up on by Charles as he walked away at the end of the evening, with the kind of deflated skulk only experienced at the end of a long day – and evening – in January.
The show has struck a chord with teachers at all stages of their careers, because of the universality of the experience of training to be a teacher. When I started teaching, as a Teach First participant in an inner city borough, I brought my own naïveté with me. I grew up in a community where the standing joke about Asian parents was that if you went home with a B grade, they’d smack you with a sandal and demand to know why you didn’t get an A before threatening to ship you off to a boarding school in India. The truth was, when I first started teaching, I thought all parents were like that. But they’re not.
In eleven years of teaching, I’ve never met a parent who didn’t want their child to achieve. Even the most difficult parents show you eventually that they care desperately about the health, happiness and future of their children. Parents who do not speak very much English show, sometimes by their very presence, that they care about their child. It is very rarely indifference that makes it difficult for a teacher to enlist a parent’s support in disciplining their child, or helping them to revise. It is almost always a lack of understanding of how to help, the language barrier, the lack of space at home, a problematic personal experience of schools. Like one frustrated father says on the show: “I don’t know how to help him.”
How poignant, then, when Charles’ mum tells him that he might be the only adult in some of those children’s lives who can make the difference. In her words lie a truth about our society and education system. It is problematic that she is held up in contrast to parents on the opposite end of the socio-economic spectrum. But, she’s right; he can’t give up on the children because they need him to be, in some ways, a substitute parent for his wards – to fill in the gaps left by parents who cannot provide what he can.
It was interesting to see the differing approaches to relationships with students. Meryl, ever the warm hearted idealist, stated that a child’s whole life can be affected by a teacher. Charles’ view was less effusive. There needs to be a degree of separation, he said. “I’m not their father, or their brother.”
All of this brings me back to the phrase ‘in loco parentis’. In 1855, Cheadle Hulme School in Manchester adopted the phrase as its school motto because their student population was made up of orphans. The staff there were literally in the place of the absent parents. However, as teachers in mainstream schools, we are not responsible for orphans – they have parents and we cannot work in isolation from them.
So what do we do when experiencing that sinking feeling at parents’ evening, when you realise that the parent is no more capable of influencing their child’s behaviour than you are? Firstly, resist the urge to speak loudly and slowly if a parent doesn’t speak very much English. Check with children about the language abilities of their parents, speak to other staff and find out before the evening starts. Enlist an interpreter if you can – not the child, as we all know how that can go (“Of course, mum, she’s saying that I’m an excellent student and I don’t need to do homework ever again…!”) An older student who speaks the same language will do the job nicely. Even better if the school has invested in staff who reflect the ethnic make up of the student population and community – interpreting staff are an invaluable asset.
We spend a lot of time as teachers debating as to whether we can be substitute parents, ‘raising’ children in schools that are open all hours. What if we spent some time ‘raising’ parents? This week, I spent an hour helping to teach a group of parents how to speak English. It was a humbling experience as it showed me that I may have to discard some of my frustrations with parents who do not know how to support their children – as their frustration is worse. And it is not just about parents who don’t speak very much English.
Parental engagement and support is absolutely vital in schools for parents of every walk of life – and it is often seen as such a Herculean feat that many schools do not attempt it. When it is committed to, it can change the educational experience of students, staff and parents alike. It’s worth it because everybody wins and parents’ evenings are suddenly less painfully awkward. It’s worth it for that alone!
First published on the Communitas PR Tough Young Teachers blog here
Is it ever a good idea to write an article about your first year of teaching, especially if you have chosen to quit? Last week saw the online publication of ‘Why I quit Teach First’ in Management Today, written by an anonymous graduate who has chosen to leave the programme for a cavalcade of reasons, but mostly as a result of what she deems to be poor training and preparation.
