What's in a Name?

Malarvilie Krishnasamy portrait

Written by Malarvilie Krishnasamy

Mal is an education consultant specialising in leadership development, coaching in schools and SMSC (spiritual, moral, social and cultural development). Mal supports educational leaders to create a self-sustaining culture of professional development and is a Regional Leader for WomenEdSE and the Dorset Advocate for the MaternityCPD Project & a Healthy Toolkit Advocate.

“What’s in a name? That which we call a rose

By any other name would smell as sweet.” Juliet

Do names matter?

According to Shakespeare, not so much.

My name is Malarvilie. It may seem unusual but in India, Malaysia and Sri Lanka amongst the Tamil, Malayalam and Telungu communities (about 200 million people) it’s the equivalent of Sharon or Kate.

In my parents’ culture, the father’s first name is the family surname. My dad’s name was Krishna and his dad’s name was Rajaiyan. When the British closed down their naval base in Singapore, my dad became jobless but was offered a British passport as Britain needed workers. As he had 3 kids he jumped at the chance to work in the ‘motherland’. On his passport, the British added the ‘samy’ to Krishna. They did this often. Ever wondered why there are so many Patels in India? Much like ‘Jones’ for the Welsh and in Ireland, the English changed many names e.g.instead of Tadgh, they’d rename them ‘Tim’.

Malar means flower. Vilie means eyes. It sounded like I looked like an alien when I was born. I’ve clearly grown into my eyes. So they named me Malarvilie which together means a flower in bloom. My husband, Tim rips me to pieces every now and then about it.

When I was born, my dad wanted my grandad’s name added to my birth certificate as it’s an ancient Indian name and he was proud to have a child born in London. But my parents’ English wasn’t great in 1973. So my birth certificate says my name is Malarvilie Krishnasamy Rajaiyan. Even at my dad’s funeral, his name was wrong. When I mentioned it, a family member said ‘Oh he didn’t mind’. Is that the point? I also believe he did mind.

The Ting Tings understood!

https://youtu.be/v1c2OfAzDTI

In certain cultures they don’t correct you. In the UK there’s an awful habit of changing names to suit the English pallet. Or worse, it’s changed for you. Age 3, my childminder called me Mandy.

I’ve had a range of nicknames over the years:

– Mandy

– Malibu

– Milli Vanilli

– Mallory

My favourites are: ‘Malarvilie Christened-a-Salami’. I also found ‘Malarvilie Ham-bacon-Sarny’ amusing.

Even my parents called me Malar. Apparently by the time they said ‘vilie’, I was already there. 

But since 6th form I’ve been Mal.

Teaching

As a teacher, in our first lesson together, I’d tell the kids all the nicknames I’ve had and put on the board Krish/na/sa/my. I’d say I’ve heard all the nicknames as a kid but I couldn’t do anything then, now as a teacher I can hand out detentions! I’d also say I expect them to say my name properly and I will ensure I say their name properly. Some children would say ‘Call me whatever’. But I’d insist they tell me how to say their name. 

As a teacher in one school, on my first day I introduced myself to staff as Malarvilie. Within a few hours everyone was calling me Mal, without permission, some without trying, some with a look of panic asking ‘do you have a short version?’ It was disheartening.

Smash the Patriarchy!

We got married in September. I didn’t change my name, as it’s my name. But Tim added Rajaiyan to his name. Our 2 kids have Rajaiyan as their middle names. It means ‘victorious king’. Our eldest is named Taigh Rajaiyan McCullagh, you can see his heritage in his name – Indian Irish. I feel a sense of pride when I see my children’s names in print. 

In the last 30 years, no one has called me Malarvilie until now.

I moved to Spain. At passport control in Valencia, the guy looked at my name and said ‘Malarvilie’ I nodded in shock and he asked ‘Is that correct?’ It was perfect. The Spaniards roll their ‘r’s so it’s easy for them. They’re also not afraid of long names. Unfortunately, Mal means’ bad’ or ‘evil’ in Spanish so saying ‘My name is Mal’ would be problematic. So, I introduce myself as Malarvilie. Tim has started calling me Malarvilie too as introducing me as ‘evil’ doesn’t feel right to him.

In Spain, in a funny way I feel more whole and less apologetic for my heritage.

So, what’s in a name? A lot actually.

