My experience of geography fieldwork as a trans kid: a call for reflection

Kit Rackley portrait

Written by Kit Rackley

Kit (they/them) identifies as a trans non-binary demigirl and taught high school Geography in Norwich for 13 years. Kit now works for the UEA as a Higher Educator outreach officer.

Kit (they/them) identifies as a trans non-binary demigirl and taught high school Geography in Norwich for 13 years. They have a degree in Environmental Sciences from the University of East Anglia (UEA), specialising in meteorology, climate change, environmental risk and scientific communication. Kit now works for the UEA as a Higher Educator outreach officer, but is still a member of the geography teacher community via their website Geogramblings.com and continues to run CPD for teachers at all stages of their careers.

I want to share it in order to encourage all educators who engage in fieldwork, field centres and tutors to reflect and consider the extent they create a safe environment for all children, in this case, gender non-conforming and transgender children. I won’t be delving into the ‘debate’ about trans kids: they exist, and they deserve support, respect and safety not just because it is our safeguarding duty to do so, but because it is also the right thing to do. A content warning before you read on regarding social trauma, abuse and bullying. 

I’ve been proudly visible and vocal throughout my education work, including this blog. So most reading this already know I am transgender. But if you are new here, then hello! The vast majority of my work on Geogramblings doesn’t centre around my identity as a trans person at all, but rather my identity as a geographer and educator. But from time to time, those identities do intersect for the purpose of writing an article, and this is one of those occasions. I, like all transgender people, don’t owe anyone any information about my personal life other than what I am willing to share through self-consent. But in order to communicate my experience better, I do need to give a little context: I did not know I was transgender until I reached my thirties. However, I have always been transgender and what I am about to share are just droplets of evidence in a whole sea of tell-tale signs that I’ve now come to recognise. 

I loved Geography in high school. It was one of my favourite subjects, and although cliched as it is to say, one of the reasons was because of the field trips. My first residential field trip was to Bude at the end of Year 7. It was the mid-1990’s and I was exceptionally excited but I felt very unnerved by the prospect of sharing a room with boys. I figured it was totally down to being bullied a fair bit by boys in school and never felt totally safe – and of course, I was technically at school on the trip 24 hours of the day. So there was not the safe haven of getting home when the bell rang at half-3. I was too shy or nervous to ask any adult if it was possible to sleep in my own room, and I just thought that it would be a stupid thing to ask since it must be the case that boys must share a dorm, segregated from the girls who have their own. I didn’t want to share a room with the girls, either, that felt just as weird but for other reasons. I managed to muddle through that field trip. I enjoyed myself enough despite making sure I was the last to fall asleep and the first to wake up. I didn’t feel comfortable at all at night.

Fast forward a few years and I’m now in Year 10. I’m taking a GCSE Geography and we’re on a residential field trip to Bradwell in Essex. With the exception of the precious moments when I was able to go out and do my data collection or squirrel myself away in some study room to work on my coursework, I hated every minute of that trip. I had deliberately chosen a topic that was as divergent as possible from all the other students just so I had as much peace as I could. That was easy enough, as the ones that gave me the hardest time had their clique and were doing more or less the same thing amongst themselves. My topic instead overlapped a little with one of the girls in my GCSE class, so we worked together a bit. We weren’t friends but I felt so much safer and comfortable with her. And because we were doing our coursework, at least I had a water-tight reason for hanging out with her during the day. But, it was the social and evening hours which were the problem. My ‘study partner’ was off with her clique of friends and so I was left to try and look busy on my own with my work or hang out with the boys. 

The bathrooms and the dorms were the biggest issues. When we first arrived at the study centre I was actually very relieved to find that there was a room, with a door, with one bunk bed in it, while the rest of the dorm was open-plan. I figured it was for staff but the lead teacher (who I got on very well with and still think fondly of) said it was free and my ‘closest friend’ and I the time can use it. So we popped our stuff in, went off to do other bits as instructed, only to come back and find all our stuff tipped out onto one of the beds in the open-plan area. I’ve suppressed much of the memory of the hateful abuse that was arrowed towards us by our peers; towards me in particular. But us attempting to take the one room that had a door, well… you can guess. I didn’t complain to the teacher, for fear of reprisal from my peers, but I did manage to move to a bottom-bunk bed in a corner and find a spare blanket which I tucked into the frame like a screen so I had some sense of privacy. I cried myself to sleep that first night. No one mentioned it the next morning, maybe because it must have been in the early hours of the morning when I did eventually drop-off; maybe I did what I could to muffle my moans – all I can remember about that particular detail are the tears and no one noticing. After all, it’s not very ‘manly’ to cry, right? I did get as far as asking the teacher if I could use one of the staff bathrooms, so long as I checked in advance before I needed to go relieve myself or take a shower. At least that was one place I could feel safe and on my own. 

I often think about how things might have been different if I had known I was transgender back then. Perhaps things wouldn’t have been much better, or perhaps even worse, given it was the mid-1990s. Instead, I like to think if I was that kid today in 2021; not only would I have known more about myself and all the confidence and security that comes with it, but I probably would have had some allies amongst my peers. I probably would have been able to have a conversation with my teachers about the real reasons why I wanted my own room and bathroom, or at least share one with a friend I felt comfortable and safe with. I would have been able to solely focus on the geography in my work, rather than use my work as a means to escape. That leads me to think how much better I would have done overall in school, in that respect. 

I feel like I shouldn’t end this by giving suggestions or recommendations about what teachers, educators and field centres should do. Instead, I would ask all to reflect on what they have read, which is a very real experience, by someone who knows that the crux of much of the issues is related to their gender identity. And I would ask that everyone make efforts towards creating learning environments, be it the classroom, the playground, the field centre or beyond, that are safe for transgender kids. Share this article with the Educational Visit Co-ordinator (EVC) in your school, or the field studies centres that you regularly use. The bare minimum is to know that trans kids exist; that their experiences are real and if they approach you at the height of their vulnerability, then they should be listened to. Each trans person’s experience is unique to them. Listen and be guided by them.

Further reading

While explicit and comprehensive guidance on supporting transgender children with fieldtrips is rather thin on the ground, here are some useful documents regarding supporting school students:

Citing this post:

APA: Rackley, K. (2021, April 4). My experience of geography fieldwork as a trans kid: a call for reflection [Blog post]. Retrieved from https://geogramblings.com/2021/04/04/my-experience-of-geography-fieldwork-as-a-trans-kid-a-call-for-reflection/

MLA: Rackley, Kit. “My experience of geography fieldwork as a trans kid: a call for reflection”. Geogramblings. 4 Apr. 2021, https://geogramblings.com/2021/04/04/my-experience-of-geography-fieldwork-as-a-trans-kid-a-call-for-reflection/.

Harvard: Rackley, K. (2021). My experience of geography fieldwork as a trans kid: a call for reflection [Online]. Geogramblings. Available at: https://geogramblings.com/2021/04/04/my-experience-of-geography-fieldwork-as-a-trans-kid-a-call-for-reflection/ (Accessed: day month year)

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Tackling Racism in Schools

Bennie Kara portrait

Written by Bennie Kara

Founder of Diverse Educators

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.