I started my journey with Teach First in 2003 as part of the first cohort. Prior to application, I had imagined I would work in publishing, or in journalism – my childish desires to be a teacher (influenced, I am reluctant to admit, by an unhealthy obsession with Anne of Green Gables) had been summarily nixed by my own teachers who told me to be better than that. I attended the six weeks training, provided solely then by Canterbury Christchurch University – and it was made up of visits to local schools, lectures, seminars on professional standards and subject studies. We had to read, research and become familiar with the key educational theories. We had what has been termed ‘inspiring talks’ but at no point did I feel that wasn’t necessary. I liked the fact that I was doing something that might make a difference. I liked the esprit de corps instilled in the group – and recognised years later that it was entirely fundamental to the Teach First movement. To build confidence, to create a lasting sense of collegiality, to encourage debate and discussion, to instil a lifelong desire to give something back as well as to learn to teach – those were the enduring impressions of the training I received.
Of course I didn’t feel prepared, but that wasn’t because I hadn’t been given essential training. Who does feel prepared to stand in front of children and teach on the first day? My first year is a hazy memory now, but yes, the children misbehaved, they didn’t always follow instructions. But I knew that wasn’t because I hadn’t had enough training. I knew it was because I hadn’t found the right strategies yet. Teaching is a constant battle to refine strategies. No one can tell you the theory and expect you go and do just those things; the best teachers I know (PGCE or Teach First) are the ones who stand in front of a difficult class and know that when they go home, they will need to examine the dozens of reasons why the lesson didn’t go as planned. I am reminded of my favourite quotation, one that I stuck to my classroom wall next to my desk in that first year.
“I’ve come to the frightening conclusion that I am the decisive element in the classroom. It’s my daily mood that makes the weather. As a teacher, I possess a tremendous power to make a child’s life miserable or joyous. I can be a tool of torture or an instrument of inspiration. I can humiliate or humour, hurt or heal. In all situations, it is my response that decides whether a crisis will be escalated or de-escalated and a child humanised or dehumanised.” Dr Haim Ginott.
A criticism that is often levelled at the Teach First training route is the one that starts with: “yes, but what about the children?” The implication is that having a Teach First teacher, learning on the job is somehow detrimental to the children’s learning. It is a criticism that could be levelled at a PGCE student on their school placements, or someone on the old GTP route. It is naive to declare that PGCE students aren’t left alone with classes during their placements. It does happen – scratch the surface and all sorts of odd things happen. My experience of having my own classes as a Teach First participant was not unusual. I felt that I needed to get better at teaching and fortunately, I had support from my in-school mentors and from the university that provided my training. I was subject to observations just like anyone else and the feedback was useful. I adapted, I learned and by the end of the year, even though I still didn’t feel like I was a proper teacher, I knew that I hadn’t let the students down. I had GCSE classes that performed well. I was ready for the new year, armed with professional experience that was invaluable to me.
I didn’t contemplate leaving. Drop out rates in the first year are minimal. My own experience as a Professional Mentor for Teach First over the past ten years has taught me that. Where people have chosen to leave, they have done so for personal reasons – something they may have done if they had completed a PGCE. My concern about articles such the one that I mentioned earlier, along with other critics of Teach First is that it s very rare to see a measured opinion, complete with comparative statistics for retention. This may be because those statistics are quite hard to find, simply because there are so many variables. Do we compare drop out rates between the initial PGCE year and the first Teach First year? Or the NQT year for PGCE students and the first year Teach Firsters? How do we know how many PGCE students are still teaching at the end of the second year? If not, what is their destination?
The fundamental fact is that teachers are being deployed in challenging schools – in 2003 who could have predicted that ten years from now a charity placing teachers in challenging schools would be the number one graduate employer? It says something about Teach First and the inspiring talks and the expansion currently taking place. Expansion is necessary and I welcome it. London is a city with an excellent track record of school improvement and this is sorely needed in other regions. Teach First have identified regions where socio-economic factors impede attainment – places that teachers do not see as desirable locations to work. Expansion will always be problematic at the start, but that doesn’t mean that it shouldn’t happen.
What do I know about teacher training? I know that some of my most respected colleagues completed PGCEs and some of them came into teaching via Teach First. I don’t judge them on their training but on their ability to teach and to be consummate professionals in a job that requires strength and leadership.
Ten years ago, I understood that people may be sceptical at the commencement of a new training scheme and I experienced some intense negativity. No one likes change, no one likes the idea that the way they did something may have an alternative. But ten years on, with hard evidence that the programme works just as well as any other, with teaching now seen as a credible profession for the best graduates, maybe it is about time we gave Teach First a break.