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An Ongoing Marriage Bar in Education?

Emma Sheppard portrait

Written by Emma Sheppard

Emma founded The MTPT Project, the UK's charity for parent teachers, in 2016 when on maternity leave with her first child. She has 12 years experience as an English teacher, Lead Practitioner and ITT Lead, and now runs The MTPT Project full time.

Of all the protected characteristics, considering the relevance of ‘marriage and civil partnership’ to our education sector might leave us scratching our heads a little.  In its most obvious form, discrimination according to this characteristic can play out in interview or progression scenarios where prejudices around employees’ stability, current or future priorities or flight risk might play in their favour, or against.  There are also overlaps to consider here with the protected characteristics of pregnancy and maternity, and sexual orientation, especially given the welcome changes to marriage law in the UK over the last decade.

However, recent research from The MTPT Project has revealed that being married or in a long-term partnership can have an impact on teacher retention, particularly amongst heterosexual mothers.  In our three-year study into female teachers aged 30-39 who had stayed in, or left teaching, relationships with husbands and partners played a part in teachers’ decisions to leave the profession.  But what nuance is their behind these findings, and what can we do to avoid discrimination towards teachers in marriages or civil partnerships if this variable seems to spell out bad news?

Firstly, it’s important to note that this research is ongoing: The MTPT Project are yet to release a report on the role that husbands or partners play in keeping teachers in the profession, or supporting their progression.  What’s more, far from instigating teachers’ decisions to leave the classroom, husbands and partners were found to act more symbolically as a mirror, or foil to other much larger issues that affect our workforce, whether teachers are married or not.

In this aspect of the study, interviews revealed the following:

Where teachers in the study were the lower wage earner, decisions around their husband / partner’s job took priority.  So when it came to relocation, reduction of hours, or taking on a heavier domestic load, a teacher was lost to the profession because… well, her husband’s job was more important – it paid the bills!  But isn’t this simply a reflection of the gender pay gap that persists both in education and British society as a whole, and the continuing likelihood for women – particularly mothers – to take on the majority of caring and domestic duties?

When teachers in the study were stressed and burnt out, it was their husbands who were both negatively impacted, and who provided the voice of reason and compassion.  Interview participants told stories of interventions around mental health, improved relationships once they’d stopped teaching and generally happier family units.  But aren’t husbands simply providing the echo here to persistent reports around poor wellbeing that pervade the entire profession?

When teachers in the study had the time – often during maternity leave or school holidays – to reflect and look for an escape route, they compared their jobs with their partners’.  Even when they saw a lower wage, they saw greater flexibility, better benefits packages, higher levels of praise, and better work-life balance.  But doesn’t this simply hold a mirror up to the rigidity and exhausting workload we continue to find in some of our schools that make life particularly difficult for the 54% of our workforce who have childcare responsibilities, and which prematurely drives our young teachers out of the profession in droves?

Just over half of our population in England and Wales are married or in a civil partnership, so discrimination against an employee or interview candidate on the grounds of marriage or civil partnership would be (to pinch a phrase from a local dad in the park) ‘pissing against the wind’.  We’d end up with very few teachers left if we discriminated in this way!  However, The MTPT Project’s study shows that the overlap between the three protected characteristics of sex, pregnancy and maternity, and marriage and civil partnership can leave women in particular needing greater systemic supports from our schools – support that would benefit every member of staff, regardless of their demographic.

Want to reduce the risk of losing the married mothers on your team?  Work towards addressing the gender pay gap in your school or academy trust; provide greater flexibility; reduce workload; listen to feedback to understand the practical steps that will improve colleagues’ wellbeing, and provide extended paternity leave packages that help to share out the domestic load from the moment that baby is born.

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We Wish You an Inclusive Christmas

Shuaib Khan portrait

Written by Shuaib Khan

Shuaib is a teacher, sociologist, poet and podcaster.

As the holiday season approaches, this can become a powerful point of reflection for schools on how inclusive their practices are. This is especially the case for how schools cater for the needs of staff and pupils who have mixed feelings about the festive period as they don’t celebrate Christmas. In this blog (originally published on the Leader’s Digest), we will be looking at ten ways your school can make Christmas celebrations more inclusive.

What is inclusion?

