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.
“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.
On March 22nd, I found myself stranded in Brussels on one of the worst days in the nation’s recent history. I was part of a 25-strong group of women who have been participating in the Fabian Women’s Network Mentoring Programme, an eight month long journey of political education for women who are either already involved in political life or are planning to be involved in some way, big or small. The rationale behind the visit to the EU that day was to help the participants understand the workings of the EU. For me, it felt like a brilliant opportunity – my knowledge of the UK system of government is patchy, but my EU knowledge is almost non-existent and there is only so long one can go on pretending to know what people are talking about in certain circles, especially in light of the forthcoming referendum.
After a fitful night’s sleep (the result of unfamiliar beds and an aching awareness of the early start expected the next morning), we arrived at the Visitors Centre at the European Parliament building at 9.10am, ushered in by worried-looking officials. At this point, I hadn’t heard there had been explosions at Zaventem. But soon enough, I came to learn of the hellish events not far from us. The official meeting us said we were lucky – the first group to arrive – no other groups were being allowed in, as a safety precaution. It was only when we sat in our first conference room that I switched my mobile data back on and read that 500m away, two stops from where I had exited the Metro, an explosion had been heard. I then learned, as the next hour descended into a melee of sending texts home to loved ones to assure them we were safe. All transport had been stopped. Eurostar was suspended. Getting home seemed a distant prospect. We had been due to travel that evening. I was expected back at work the next day. I had double Year 11.
The rest of the day seems hazy now. We tried to continue as per the original schedule; some speakers had not arrived so there were adjustments. But we did hear from from some brilliant speakers and I still learned enormous amounts about the function of the EU, the role of the MEP, the battles and frustrations and indeed, small victories, in working across party lines. “We talk until we reach a consensus,” said one MEP. It felt like a grown-up version of parliament, where the theatrics and posturing of Westminster were very much absent.
On finally being allowed to exit the parliament building, our group was confronted with the sight of armed guards, bomb disposal units scanning cars and that strange quiet that I remember from London after the 7th July bombings. There were very few people as we made a 45 minute journey back to the hotel on foot, to collect our luggage and find a way home.
It was enough time, as we walked, to consider what I was learning outside of what had been planned for us that day. I am a teacher. I had felt guilty being away from my students until that point, but now the guilt was tinged with a growing understanding that to make change happen in society, more teachers needed to engage with political systems.
And it occurred to me that very first thing that needs to change is the idea that teachers shouldn’t talk about politics. I absolutely understand the reasons why teachers are in a precarious position if they do. I am not particularly fond of the idea that Far Right views could creep into the classroom. But by avoiding political conversations, or never providing a platform to discuss politics (within reason), we risk a far more problematic scenario. We end up with children who grow up never hearing educated people talking openly about political standpoints, in a safe and balanced space.
Even in saying this I aware of the current government’s stance on politics in education. Whether knowingly or otherwise, citizenship education is being squeezed into the dark corners of the classroom, wedged among the textbooks for courses that don’t run anymore because money is tight. I asked a question during a panel session while were locked in the Parliament building. “In light of the events today, it has never been more clear that there is a need for citizenship education in EU countries. It is not just about knowledge – or defining Fundamental British Values, but promoting an understanding of engagement with political systems. With the narrowing of curricula in the UK, how do we ensure that citizenship education ands political engagement stays on the agenda?”
No one had a definitive answer. Underneath the answers about where resources could be found within the EU, I heard a resounding ‘it’s not on the agenda and it won’t be until the government say it is a priority’.
The unfortunate effect of the focus on EBacc subjects is a short-sighted narrowing of the curriculum which has seen – as one of my fellow Fabian women pointed out – the removal of A-Level subjects like World Development, Citizenship Studies, Humanities, Communication and Culture, Anthropology and Critical Thinking. To compound this worrying movement towards a narrow curriculum that does not include dedicated time and space to discuss what it means to be a citizen in this nation is the slashing of school budgets. Ask a leader of an inner-city comprehensive or academy how they will deal with cuts to funding, the raising of pension and national insurance contributions, the changes to money for students with additional needs and the impact of the funding formula – and I imagine the answers will be fairly similar. Cut subjects where take up is low, reduce staff numbers, provide an austerity education. Where does citizenship and political engagement sit in this? It is the crust of the bread, dear readers, and it will be cut off.
So if we cannot find ways to to teach it, we have to be it. Teachers are in an ideal position to be role models for political discussion, to present and curate ideas, to challenge misconceptions and to develop enquiring political minds. We are in an ideal place to open doors for students to engage students in the political process – or even just to shine a light on the door handle. The fact is, we may not define as being political but we are, with our consent or otherwise. And we do need to be specific in our work. If guidance is given that schools need to promote ‘fundamental British values’ – I want definitive time to do that. Although, I am more than aware that British values are vague, a working awareness of how to effect change is not.
A step further might also be required. What if our students saw us, the teachers, stepping into positions of political responsibility? What if they saw us trying, at the very least? Whatever your political persuasion, maybe consider this. Political leadership is not that far removed from running a school. And of course, with my tongue firmly in my cheek, we can’t complain about government changes to the education system when there aren’t enough teachers stepping into positions of responsibility at a local, national and EU level. What if out students saw us as beings who don’t just know, but as people who do?