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How does Social Work regulation perpetuate White Supremacy?

Wayne Reid portrait

Written by Wayne Reid

Professional Officer & Social Worker

Morality cannot be legislated, but behaviour can be regulated

 

The Black Lives Matter movement casts a revealing spotlight on how White supremacy permeates society and influences the policies in ‘modern institutions.’  An immediate example is Social Work regulation.  In this article, I outline how Social Work regulation perpetuates White supremacy.  My premise is that “morality cannot be legislated, but behaviour can be regulated.” (Martin Luther King).

 

My mantra is “pure, proactive and unapologetic anti-racism,” which underlines my militant spirit when it comes to ‘Anti-racism in Social Work.’  My mentality is influenced by the hostile environment inside and outside of Social Work.  I hope any readers resist the urge to ‘tone police’ my opinions.  My observations reflect my environment – the ‘hostile environment.’  My motivation is for the cause, not applause – and the cause is Black Lives Matter.  

 

My narrative reflects my lived experiences and those of people like me who are routinely judged, based on their skin colour.  I write this article from both personal and professional perspectives.  I use the terms ‘people of colour’ and ‘Black and Ethnic Minority people’ interchangeably for ease.  I do not speak on behalf of all people or Social Workers of colour – as we are not a homogenous group.  My writing here may not represent the views of my employer (BASW).  I’m one of many Black voices in the profession.   The prelude to my current thinking is outlined in my previous articles here: 1, 2, 3 & 4.  

 

In my work, I’m able to act as an Anti-racism Visionary for Social Work across England.  I utilise different strategic approaches including: shock and awe; edutainment; collaboration and allyship.  My knowledge and expertise relates to anti-Black racism.  Since George Floyd’s murder, I’ve reported widely on the lack of protections and support for Social Workers of colour; their over-representation in fitness to practice panels and their disproportionately negative outcomes on Assessed and Supported Year in Employment programmes. The coverage and prominence of anti-racism in Social Work in recent months has been inescapable.  However, the silence from Social Work England (SWE) (and MP’s) is perplexing.                                 

 

Tools that discriminate and oppress

 

The Social Work standards (nor their associated guidance) make no reference to Social Workers or service-users of colour.  In a previous article, I emphasised my disappointment that: “neither [the] education and training standards for 2019 or 2020, nor the professional standards for Social Workers, explicitly refer[s] to anti-discriminatory (ADP), anti-oppressive (AOP) or anti-racist practice (ARP).”  And: “Their omission in Social Work regulation is a travesty of social justice in itself.”  Yet they are considered as ‘accepted wisdom’, ‘normal’ and ‘respectable’ – even though they implicitly convey that “White is best.”

 

I’ve commentated widely on how many Social Workers of colour feel unsupported during fitness to practice investigations.  Indeed, their statistical over-representation implies the current standards overtly dominates and punishes them.  At best, the standards are non-racist (or neutral/colour-blind), but definitely NOT anti-racist.  Due to the omissions of ADP, AOP and ARP, I conclude that central aspects of the education, training and the professional standards in Social Work are inadequate and unfit for purpose.  Perversely, the standards risk being perceived as tools wielded to discriminate and oppress Social Workers of colour (and consequently service-users of colour).

 

Community Care articles (from February 2021 and March 2021), have reported on the “delays in fitness to practise processes having ‘life-changing impacts.’”  Social Workers of colour are over-represented in these cases.  Therefore, it’s probably safe to assume these are the same unfortunate people being disproportionately affected by the delays. Another article (from July 2020), cited the lack of ethnic diversity within the SWE workforce.  Confidence is not instilled when there is no transparency about how this is being addressed/reversed.  I’ve previously queried whether this was being treated as a priority, as this could be mistaken for ‘pigmentocracy vs meritocracy – but I’ve had no response. Also, I’m concerned that SWE does not appear to have 1 designated Equality Diversity and Inclusion (EDI) Lead Officer.  I do wonder how incidents of racism (and other forms of discrimination) are being properly resolved.  Interestingly, even the Royal Family plan to recruit a ‘diversity tsar’.  My hope is this will be replicated swiftly in Social Work regulation.  

 

I’m pleased SWE have developed a Professional Experts Panel and appointed members with backgrounds in social justice and workforce development.  However, I was unable to find any information about panel members (including their backgrounds and careers in England, UK and overseas) on their website.  It is important the panel can reflect with insight, the diverse range of backgrounds and experiences of those within the workforce.  Also, transparency about the panel’s membership would be welcome.  My hope is for improved partnership working with BASW and myself on related matters.  I expect many social workers of colour (and their allies) will be disappointed if SWE don’t revisit the above issues, once their panel of experts have reviewed it.            

 

Patiently waiting

 

In collaboration with allies and colleagues (inside and outside of BASW England), I’ve amplified the voices of Social Workers of colour in OUTLANDERS.  I’ve published an anti-racist Social Work framework and outlined readily deployable strategies.  I’ve developed a comprehensive ‘Anti-racism in Social Work’ presentation and delivered it at nearly 100 online events internationally (since May 2020).  I founded the BASW England Black & Ethnic Minority Professionals Symposium (BPS), (which is a multi-talented network of professionals across England).  I was joint winner of ‘Author of the Month’ in December 2020 for Social Work News magazine.  I’ve created a repository of anti-racism resources, which is utilised by thousands of Social Workers, organisations and stakeholders across the UK.  Here is my ‘Anti-racism in Social Work’ portfolio.  

 

Despite my prolific work in this area, I’m disheartened to have not been approached by SWE (or responsible MP’s) to explore my ‘Anti-racism in Social Work’ solutions.  I fear losing any momentum we have.  I remain patiently waiting for any opportunity to progress this work meaningfully.  Admittedly, I’m crestfallen, because I do not want to interpret the lack of responsivity as denial and rejection of my knowledge, expertise and lived (personal and professional) experiences. I don’t wish to appear populist or journalistic in my observations, but I genuinely don’t know whether some of the senior personnel at SWE are unaware of my work or just ignoring it.  I would prefer transparency and to be told that my efforts are not in accordance with their perceived vision – if that is the case.   I recognise there are minefields and pitfalls in embedding anti-racism in Social Work.  However, my door has remained metaphorically wide open for months.  

 

Those who govern the profession’s policies must do more than just be seen to acknowledge the advent of another social justice celebration (ie. Black History Month, Holocaust Memorial Day etc). These occasions are often met with bland blogs and ‘toxic positivity’ (if it all).  There is rarely accountability, substance or, more importantly – action.  My intelligence feels insulted when I read comments like: “…our statement of intent and inclusion shows how [anti-racism] is part of our core business.”  How can that be, when no actual proof is presented or when ‘anti-racism’ is only mentioned (fleetingly) once within the entire document?  This can easily be mistaken for brazen performative allyship.  Just so we are clear, suppressing racism does not mean racism does not exist.  