Diversity, inclusion, equality and equity are used interchangeably, but they have different meanings and interpretations. Many schools have their own equality, diversity and inclusion (EDI) leaders in an effort to promote fairness, access and equity. During the Christmas period, there is a need to think about alternative provisions for those who, for whatever reason, do not wish to partake in festive activities. So, how do we define ‘inclusion’?

The diversity network Diverse Educators (DiverseEd) provide us with the following definition of ‘inclusion’.

Inclusion is the achievement of a work environment in which all individuals are treated fairly and respectfully, have equal access to opportunities and resources, and can contribute fully to the organisation’s success.

School communities are not homogenous and not every member of staff or pupils will celebrate Christmas. For some, the holiday season can evoke bad memories and the feeling of being excluded as everyone else enjoys school productions, secret Santa, Christmas lunch and the rest of the exciting festive activities. So, how can your school make Christmas inclusive?

DiverseEd reminds us that inclusion should not be viewed  as just  an add-on but rather as an institution-wide point of reference to meet the needs of everyone in your care. Inclusion should be practiced all year round and not just at the sight of a Christmas tree or at the smell of freshly baked mince pies. The conversation about inclusion is nuanced, requires deep personal reflection and remembering that the holiday season can bring mixed feelings. Leader’s Digest recommendations to make Christmas more inclusive is part of, rather than a substitute for your school-wide equality, diversity and inclusion ethos.

Ten ways my school can make Christmas more inclusive

Create a diverse planning committee

Planning Christmas events requires planning and preparation. As a school leader, having a  planning committee that is representative of your school community is one way you can ensure a diverse range of views, ideas and thoughts are heard. Planning committees could be made up of support staff, including teaching assistants and also staff who don’t celebrate Christmas. Your school’s Christmas events planning committee can be an excellent way of understanding the individual needs of your fellow colleagues and also of pupils. In making necessary adjustments or alternative arrangements for those who don’t celebrate Christmas, a diverse planning committee can help identify challenges and collaboratively find solutions.

Having an interfaith calendar

As the festive season approaches, it is important to remember that other faiths will have important events and traditions taking place too and these deserve to be acknowledged and celebrated too. For example, Hanukkah which is an eight-day long Jewish festival begins on November 28th and ends on December 6th. Also, Buddhists celebrate Bodhi Day on December 8th. Both of these religious events take place as the Christmas festive season commences. Your school’s interfaith calendar can be a powerful tool to plan celebrations for these respected faiths all year round and make staff and pupils feel respected and valued. An interfaith calendar can also help avoid scheduling mistakes, plan celebrations and guide your schools religious/PSHE curriculum.

Allowing staff and pupils to opt out

An important element of inclusion is offering people options. Staff and pupils should be allowed to opt out of Christmas celebrations if they wish to without fear of judgement or sanction. Christmas can be a really challenging time for some people and as a school leader, if a colleague or pupil doesn’t wish to partake, their wishes should be respected. A big part of inclusion is respecting others, their preferences and allowing them to have the autonomy to not participate.

Make events optional/voluntary

As with allowing staff and pupils to opt out, festive events should be optional and voluntary. Organising Christmas plays or concerts is often done in non-contact time and a lot of invisible labour takes place to make these events happen. School leaders should reiterate that attending events is always optional and that there will be no pressure or judgement if they cannot attend. For some staff, it is not necessarily the case of being unable to make the commitment to after school rehearsals or concert preparation, but rather they have additional responsibilities outside of work. The wellbeing of staff is of paramount importance in making festive events fulfilling and worthwhile for all.

Provide food options

Food is an integral part of Christmas. To ensure all staff and pupils feel included, just as your school canteen would do, catering for all dietary requirements and personal preferences is key. For example, a good idea would be to have separate tables with vegetarian, vegan,  gluten-free, Halal, or Kosher food. Another option would be to relay information to pupils and parents about the options and alternatives available during the Christmas period. These are small provisions which will make staff and pupils feel more welcome and included in the Christmas festivities. Going forwards, it is also a really important way of getting to know your staff and pupils. Further to this could be to avoid offering alcohol to staff who don’t drink to avoid offending or alienating them.