I’ve learned in all of this that politics is not a dirty word. By engaging with the Fabian women, I have been empowered and elevated by knowledge about the internal workings of Westminster and the EU. I have felt less of a victim and more aware of how I can step up to change things. At the very least, I have been learning how to read Education Law – to know why mass academisation might affect the most vulnerable in our society. I haven’t decided yet whether political office is for me, but I have learned about how change can only happen if you are there making yourself heard.
What we cannot ignore is the increasing marginalisation of young people, from all walks of life, who do not feel empowered to change their circumstances and their daily experiences through democratic means. While we educate for knowledge, we must show that there are other ways of changing the society we live in and that means demystifying for ourselves first.
I left Brussels that afternoon, one of the lucky ones who had felt an uncomfortable proximity, but had not experienced the trauma of being involved in the actual atrocities. I came home and I knew I had to write this. Talk about politics with your students. Engage in political activity where you can to show that it is for everyone. Be the democracy you want to live in.
I haven’t been to a Diwali Festival since I was very young. I grew up in Leicester, the daughter of a goldsmith who plied his trade on what is still known as The Golden Mile and every year, the Diwali lights would be switched on along that mile. We would close up the shop once it was dark and weave through the crowds, eating street food and seeing familiar faces. It was a riot of colour with blue, red, yellow, orange light bulbs lining the road as far as the eye could see. For a moment, standing in Trafalgar Square this afternoon at the Diwali Festival, I closed my eyes and I could have been right there – with the same the music and the same dancing – with my family celebrating a festival that is fundamentally about the triumph of good over evil.
I will admit that one of the standing jokes about me whenever I mention my heritage is: “Are you Asian?” The joke stems from the fact that I have, over the years, become a not-very-Asian Asian. I haven’t set foot in a temple since my early childhood, I haven’t learned to write my home language, I haven’t kept up with developing my Gujarati language skills. I can’t really tell you the meaning of feast days or fast days. I struggle to remember the stories of my childhood and my heritage. I have made a life out of rejecting my own culture.
It is only now, at this age, that the real impact of this has hit home. My grandfather passed away two weeks ago and I didn’t go the funeral. While I know deep down there were many reasons for this, one reason stands out and points at me. I knew I would find it hard to communicate with people in the language they know and I don’t. I know today that one of the things that is most tragic about this wholesale movement away from my past is the growing gap between me and members of my family – particularly the older generation. I have chosen at some point along the line to deny myself the language that would connect us. In forgetting the words, I have forgotten them. This is something I can now never rectify.
But it is a choice, right? I chose to be this version of myself. Why did I choose to be someone who is so far removed from my family in language, dress and stories? What made me move to a more pronounceable version of my name? The question reminds me of a brilliant quote by the actress Uzoamaka Aduba who plays ‘Crazy Eyes’ in the Netflix original series, Orange is the New Black. She recounts a conversation with her mother about her name:
“So anyway, in grade school, because my last name started with an A, I was the first in roll call, and nobody ever knew how to pronounce it. So I went home and asked my mother if I could be called Zoe. I remember she was cooking, and in her Nigerian accent she said, “Why?” I said, “Nobody can pronounce it.” Without missing a beat, she said, “If they can learn to say Tchaikovsky and Michelangelo and Dostoyevsky, they can learn to say Uzoamaka.”
The word ‘integration’ has been a part of my life for as long as I can remember. My own family used it to describe what they did, arriving here in the 1970s, working, learning English, wearing western clothes. All things they thought differentiated them from other refugees. See, even we used the word to praise or punish, to segregate. That’s how ingrained it was – this idea that to fit in, you had to slough off the things that made you you. You had to wear borrowed robes.
This week, as part of BBC3’s series on racism in the UK and around the world, I heard the word used again and it stung. A spokesperson for Britain First said that he didn’t mind the Hindus and the Sikhs, because they had integrated into British society. He was, of course, referring to these groups in opposition to the Islamic community – one that he perceived to be a threat. I heard it again when on social media, people applauded Nadiya Begum for being a fabulous model of a Muslim woman in Britain. One that had integrated, despite wearing a headscarf. Her headscarf, in fact, has become a national debate. Can a Muslim woman truly ‘integrate’ while she is wearing one?
And it made me think about what it was that made me erase parts of my identity. I wanted to integrate. I wanted to be the person whom the rest of society considered to be ‘good’. I made the teaching of English my job – and the question is there to be asked: did I do this out of an unconscious desire to present myself as the most English I could be?
I teach in schools where you will meet the most diverse, most multicultural students. What messages are they getting about their identity? When English teachers were told to teach Wordsworth instead of Poetry from Different Cultures, what messages did that send to teenagers? I am responsible for instilling a sense of cultural capital. Whose culture? When we talk about Fundamental British Values, whose values? When I heard a colleague saying once that the Year 10 girls can’t do that dance at Open Evening because the music is Afrobeats and that sends the ‘wrong message’ to prospective parents and then a week later, they’ve been replaced with a violinist, what is that? When I was told that steel pans were being put away to be replaced by a string quartet, I knew what that meant. It was too black for a school who wanted to attract a middle class and implicitly white child.
And who can blame a school for trying, right? It’s a market place and the increased commercialisation of education means that schools fight to attract what they perceive to be the most successful students. That child who will drive up results in inner-city schools. But in those anecdotes, I hear that’s a very specific type of child.
In there somewhere is a seed of shame. It makes people of diverse backgrounds feel that their stories are somehow less valid. It makes young Asian girls, who want to fit in, give up something that is a vitally important part of their fabric. The colour and joy of Diwali lights in an October dusk.