 

Sadly, none of the ‘Anti-racism in Social Work’ activities that I’ve been involved in have generated endorsement or support from SWE.  I sent an invitation for SWE representatives to view an online presentation I was delivering at the Anglia Ruskin University on 25/03/21.  Unfortunately, I did not receive a reply.  I shared a draft version of this article (with my portfolio and presentation) to offer them the right to reply and/or shape the final versions.  I received the following reply: 

“[We do not wish to make any comment at this point.]  We will continue our dialogue with the sector more broadly, as well as various representative groups within it, on all matters relating to equality, diversity, and inclusion (including anti-racism) as we continue to develop our work and approach. The strategic conversations we are involved with at a national level will also drive conversation and change.  Good luck with the article and your portfolio.” 

I’ll continue working effectively with organisational leaders and relevant stakeholders nationally to integrate anti-racism into Social Work at every level.  I will genuinely engage and collaborate with authentic allies and professionals who want to improve the circumstances of Social Workers and service-users of colour.  Preferably, with people who are honest about where they (and their organisations) are at on their anti-racism journey               

       

Social work remains institutionally racist

 

Sir William Macpherson (RIP) coined the term ‘institutional racism’ when reporting on the racially motivated murder of Stephen Lawrence in 1999.  In 2019, Ibram X Kendi (in his book ‘How to be an Anti-Racist’) suggested substituting the term ‘institutional racism’ with ‘racist policies.’  I understand and appreciate both positions and their contemporary relevance to Social Work.  My previous article on this received widespread agreement (and acclaim) from my peers.  However, sadly, it failed to generate any response from SWE – the very institution responsible for policy changes in Social Work. 

 

I’m pleased the Chief Social Workers for Adults and Children & Families have acknowledged their previous shortcomings and re-emphasised the importance of anti-racism.  Hopefully, this will involve the Workforce Race Equality Standards (WRES) becoming mandatory and universal across the profession (with a sense of urgency) and supplemented by other national initiatives from key Social Work stakeholders and policy makers. Black human rights activists are rarely welcomed by ‘the establishment.’  The obstacles Social Workers of colour face are simply the latest manifestations of what people like me have battled against continuously for centuries.  Opponents of ‘Anti-racism in Social Work’ must be mercilessly spotlighted, shamed and subverted.  

 

Clearly, some readers might take delight in labelling me as an ‘extremist’.  I admit, I’m extremely anti-racist.  If at this juncture, the message requires ‘tub-thumping’ – so be it!  Social justice must prevail. Let’s not forget, “when you’re accustomed to privilege, equality feels like oppression”. I remain convinced the 2 main obstacles to progress are ignorance and ‘wilful blindness’.                         

 

The OUTLANDERS anthology

 

OUTLANDERS: Hidden narratives from Social Workers of colour, is an anthology of essays, stories, poems and other miscellaneous works – which I co-edited and compiled in collaboration with Siobhan Maclean.  I’m proud to have been involved with OUTLANDERS and the richness and uniqueness it exudes.  People have enquired whether I will profit from the book.  Definitely not!  The profits will go to the Social Workers Benevolent Trust (SWBT).  At the time of writing, the book has sold 1000 copies and raised £700 for the SWBT.  As far as I’m concerned, OUTLANDERS is a legacy piece of Social Work history and literature.  Siobhan and I’s ‘labours of love’ for OUTLANDERS is an eternal gift to the Social Work profession.   

 

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The Problem with Diversity

Shonagh Reid portrait

Written by Shonagh Reid

Shonagh Reid is a former secondary school senior leader. She is now a Diversity, Equality and Inclusion Consultant and Coach.

After the awful events of last summer where systematic and institutional racism where laid bear with the murder of George Floyd, organisations have become more acutely aware of their approach to diversity, equality and inclusion. It is easy to believe that people of colour have become more outraged by systematic and institutional racism because of George Floyd, but this is not the case. There are plenty of events here in the UK that have added to trauma and exhaustion of our ethnic minorities. A few examples:

Mercy Baguma, originally from Uganda who lost her right to work in the UK and ended up starving to death next to her baby. This case highlighted the lack of care for black people in the UK and the vulnerability of refugees, who are more likely to be black. https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-scotland-glasgow-west-53904251

The data around the impact of Covid 19 which clearly demonstrates that BAME communities have been more at risk of long term damage from the virus and death. There are lots of reasons for this including but not limited to: the high level of BAME people working in the NHS in jobs that placed them at higher risk; cases of PPE being given to white colleagues over BAME colleagues when supply was short; BAME people more likely to work in jobs that cannot be done at home placing them at higher risk.

The experience of black women in childbirth where they are more likely to be left for longer periods of time, less likely to be given pain relief and four times more likely to die. https://www.theguardian.com/global-development/2021/jan/15/black-women-in-the-uk-four-times-more-likely-to-die-in-pregnancy-or-childbirth

The handling of the disappearance of Richard Okorogheye and the lack of urgency in his search when compared to other missing persons who were of a different ethnicity around the same time. The case highlighted the feeling of distrust towards the police and the fact that not all people in the UK feel they can rely on them. https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-england-london-56674932

These examples all tell us what people from ethnic minority backgrounds already know. Now that these stories are exposed more often they are quite rightly triggering leaders to take action in their organisations whether these are schools, hospitals or private companies. 

The difficulty here is that some leaders have a knee jerk reaction which then leads to a tokenistic response which can in fact make systematic racism worse and has little or no impact on long term diversity and inclusion. 

Easy Mistakes to Make

Realising you need more representation in your leadership structure and making quick appointments. 

Most people would agree that representation matters but just having someone of colour on your leadership team does not make it diverse or inclusive. Without leaders understanding that the new member of staff will need to be heard, valued and most importantly comfortable to show up as their authentic selves, they will not make the contributions they want to make, or the organisation expects. In fact, they may retreat from ‘harm’s way’, try to ‘blend in’ and suffer with mental health problems which in turn can lead to retention issues and so the problem continues. 

Assuming you already know what the problems are

Sometimes organisations will rush ahead with strategies they feel will fix the problem such as creating a network or group for BAME colleagues, asking a BAME colleague to be the spokesperson and lead on diversity often with no pay and organising ‘training’. This means that diversity feels like it is being done to an organisation rather than being an organic and meaningful process. A member of staff who is approached to be a representative or leader for diversity can sometimes feel that this in itself is a micro aggression. BAME people cannot speak for all BAME people, the term BAME has its own challenges and within that broad acronym the racist and discriminatory experiences of sub groups are vastly different. 

Creating an ethos of ‘not seeing colour’

The motivation behind this sentiment is often from a very good place: seeing people as equals, not being judgmental etc. The difficulty of ‘not seeing colour’ is that the by-product is that you are suggesting that you don’t see the person as an individual, don’t see their challenges and don’t recognise the barriers to success for them. It also means that you don’t have to challenge your own innate biases and behaviours. This can then lead people of colour feeling unseen, unvalued and ‘othered’.

