I’m well aware that wading in to this debate means I may need to head for the hills after pressing the publish button.
If you haven’t been on Twitter recently because you are that rare breed of teacher who actually switches off during the summer holidays, or indeed, traverses an entire career without feeling the need to add a personal commentary, then you will need a break down of the latest Twitterstorm. To save all of us some time, I’m going to personal commentary my way through the steps because why not?
1. It starts innocuously enough with @RogersHistory creating a list of Twitter educators to follow.
Classic mistake. You’re never going to please everyone, especially when your list is inevitably limited by your own networks and personal interactions. The anatomy of a list is complex and dictated by personal values and beliefs. The problem comes when someone is deemed to be of especial standing within the Twitter community; this may be determined by number of followers, frequency of tweeting, edu-appearances at conferences and frequency of banter. Here it seems that with great tweeting comes great responsibility – ergo (no, I can’t believe I am ergoing either) they have to make a conscious effort to include people of colour.
2. Someone notices that there are few BAME educators on the list
This is undeniably true. While it would be lovely if everyone in the Twitter education community could make a concerted effort to amplify the extremely impressive voices of BAME educators, we are not in that place yet. I can see that arguments like this may go some way in making people more conscious of the need to expand their personal networks. Or they might not. Either way, while it might appear to be a social responsibility to be inclusive, you cannot force someone to do that. Moreover, you can’t shame them into doing so.
As much as it’s entirely reductive to move this argument into the realm of numbers, but let’s look at stats. I believe there are 118 slots on Tom’s list. Of the 118, there are 6 identifiable people of colour. That’s 5%. If the stats on BAME nationally indicate a 13% population, then yes, Tom’s list is sub-optimal. I would like there to be more BAME people recognised, but I also know that this isn’t an objective list based on a universal knowledge of educators. It’s Tom’s list, based on the spectrum of his awareness.
3. People on the list and various others thank him for the list.
Well this is nice for them and I’m pleased they are getting some recognition. They seem to have been caught up in a kerfuffle not of their own making. Cue awkward thanks and a tactical ignoring of the debate, in most cases. Incidentally, that’s a dignified way to respond. Some might say they could get involved by suggesting someone they admire who may be BAME, but to be honest, they are just enjoying their holiday and didn’t know they would be at the centre of some sort of angry vortex.
4. A debate begins as to whether Tom should have included more BAME folk. Some people say that he should and some people say they don’t see why because he hasn’t included the tardigrades left on the moon recently.
Polarised debate is futile. Debates based on inclusion, race and diversity are problematic because they inevitably tap into hurt. Hurt because a belief has been challenged, and often proxy-hurt for a person that is being challenged on something they have done unintentionally. When people respond from a place of hurt, defensiveness ensues. It is never helped by cheerleaders who say, yeah, I think he should have included more left handed people, or people from Bolton because they never get recognised. That’s ignorant. It is ignorant of the narratives around race and exclusion. If you ever feel the need to make a joke about how more people with third nipples should have been included, just don’t.
5. The words ‘white supremacist’ are uttered and things start to get uncomfortable.
This is where it all goes to hell. If someone is called a white supremacist and they don’t believe themselves to be one, that’s going to sting. After all, they believe they would never behave in a way that could be construed as racist – meaning they would never punch someone in the face because of their race, or consciously discriminate against someone because they wear a burka.
However, I’m not going to stand on a bucket and shout “white fragility!”at them. Why not? Because not everyone in this debate has enough understanding of those two terms to debate them with any kind of sensitivity and nuance. People hear ‘white supremacy’ and see KKK hoods and violence. They don’t see the sociological aspects of the term because they may not have studied it, or discussed the structural aspects of it. It’s a blunt instrument to those who are not fortunate enough to have engaged in the detail. They don’t engage in the conversation enough to understand unconscious bias, and their own role in perpetuating that.
This might make me sound like the suffragist element of the inclusivity movement here, if you forgive the cross-metaphor. However, I’m not claiming that softly softly is better, I’m pointing out that the duty of educators is to educate, and that might mean explaining in more useful terms what a list that is BAME light might imply. Language matters. When you wield it like a weapon, don’t be surprised if people arm themselves and/or run away. The term forces people into a corner. It takes a hell of a lot of strength to come back from that.
6. Some people start compiling lists of BAME educators in an attempt to balance things round.
Thank you, folks. Carry on. Good job.
7. Some people insist that this is identity politics and that the only people complaining are ones who were left off the list.
I’m eye-rolling. What are you adding to the debate here? BAME people and advocates are not sitting at home waiting to be put on someone’s list. They are not saying ‘mate, put me on your list. It would make week 4 of my holiday 100% more palatable’. That’s not the point of this whole argument. The upset is caused by a genuine belief that BAME educators have been left off the list. Don’t make it personal.
Those who claim this is all identity politics, well, yes it is. That is also a nuanced debate and can’t be had during a shouting match held entirely in tweets. It’s also a massively unhelpful and unproductive addition because it doesn’t challenge thought or give people the inclination to ask questions.
8. The flame is reignited every time someone notices the argument and there is upset all round.
Stop fuelling the fire. That means I should probably stop too. Mostly because I’ve written this on a very long car journey to St Austell, much to the chagrin of the driver. We are here now.
Can we all shake hands now and go back to hating on people who are decorating their classrooms in the summer holidays?
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.
This arm is my arm, it is not yours. Up here I have a right to strike out with it as I please. I go over there with these gentlemen and swing my arm and exercise the natural right which you have granted; I hit one man on the nose, another under the ear, and as I go down the stairs on my head, I cry out:
“Is not this a free country?”
“Have not I a right to swing my arm?”