Some tips:

 

  1. It is worth getting some professional support in your approach to diversity and inclusion at your organisation. Professionals will have a range of strategies to help but importantly will be able to see issues dispassionately, offer a third party that your teams can speak openly to without fear or favour and provide a critical friend relationship. 
  2. Get proper feedback from your stakeholders about what is going well and what isn’t. Listen to their suggestions about how they are made to feel by people, policies and systems in place and then respond. Ensure you have a regular and meaningful system of hearing everyone’s voice and vary how this is done.
  3. Look carefully at your data. Who has been promoted recently? Where are your pay gaps? Look at the qualifications, skills and abilities of your entire workforce, are people working at the level they really should be?
  4. Communicate openly and be honest. Tell all stakeholders where you are, where you want to be and what you plan to do to get there. 

 

It is understandable that leaders of organisations want to press ahead with ‘tackling the problem’, they don’t want to be seen as behind the times or insensitive and most people recognise the need for change, beware of rushing in without in-depth analysis and systematic change. 

The issues and tips here are just the beginning of a much wider discussion. There are a huge number of issues for diversity, equality and inclusion and an equal number of ways to approach a robust and meaningful strategy. It is very important to bear in mind that this blog has focussed on the issue of race and hasn’t discussed other protected groups which need a similar approach in any good diversity, equality and inclusion strategy.

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We All Need Inclusion

Lesley Berrington portrait

Written by Lesley Berrington

Author of the ‘Hattie and friends’ series of inclusive books.  I’m NNEB qualified and former owner of Stepping Stones Day Care Ltd. in Lincoln.

When I started searching for more diverse resources for my nurseries, it was quite easy to find books featuring children from a variety of ethnic backgrounds but disability was just invisible! I found very few story books featuring disability. The ones I did find made the disability ‘special’, I didn’t want that, I wanted to introduce disability without drawing attention to it. It was also important to me that the disability was not mentioned in the text, it was purely incidental so that the character was not defined by their disability. After further research I decided that I could meet this growing demand and Hattie was born!

 

I created ‘Hattie and friends’ around 15 years ago and, sadly, over that time I’ve seen very little change in the way we present disability in our society. Teachers and Childcare Professionals understand the need and importance for positive images of disability, so my books have been very well received and widely used by them. Unfortunately, I think we still have a long way to go to educate our wider society that books like mine are for ALL children. When I talk to people about my books they often assume that they are for disabled children until I explain the benefits for all children. Yes, disabled children need to see characters like themselves in story books, to give them a sense of belonging, make them feel valued and build their confidence and self -esteem. 

 

My message is that ALL children need to see disabled characters in story books and on television because disability is part of everyday life so it should be included in our media. There are more disabled characters in books and on television than there were 15 years ago but still not enough. I believe every child should own books which include some disabled characters, this will be a small but important step towards improving attitudes to disabled people who face daily struggles from abuse. 

Some parents may not have considered being more inclusive when they buy toys, books etc. so we need to raise awareness by having more choice in mainstream shops. How often have you seen disabled characters when buying dolls, puppets, games, jigsaws?

 

We need to raise awareness and ask – How inclusive is your bookshelf? If children see more disability and they receive a consistent message of respect and acceptance for the differences we have, they’ll see past the disability and understand that we are all unique individuals. Over 8,000 ‘Hattie and friends’ books are now being used to promote positive images of disability all over the UK. This is fantastic but I’d like to see more being bought by parents.

 

It can be difficult to answer children’s questions about disability so parents may avoid inclusive resources for that reason. We need to educate parents and help them to overcome any insecurities they may have. I’ve written some notes in the back of my book to help, support, and encourage parents to openly discuss any questions raised.

 

‘’The important message is that all children can be friends and have fun, abilities are not important. All young children accept differences, their curiosity will raise questions and they develop attitudes from the answers they receive. We must show, through our attitudes and actions, that we value all children equally.’’

 

The Channel 4 programme, ‘The Last Leg’ is a great example of presenting disability in a humorous way that is accessible to all adults. Initially this programme aired during the 2012 Paralympics and was so popular it became a regular show to discuss the news of the week. Their ‘Is it OK?’ segment encourages the public to ask questions without fear of judgement. This is a great way to educate!

 

During the Paralympic Games we all support Team GB with respect for every athlete’s dedication and determination. It’s a time when sport really unifies the nation and we’re all on the same side. Disability is exciting and cool! Every time I feel excited that this is the push that’s needed to make inclusion go mainstream. Unfortunately, a few weeks later the spotlight is turned off again. 

Progress is disappointingly slow!

 

So, what will the future bring? I truly hope there will be a massive increase in inclusive resources in people’s homes, more disabled people visible in television programmes and films. Not just as a ‘box ticking exercise’ but really breaking down barriers and changing attitudes towards disability in our society.

 

I’d love to hear your comments.

Website: www.hattieandfriends.co.uk

E-mail: lesley@hattieandfriends.co.uk

Twitter: @Hattiesfriends

Facebook and Instagram: @Hattieandfriendsauthor

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Time for Men to ‘Woman Up’!

Patrick Ottley-O'Connor

Written by Patrick Ottley-O'Connor

Executive Headteacher/Principal, Coach, Wellbeing Advocate and #HeForShe Ally.

The United Nations @HeForShe movement has reported that they are seeing the stereotypical gender roles of women at home become more apparent during lockdown and want to highlight positive male models with their new lockdown hashtag of #HeForSheAtHome. Globally women do more than men at home and @HeForShe are asking men to share photos to amplify support & show how you are being #HeForSheAtHome and amplify the aspiration for gender equality.

Although I agree with the aspiration, I felt a little uncomfortable simply sharing an image of me cooking and vacuuming at home, basking in the ‘likes’ and comments telling me how good I am for being #HeForShe. In recent years, I have become more comfortable having uncomfortable conversations with myself; understanding the systemic and societal issues which may have played out in my lucky career is eye opening and allows me to use this privilege to amplify those who do not have it. However, I also know that my #HeForShe allyship must not be self-defined, instead, the work and efforts must be recognized by those you are seeking to ally with.

Consequently, I asked the wonderful #WomenEd community how they think I should respond. As usual, I was not disappointed by the support and challenge that I received! Hannah Wilson, @Ethical_Leader and @WomenEd Co-founder offered support, shared some LeanIn articles exploring this, as well as providing a simple cartoon image to highlight the plight of women.

Alison Kriel, @AlisonKriel raised some important questions:

‘…it’s great that the world is waking up to the fact that most women do at least two jobs, one that’s paid and one that’s unpaid. I think it’s great to share positive images of men supporting in the home, and I’ve no doubt that it’ll be retweeted and celebrated widely. My question is, if #HeForShe is about amplifying the voice of women so that we can be heard, what can be done to celebrate women in the same way. If an image is shared of a man washing up (‘doing the right thing’ as you say), it will be ‘liked’ many times over. What can the movement do to get as many ‘likes’ for a woman doing exactly the same thing? …so how do we level the playing field? How do we highlight the disparity? How do we all become heroes for doing domestic chores?’

There is a danger that my words could sound patronising, or ‘Patrick-onising’ as Mel, my wife, likes to call it! It’s against this backdrop and advice given to me that I cautiously offer my opinion as a man who passionately believes in gender equality and genuine allyship as #HeForShe. That involves me continually investing my time in supporting others, holding myself accountable when mistakes are made, apologising and being prepared to rework my approach towards gender equality as needs change. I’m listening to women to ensure my words and actions are in sync with their message. Without this, words without actions can be detrimental and work against changing the culture.The COVID-19 pandemic has made us all reflect on life, priorities and what really matters. It’s affected all of us in some way. In addition to those who have contracted and suffered the consequences of Covid-19, many families are struggling with financial hardship, bereavement, domestic violence and mental health issues. In addition, many men are now discovering what it’s like to spend much of their time juggling work, childcare, and a household to manage! The work/household juggling challenge is nothing new for many women. Despite women being a significant proportion of the paid workforce, they still do disproportionately more than their fair share of unpaid household work and childcare.

The pandemic has closed schools and childcare providers, exacerbating the stresses and strains of home-schooling, childcare and household tasks. Naomi Ward, @Naomi7444 told me that:

‘This theme is arising in my coaching, especially for the #MTPTproject. My observations are that when this happened and all cards were thrown into the air, is when they feel we defaulted into traditional gender roles. So, caring for the children, housework and teaching / on-line learning pile up into many more hours than usual. Work is interrupted so it takes longer. And there is the mental load of keeping everything going which traditionally falls to women. It’s about communication, honesty, the vulnerability to ask for what we need. The pressure on relationships is real…I guess we all know that this is more complicated and messier than a social media campaign! If it starts a conversation, that’s a good thing.’

The increase and ease of communication, for those with digital access, has enabled working flexibility from home during lockdown’ but not necessarily made life easier when parents are juggling job responsibilities, full-time childcare, and supervision of children’s education…again, this juggling has left many women doing more than their fair share. With almost 1.6 billion children out of school globally, combined with non-keyworkers working from home, more men are in a position to do more housework and childcare during the pandemic.  What a great opportunity for men to dive into the daily routines of running a home and caring for their children. Men are increasingly taking shared paternity leave; however, most men have never worked from home for an extended period, as well as managing the housework and childcare.

The pandemic lockdown presents a perfect opportunity for more men to share more fully in-home duties for an extended period of time. This has the potential to start to turn the tide of gender inequality, both at home and work.

Men homeworking during the pandemic could grasp a greater appreciation of more traditional women’s experiences. They could develop a greater understanding of the value of flexible work arrangements. They could adapt to create a new gender balanced role model, to become more equitable gender role models for their own children. Hannah Wilson shared some of her MA research into flexible working:

‘research shows that an organisation is more likely to agree flexible working arrangements if men are requesting these adjustments to their working patterns. I anticipate a surge in requests for flexible working to include part-time, job share and compressed hours as a result of the pandemic. The business case against flexible working in schools has imploded. Perhaps more men will consider fully leaning in to domestic responsibilities?’

#HeForSheAtHome needs men to do their fair share of household tasks, childcare, home learning, planning of activities, and supporting their partner’s career. A genuine equal partnership at home, will surely support gender equality at work as well. In short, I believe that women with equal partners at home have the potential to be more successful at work. If women are less concerned with the impact of their work role on family responsibilities, they should be able to focus more fully to their work and be able to take advantage of career development opportunities.

Mel and I try to role model gender equality for our 5 sons, shaping expectations for their futures. We have to believe that our sons, who have seen us role model equal partnership in our household duties, have a perspective of greater equality for women’s and men’s roles at home and work.

Although I found it difficult as a younger leader, I am now not afraid to ask for and talk about why I need flexibility in my work schedule, e.g. with my children’s/parents’ medical appointments. If it’s only women who request and use flexible work arrangements, paid sick leave, and parental leave, it perpetuates the perception that this flexibility is just for women. In turn, this perpetuates a stigma that stops men from even asking for flexible working. If men do their fair share in creating equal partnerships at home, then we could begin to normalise flexible working for everyone.

My 10 tips for how men can help to bear the load of unpaid work and do their fair share as #HeForSheAtHome:

  1. Deliberately prioritise work and family responsibilities…and then stick to it, model being #HeForSheAtHome;
  2. Have a genuine conversation with your partner about household tasks and childcare. Don’t become defensive, but use it as an opportunity to do your fair share;
  3. Engage with the social family planning and organisation, e.g. organising birthday arrangements, holiday planning, shopping lists, medical appointments;
  4. Let go of your purely personal aspirations and make a concerted effort to support your partner’s career without reservation. Once you’ve done this build your own aspirations back up in genuine partnership, establishing a clear and shared priority for careers, childcare and household tasks;
  5. Model how to navigate the messiness of life, by openly communicating family and career goals. Life is messy, so show your kids how to disagree, respecting each other’s viewpoints. Let your children see how and why decisions are made through balance and compromise;
  6. Develop a positive attitude towards childcare and household responsibilities, to send an enduring message of commitment as #HeForSheAtHome to your children and partner;
  7. Be authentic in what you do and say. Most people are living the same reality of juggling work, household tasks, childcare, pets, sharing space etc, so avoid creating a utopian image of peace and quiet;
  8. Let people know that you are doing your fair share at home, by being transparent with your family, friends and paid work colleagues. This will help you to manage your availability and work schedule, to enable you to prioritise family responsibilities;
  9. Shine a light on what you’re doing as #HeForSheAtHome by talking about the highs and lows in achieving genuine allyship and partnership, so that others feel more comfortable to sharing their own reality;
  10. Use your #HeForShe as a badge of honour to call out unacceptable language and behaviour towards woman and be heard, don’t just leave it for women to challenge everyday sexism and discrimination.

I was once explaining a strategy to a senior group of executives, when the most senior man interrupted me and stated: “We need to man up and grow some balls!” Although several there had previously warned me about his behaviour, both male and female jaws dropped at his comment.

I paused, before suggesting that in my opinion: ‘…they were a very vulnerable and delicate part of the male anatomy, that when only slightly knocked leave a man writhing around on the floor. Why not say ‘woman up and grow a vagina’, because women seem much more resilient after passing humans out of their bodies?’

The pandemic is presenting new challenges, but the opportunities are now greater as we move forward out of the pandemic. Men now have the opportunity to reinvent their allyship and the ability to act on gender equality to create a new future. The more that men can become #HeForSheAtHome, then the closer we will get to achieving equality for women in the workplace as well. These actions will support your journey in becoming the dad and partner you know you want to be!

In conclusion, my call to men is to:

  • regularly communicate and listen to your partner, adapt your thinking, continually revisit and rework what you believe to be correct and become more comfortable being uncomfortable;
  • ‘Woman up’ and in the words of @WomenEd be 10% braver in using the pandemic as an opportunity to become more #HeForSheAtHome;
  • join the United Nations @HeForShe movement in challenging stereotypical gender roles of women and use your voice to highlight positive male models during lockdown by sharing an image and message with the world to champion gender equality with #HeForSheAtHome.