“Yes, but your right to swing your arm leaves off where my right not to have my nose struck begins.”
The pain. Ah, the pain when the world swings to the right and the unholy alliance of Donald Trump and Katie Hopkins acts as a clarion call for majority groups for whom free speech is being censored, minority groups are in the back yard and something about “robust, healthy debate”. Etcetera, etcetera, etcetera.
The concept of the safe space was born in a different time, I know this. Borne of early LGBT and feminist movements, the safe space became a comforting hub for people who had suffered at the hands of those who at best disagreed with LGBT or feminist lifestyles, and at worst, had been attacked, publicly abused or physically assaulted by those who wished to see alternate lifestyles eradicated. Over time, the safe space has been used extensively on university campuses to protect the vulnerable. High profile cases of speakers being turned away because they might offend mean that the safe space has been ridiculed as a politically-correct mechanism to censor viewpoints and to bring down free speech. Safe spaces create marshmallow students who fail to learn what it means to exist in a big, bad world.
This is all very hard on a girl that is known colloquially as ‘Red Bennie’ – a girl that attended one of the most left-wing universities in the country and grew into an adult learning about liberation groups and safe spaces. I was fascinated. For the first time in my life, I was surrounded by debate and thought about identity and society. My goodness, it takes my breath away how lovely it was being young and fired up – and safe enough to be amongst those who had opinions about what was right and good and fair.
I supported the ‘No Platform For Fascists’ policy at Warwick Students’ Union. Who did we prevent from appearing? Far-right speakers from all walks of life – people who we believed didn’t care for the debate, only the publicity. People who had a track record of saying awful things and we said no to that on our space. Not because we don’t want a debate, not because we were scared of it or offended, but because we shared a common belief. We disapproved. And that was our choice. But we didn’t just decide, we debated. We thought.
There is a brilliant article on Al-Jazeera America on the issue of safe spaces on college campuses – you can find it here. In the meantime, one sentence really rings out as true for me: “But what all these critiques get wrong is that they assume “safe” means homogeneous in thought. The reality is that these safe spaces are actually brimming with debate; for many minority students, they are the first place where anyone has ever let them speak about their experiences.”
But for me, the safe space was not about censorship, it was about protection. It was about providing a different space to the one outside the walls where people swinging their fists didn’t care who they were smacking.
And I knew I wasn’t even someone who needed that safe space the most. I learned very quickly that a woman who has been raped might not want to debate whether the length of her skirt determined her fate. I learned that the trans student who was assaulted on his way home didn’t want to debate whether he was really a man or a woman. I understood that the black student who put up up with people touching her hair “just to see what it feels like” didn’t want to listen to the validity of the term ‘micro-aggression’. I know that the Muslim student spat at on the bus might not want to listen to a speaker from Britain First in the interests of healthy debate.
It is all too easy for people who have never faced any of these things to paint safe spaces as mollycoddling bubbles in which students are not allowed to debate difficult things because it might hurt their feelings, or worse, offend them. If you feel the need to mock the concept of or complain about safe spaces, I don’t want to generalise, but chances are, you’ve never felt the need for one.
Who are these students, preventing college campuses being a healthy platform for debate? How dare they create an environment in which they study without the white noise of racism, sexism, homophobia, transphobia? Those who decry safe spaces as being cotton wool for the masses forget one really quite important thing. The LGBT community, the BAME community, the trans community – women – we all know about the problems in the big wide world. We spend half our lives trying to find ways to shield ourselves from the views imposed on us by the media, by what people deem cultural truisms with any grounding in fact.
Universities are home to many students. Believe it or not, sometimes university is the only escape young people have from difficult backgrounds and difficult histories. It is a space that rescues as well as educates. And remember, education is something university students choose – that’s what makes it brilliant. And some students choose not to engage with things that upset them whilst navigating their educational paths. What’s wrong with that? It doesn’t make them any less of a physicist, or computer scientist, or psychology student. When university is home – making that space an open forum for all can feel uncomfortable when you know all too well what the world thinks of you already.
Let’s not forget what free speech can be. In my time at university, I was well aware of free speech as a right and I was well aware of people who exercised that right without concern for the impact on others. I went on a flyering campaign against the BNP in Tipton Green, a boarded-up shadow of a small town where the BNP were promising to reopen the Library, to bring jobs back to the former industrial town and all sorts of other things. I engaged in debate with a builder who had particularly strong views on immigration. When I asked him what his solution was, he replied: “I don’t have one really, I think it would be best if we just lined them up by the sea and shot them down.”
He was quite pleasant while he said it. He then said he wasn’t a racist because his girlfriend was black. So I went back to my safe space.
I made a decision early in my career about what school should be for my students. So my classroom is a safe space. It isn’t one in the traditional sense – everyone is allowed to be there, but micro-aggressions, assumptions and triggers are discussed, defined, questioned. Do I shut down some discussions? Yes, because if they go on to cause someone distress, my classroom is not the place for that. The world is hard enough without me being a lightning rod for the school of hard knocks.
I live in hope that by seeing university students make the decisions they do, my own students will be witness to a model of debate – where to discuss and vote on the presence of controversial figures in our circles is right and good and fair. If the answer is no, that person cannot speak for these reasons, then let my students see that their right to swing their fists ends when they hit someone else’s nose.
I want to laugh a little when I hear majority groups belittling safe spaces. And then I want to smash things a little bit. I always calm down eventually.
Because let’s not forget that safe spaces for majority groups also exist and have existed for many years. What is a gentleman’s club if not a safe space for the white, heterosexual male? What is the boardroom throughout history? What is parliament before the vote was extended to women?
You’ve had your safe spaces, now let us have ours.