 Access further articles and resources here from Leanin.org:

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How to Imbed Inclusion and Diversity in Schools

Jess Gosling portrait

Written by Jess Gosling

An experienced international Early Years teacher, blogger and writer. She is currently writing a book for international teachers, 'Becoming an International Teacher'.

I am currently in my seventh year as an international teacher. My students, in the majority, are wealthy Taiwanese. In order to support their learning, I have researched my students’ socio-cultural experiences and their funds of knowledge. Funds of knowledge represent the bodies of knowledge they come to school with: including the information, skills, and strategies which underlie household functioning, development, and well-being (Hedges et al. 189). From these understandings, I know their experiences of diversity and inclusion are quite narrow. Therefore, my process of embedding these concepts begins early, at the start of the academic year. I present my class with ideas of inclusion in a way they understand and that is relevant to them. My starting points allow them to think beyond their own experiences and understandings. 

Tackling gender roles

Stories help support concepts of fluid gender roles. From when I very first introduced ‘acting’ our class stories, I emphasized that a name was just a name or label. As there was no gender attached, a boy or a girl could represent a name. So, for example, when the story had a character named Daisy, I would ask ‘Who wants to be Daisy today?’ There were only one or two quizzical looks about this concept initially but now, due to frequent exposure, there is a total acceptance. I feel this is one way in which I can demonstrate how we do not need to be defined by a gender. Addressing these perceptions, rather than attempting to side-step them, is the way forward to transforming ideas. 

Discussing cultural differences

When texts are selected carefully, they are able to illustrate a diverse representation of cultures. However, it is important these stories show children following both culturally ‘different’ activities as well as living ‘standard’, everyday lives, similar to the children. Following a book share, we discuss any perceived differences and similarities, encouraging questions. One carefully selected story was ‘Amazing Grace’. This text is about a little girl who wanted to be Peter Pan in a school show. But the fact she was black and a girl was highlighted by her peers, who were unkind to her and told her she could not be Peter Pan. My students were shocked by the peers, explaining that Grace was the best actor for the job. This story was particularly relatable to my children as they understood this concept well as we act in our own shows. I also highlight my own difference, as a fair-skinned person in Asia. I explained how often I am stared at, or my freckles commented upon. I revealed my feelings of sadness and how I do not like people to point out my differences.  

Addressing disabilities

I led an assembly where I showed a ‘Sesame Street’ clip featuring a girl with Downs Syndrome. We talked about how she looked and spoke a little differently. The children hadn’t initially mentioned this, as they were more focused on what she had to say (or perhaps watching the ‘big screen’!) I raised the question; how would you feel if people always saw you as different? The children replied that she was just a girl. I said people may point out how she looks and sounds different and they were a little bit surprised by that. I think maybe they hadn’t come across it. By raising awareness of this, my intent was that they start to build upon concepts of ‘right’ reactions in these situations. 

Expressing viewpoints

Our class has its foundations rooted in kindness. We allow for differences with our friends and identify how we have different likes and dislikes. I follow their questioning and views. Young children are very curious, discussing these ‘big’ concepts in a safe place is vital. Further, the children know that all ideas are appreciated. This is particularly the case if they express a contrary viewpoint. One example was when we viewed a photo of an African hut.  A little girl responded to the photo saying ‘…ooh that looks so dirty’. As a class, we picked the idea apart. We did not judge or reprimand her for this comment but instead we explored her perception and reasons why a house may be built in that way. You can really help support a mindset change through calm discussion. I don’t believe in making children feel guilty for opinion, as they have developed these from socio-cultural experiences and from adults around them. The adult world does not give young children enough credit for how intelligent they are and how much they perceive and listen to others. We, as educators, need to  treat them as the capable individuals they are, capable of a growth mindset. Yet, concepts of inclusion and diversity must be revisited constantly to embed the notion of equality for all. 

References:

Helen Hedges, Joy Cullen, Barbara Jordan “Early years curriculum: Funds of knowledge as a conceptual framework for children’s interests,” Journal of Curriculum Studies 43, no. 2 (2011): 185–205, https://doi.org/10.1080/00220272.2010.511275.

Sesame Street “What Makes You Special?” 21st February 2015. 1.54-1.20 https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=LrPm7BasRBo 

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Why Are Pictures of Prophet Muhammed Forbidden in Islam?

Zahara Chowdhury portrait

Written by Zahara Chowdhury

Wellbeing and education coach. She is founder of a new digital platform for students, www.schoolshouldbe.com and www.zenworkhub.com supporting professionals with their wellbeing.

I want to make it clear from the outset that pictures of the Prophet and revered figures in Islam are offensive to the Muslim community. My article below addresses the treatment of the event and school culture. This is a very sensitive subject and one I hope I have managed with respect and empathy.


The news surrounding events at Batley Grammar School has sparked a wave of outrage and controversy across Muslim communities and the media. For those of you who don’t know, a teacher was suspended pending an investigation into the alleged use of a cartoon of the Prophet Muhammad (pbuh) in his lesson, which has offended Muslim community members and students.


As a teacher, when I first heard this on the news I personally was not offended, I was intrigued. I was then perplexed as to whether I should be offended as a practicing Muslim. In any case, there are three things I want to clarify:

  • Idolatry and depictions of the Prophet Mohammed and other prophets are prohibited in Islam as they are ‘’infallible’ and revered figures, and ‘according to the Islamic faith […] should not be presented in any manner that might cause disrespect for them.’ (Dr Azzam Tamimi to the BBC in 2015); 
  • A teacher has every right to spark learning and engagement within the parameters set out by the UK teaching standards, their experience, knowledge and understanding of their students;
  • In no way are death threats and aggressive behaviour a reflection of Islam. 

 

WHY ARE PICTURES OF PROPHET MUHAMMAD FORBIDDEN? 

 

This is a pretty fully loaded question and let me start by saying the accuracy here is only as good as Google and the references I have sought. Also, as a practicing Muslim, I don’t feel comfortable tagging archives and historical documents of Islamic images here.


There are apparently no transparent references as to why pictures of Muhammad are forbidden in the Quran. However, in the Hadith (quotes, events and experiences from the life of the Prophet Muhammad (pbuh)) it is said that the idolatry and the creation or worship of images is prohibited – it is deemed disrespectful as stated above and the only One able to create is Allah (swt). Of course, Islam dates back to the 7th century, and there are plenty of historical artefacts and pictures where you will often find the Prophet with no facial features. From the beginnings of the Ottoman Empire (13th century) to colonialism tearing through the world, there were fewer and fewer depictions of the Prophet too – whatever way you look at it, whether it be from the perspective of power, history or religious instruction, this is followed by a large majority of Muslims if not all and it dates back to religious scriptures and historical narratives. 


I haven’t answered this question in its entirety as it’s not something I know enough about. However, it is something I respect as a practising Muslim, just like I respect the principles and truth of all other faiths too. I may not agree or follow them, but I respect them and I would never want to knowingly offend anyone or any faith. And, I really don’t think the teacher in question did either. 


TEACHING AND LEARNING THE UNCOMFORTABLE

 

In previous blog posts and in the many conversations I have had since launching School Should Be, I am constantly reminded of the glaring gap in our education system when teaching the uncomfortable. Whether that be racism, prejudice, classism, sexism…in this case, religion, adults seem to have a deafening problem with students learning about the uncomfortable. It’s interesting; when I googled ‘learning the uncomfortable’ I was presented with a range of articles from Forbes, Harvard Business Review and a few more all concluding that ‘being uncomfortable’ is the key to success.


These articles all link uncomfortable learning to a new skill and pushing outside the ever-cliched and demonised ‘comfort zone’ (which, I love by the way). As a teacher and a student, I’ve realised the uncomfortable isn’t a new skill, it’s the courage to address, discuss and explore taboo and socially accepted norms that remain unchallenged because of fear. 

What this teacher tried to do was teach and enable learning. What the community are doing is in defence of their faith, perhaps triggered by a history of damaging criticism. What the media did was present an angle of Islam tinged with negative bias. 

 

What the school choose to do is up to them – however, it just goes to show the world how multifaceted the role of a school is in the lives of young people, teachers and communities. And as a previous Head of Department and experience on senior leadership, I really do empathise with the decisions they are having to make.


I think back to my time in teaching and the many roles I’ve held in education (including this one at School Should Be). I taught a wide variety of things: To Kill a Mockingbird, Of Mice and Men, a variety of Shakespeare, Austen, Chaucer, alongside writing to argue, writing to persuade, creative writing….all the fun stuff, some might say. There is a great deal in all of these texts that is offensive, but how we manage and respond to that offence is another question entirely – death threats and aggressive behaviour isn’t the answer, unlearning, compassion and allyship is.

 

It is a teacher’s responsibility to be mindful of the different beliefs in their class. It is also one massive feat.

 

Should this teacher maybe have checked with parents beforehand, addressed it with their line manager, considered the consequences of displaying this image, and the context of recent events? Probably. Do they deserve to be threatened, cancelled and potentially used as a scapegoat? Absolutely not. There are now several articles reporting on this event and I’ve read through a few too many of them. What I’ve concluded is that this teacher is sincerely apologetic, did not mean to be provocative, in no way wanted to offend anyone and if anything, wanted to encourage a healthy debate. 


Was the teacher’s use of the image offensive? 

 

For Muslims, yes. As a practising Muslim student and parent however, I would’ve liked to have been consulted and perhaps discussed the images as opposed to presenting them on the board. Bottom line is we all make mistakes in our professional careers and I hope this teacher is supported by their school and given the chance to learn and reflect on this experience. Islam is a forgiving and compassionate religion; in my opinion, this teacher deserves that.


NEGATIVE BIAS AND ISLAM 

 

Death threats, aggression and threatening behaviour are in no way reflective of the Islamic faith or any faith for that matter. Someone once said to me, religion is only as good as the people who practice it. I think that’s a very weak argument, but one that is valid as it just comes from a different lived experience. As a practicing Muslim, the truth of my religion is more powerful than any individual or ‘people’ – those choosing to practice it in ill faith, or in my opinion, use the religion to front their aggression are the problem, not the religion.

 

 

Unfortunately, the images of the protestors and the response from community leaders have been presented in a negative light. I won’t lie, when I first saw the video footage and images, I was disheartened by yet again another media debacle, which only serves to fuel the negative bias around Islam. However, I can equally sympathise with the protestors – and I really hope you have the patience to reserve judgment until the end of this piece. 


My earliest recollection of my religion in the media is the event of 9/11. I’m not going to go into detail, but ever since several reports, films and the like have always presented Islam and Muslims in a rather negative light. I’m not going to explain why or how, or go into the nuances, because frankly, it’s exhausting to constantly justify the way a POC feels – or in this instance, a person of faith. I’m not somebody who is easily offended, but I am someone who cares and is deeply compassionate. If you are too, then please understand that although the threatening behaviour is absolutely wrong, the hurt and anger around the events at the school come from a place of historical exhaustion and pain.


Many Muslims may have seen the teacher’s actions as another way of presenting Islam in a negative light. Why that image? Why not just a discussion? Why were parents not consulted? I am in no way condoning the threatening behaviour, but I think if we all want to live in a peaceful world (the idealist in me can only hope) we have to at least try and see where people are coming from and figure out a way to live in harmony with different viewpoints – not continue to antagonise and polarise. 


When it comes to schooling, teaching and learning, approaching education with an open mind, without fear and I guess, with the knowledge you may cause some form of discomfort and controversy is important. Is it possible to cause offence? Of course! However, being offended and how you respond to offence is something to learn too.


I don’t want students to be scared of asking questions, to rely on social media for knowledge or to live in fear of their opinions. If anything, it’s important to just approach all discussions from a place of empathy, compassion…and sometimes (if not most), sheer common sense


References: 

https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/magazine-30814555

https://hbr.org/2019/08/learning-is-supposed-to-feel-uncomfortable

https://www.forbes.com/sites/sujanpatel/2016/03/09/why-feeling-uncomfortable-is-the-key-to-success/?sh=bb7104719133

https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/morning-mix/wp/2015/01/16/how-images-of-the-prophet-muhammad-became-forbidden/

https://nypost.com/2010/01/10/jihad-jitters-at-met/

 

Please join our upcoming SSBChat event to discuss how to have conversations about religion in the classroom via Zoom. 

 

School Should Be is a platform to encourage students to find their voice and discuss topics and issues they should and want to be learning at schools. It is a place other educators and professionals can share lessons and learnings they think should be centralised in schools too. 

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Neurodiversity

Dr Sarah Chicken portrait

Written by Dr Sarah Chicken

Senior Lecturer in Education and Childhood at UWE, Bristol where she teaches across undergraduate and postgraduate programmes.

I am a senior lecturer in the Department of Education at an English University where I have worked for seventeen years.  I also have a diagnosis of dyspraxia. Dyspraxia or Developmental Coordination Disorder (DCD) is a complex neurological condition which affects the messages between the brain and the body impacting on movement and cognition.  Instead of a message going from A to B, for someone with dyspraxia, it can take a detour from A to X, Y and Z ( in no particular order) before making the journey back to B.  This can be exhausting!  

 

An important issue is that others may not understand how substantial some challenges can be; for example, I have been an educator for decades, teaching students from 3 to 73  across diverse social, political and cultural contexts; I have a PhD and a range of Master’s level qualifications so when I find difficulties filling in forms, driving a car, finding my way around university systems and the world in general, this can seem perplexing to others. However, a ‘spikey’ learning profile, (where there are significant discrepancies between the things that someone is good at and those that they struggle with) is a key feature of a neurodiverse profile.   In my own case, psychometric tests indicate a large gap between my verbal reasoning at the one end of the scale and my processing speed and working memory at the other end of the scale.

 

This often feels like I have a fantastic computer which has been ill-matched with some rather outdated software and I spend a lot of time feeling out of synch. This can impact on my physical coordination (my dancing is legendary for all of the wrong reasons ) and my speech and cognition which sometimes is not quite connected.   When I am tired or anxious, I can stumble over words or words can tumble out of my mouth in ‘my incoherent soup’. This anxiety-inducing prospect can lead to remaining quiet in large group situations despite having lots of ideas.  On other occasions, I end up talking over the top of people as I can’t quite find the right place to come into a conversation and this can appear impolite.  

 

Many neurodivergent people have issues with the processing of sensory information; whilst I can hear words in busy environments, I am not always sure if I have fully processed the meaning. Harsh lighting is challenging for me   and can cause eye disturbances which feel as if I am looking through a kaleidoscope with pieces of the picture all jumbled up.     Unfortunately, this is often the case in many parts of my working environment including shared social spaces.  

 

At the same time, I am determined and driven (pardon the pun), whilst it took me 17 years to pass my driving test, I got there in the end!   This is because I have limited spatial awareness or depth perception, whilst I can physically see space, I can’t quite ‘feel’ or judge if my car ( or body) can fit.    On the odd occasions that I have been brave enough to drive to work, students have found great amusement as I have tried to park my car – I don’t blame them, I need a runway!

 

To return to my computer analogy, the cognitive pressure of too much multitasking can feel like having too many tabs open at the same time and I start to slow down – now throw into the mix the mismatch between my computer and out- of-date software and there is a danger that I could shut down altogether.  Since my diagnosis I realise that this has implications for my work and life and I am far more successful when I can really concentrate on a small range of activities ( I am a details-person)  rather than being spread thinly across many.  

 

At the same time, my dyspraxia can be viewed as a gift and a superpower.   It offers a unique perspective of the world leading to creative and ‘outside of the box’ thinking when I am in environments where I feel ‘safe’ and valued.  I have a good sense of humour; I have to see the funny side of often tripping over and bumping into things and jumbling up my words. Like others with dyspraxia, I have a ‘stick with it ‘attitude, I am solution-focussed, analytical and very empathetic.  I am fortunate to be in a job where I can draw on these strengths to design and deliver teaching, learning and research opportunities which engage and inspire and most of all where I am able to celebrate the wonderful range of diversity seen within the human race. 

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Engaging With Diversity – Giving Pupils a Voice

Gaurav Dubay portrait

Written by Gaurav Dubay

Head of English at King Edwards VI Handsworth Grammar School for Boys and Evidence Lead in Education.

The need to diversify

In 2010, the then Education Secretary, Michael Gove, announced a number of sweeping educational reforms – particularly in English – where the likes of Byron, Keats and Dickens would firmly be re-rooted and restored to their original veneration within the English educational system. The changes were designed to bring rigour and improve students’ grasp of English Language and Literature. Whilst I firmly welcomed the ambitions, I feared that the texts I loved – ‘To Kill a Mockingbird’, ‘All My Sons’ and ‘Shards of Memory’ – would be relegated to the lower leagues of what I like to call The Reading League, and thus deny countless students access to texts that they could both learn from and relate to. 

 

Since that time, my suspicions have been confirmed by countless reports, and, most recently, The National Literacy Trust concluded that the majority of ethnic minority students do not ‘see themselves in what they read’ (Best et al, 2020). The findings of reports like the one aforementioned, as well as our own internal evidence, meant that we – in a multi-ethnic school – needed to work on developing curriculum diversity. The words of Fletcher (2005) resonated with us where the assertion is made that learners’ voice creates ‘empathetic learning environments that value diversity and multiple perspectives.’ We made the choice, therefore, to put our students at the forefront of the discussion on curriculum diversity. 

 

What did our pupil voice dialogue look like? 

MHS (Mentally Healthy Schools) argues pupil voice is an effective mechanism through which we ‘can create meaningful change…better academic outcomes’ and perhaps most importantly facilitates ‘a sense of empowerment and inclusion’. There is a wealth of information we can refer to in order to successfully implement pupil voice. However, we strongly felt that we needed our students to feel a sense of ‘empowerment’ through the process. We, therefore, framed our discussion using the following format: 

  1. Explored, discussed and defined the meaning of diversity. 
  2. Explored what worked well in our curriculum. 
  3. Explored what didn’t work well. 
  4. Develop pragmatic solutions. 

 

Finally, in order to value all voices, students were chosen to contribute through randomised selection. 

 

The outcomes of the discussion:

  • Defining diversity – It was clear from the onset that our students believed that the celebration of our unique identities – race, religion and gender – was to feature as part of our definition. However, there was a growing sense, through the process, that uniqueness and equality could not be separated; each unique experience needed to be equally understood and equally valued. To that end, our students phrased our department’s diversity vision as ‘An acceptance, recognition and celebration of our unique identities. Each unique experience – regardless of race, religion, sexuality and the like – are to be celebrated. No voice will be silenced and all voices will be respected.’  Perhaps the most enlightening experience was the unanimous feeling that the word ‘tolerance’ was not to feature as part of the definition. 
  • WWW – Students strongly agreed that the curriculum, particularly at Key Stage 3, exposed them to diverse voices. One student felt he would have ‘been none the wiser about the tensions traditional African women face had it not have been for The No1 Ladies’ Detective Agency’. Others appreciated the opportunity to discuss topical issues with regards to race through their study of transactional writing in year 11 and ‘Othello’ in Sixth Form. 
  • HTD – The discussion did, however, expose flaws that need addressing. Whilst the success of English learning lies in the variegating offerings of texts and genres studied, it was strongly felt that the discussion needed to extend beyond the English curriculum and many confirmed the findings of Johnson (2010) who felt that diversity broadens beyond the school curriculum and needs to be part of a school’s ethos. Our pupils also felt more needed to be done to ‘educate’ – not ‘punish’ – those who ‘might get it wrong’. 
  • Feeding in to our DDP – The findings of our discussion have since been implemented in to our DDP (see https://www.handsworth.bham.sch.uk/curriculum/subjects/english/). It will be our students, however, who will be tasked with evaluating our effectiveness and they, too, will play an important role in successfully building a diverse curriculum that regularly seeks to explore the voices of those who are often marginalised. 
  • Wider school – following the findings, students will discuss their findings further with the School Council. 

What we learnt:

Time! This is perhaps the most important lesson we learnt as a leadership team. Discussions about diversity cannot simply be timetabled and forgotten about. We needed to extend our discussion not once, not twice, but three times (and if we could have discussed more, we would)! There was a lot that needed to be said, digested and explored. 

 

Personally, however, I felt that our students would not come up with solutions that were pragmatic. I was well and truly proven wrong! Solutions were not only pragmatic, but insightful, empathetic and empowering. TP Due argues, ‘Diversity should just be called reality. Your books, your TV shows, your movies, your articles, your curricula need to reflect reality.’ We are not there yet – but we are on a journey to get there. 

For further information, please follow us @english_hgs 

Personal Twitter handle: @GauravDubay3

Bibliography:

  • Best, Clark and Picton, I. (2020). ‘Seeing Yourself in What you Read: Diversity and Children and Young People’s Reading in 2020’. NLT – UK. 
  • Johnson, LS (2010). ‘The Diversity Imperative: Building a culturally responsive school ethos’. Intercultural Education. 14. p 17 – 30. 

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