Ask staff what they want

How many times have you been stumped on ideas for a secret Santa gift or just unsure if a colleague will like how the school celebrates Christmas? Asking staff what they want is an excellent way to plan Christmas celebrations in your school. This does not mean you have to hand over powers to staff but rather use their intricate knowledge of the pupils to guide your decision making. As a school leader, having ideas put towards you from staff can help refresh how your school embraces the festive season. In liaison with staff, certain practices from previous years that didn’t go well can be rectified or replaced. For example, Christmas jumper day. If a significant proportion of your pupils cannot afford to participate, they will feel excluded. This could easily be replaced with something more cost effective for the local community such as a Christmas tombola. Asking staff, who know the pupils and the school community incredibly well, this can help make Christmas a more inclusive experience for everyone.

Be mindful of the cost

Recently Teaching Assistant’s Digest completed a series of articles on TA pay. Christmas is an additional cost, especially for TAs and support staff who are already facing financial hardships. A £50 staff Christmas meal may seem like a small amount but for support staff, that £50 is days worth of earnings. Part of an inclusive model is including groups who have historically been excluded and TAs definitely fit this criteria. Where possible, if staff events are free or at a reduced cost, SLT should be mindful of this. It’s all good inviting everyone which could easily be interpreted as ‘inclusion’ but what about those who cannot afford to attend? Just because everyone has a seat doesn’t mean everyone can afford to eat! School leaders should also encourage support staff not to spend their own money on school Christmas events such as parties. If they do, an opportunity to reimburse them should be available.

Offer holidays to staff and pupils of other faiths

Again, a part of having an interfaith calendar is knowing exactly when other faiths have their traditions and celebrations. Christmas is a holiday season for everyone but throughout the academic year, other faiths will have traditions and festivals that will require staff and pupils to have time off to observe and celebrate. For example, Eid or Diwaali. Staff and pupils should be entitled to an appropriate number of days to celebrate their religious festivals. As a school leader, it is important to empower your staff with the confidence to request time off and for pupils to feel as though their school values their faith. This can also be done by allowing all staff and pupils to understand the importance of different religious festivals through embedding these into the curriculum and the schools wider inclusive ethos.

Invite feedback

As a school leader, first and foremost, you are a reflective practitioner. The nature of education is that there will always be opportunities to reflect, improve and do better. If a specific event didn’t go too well, encouraging your staff to come forwards and provide feedback is how you can get things right next time. Inviting feedback is the ultimate way of highlighting what worked well and finding areas for development. Feedback could be anonymous, drop-in, staff surveys or asking the pupils about how they found Christmas celebrations at school.

See inclusive practices over Christmas an extension of inclusion

Inclusion should not be something that is centred around December or nativity. As a school leader, it is important to realise that creating a more inclusive festive period for everyone at your school is one step in the right direction. Inclusion is an on-going cultural process of learning, understanding, supporting and of course, including others. Christmas is an opportunity to embed inclusive practices which themselves should permeate throughout your school and enrich everyone along the way.

Although this list is not exhaustive, we hope that it can give you some food for thought. How are you going to make Christmas an inclusive experience in your school? At Leader’s Digest we would love to hear from you.

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The Words We Choose, the Words We Use

Chris Richards portrait

Written by Chris Richards

MEd in Applied Linguistics and currently works as a Teacher Mentor in Madrid

This year, the blogs I’ve written as part of the #MonthlyWritingChallenge have often explored the etymology of the theme chosen. Language and linguistics is my field and I suppose I am interested in exploring where the words we use come from and how they change. 

Although my pedagogical roots lie in a (now demolished) secondary school classroom in Birmingham, I now teach English as a foreign language in Madrid. Appropriacy is a key concept in language teaching. Appropriacy is about ‘whether a word is suitable for the context it is being used in. It is an important aspect of language but an extremely complex one, as decisions about how to say things depend on understanding exactly what is right for the context and the culture’ (British Council). Just knowing the spelling, pronunciation, meaning and morphology (how the word changes according to tense or person) isn’t enough; you need to know the context(s) in which you can use the word. Think about the contexts in which you might use the following range of greetings: ‘Good morning’, ‘Hello’, ‘Hi’, ‘Hey’, ‘Alright?’ and perhaps you use a few more. They’re not interchangeable and this is appropriacy. New speakers of a language have to learn more than the vocabulary and the grammar, they also have to learn when and where and with whom words can be used. What does this mean for native speakers, though? The challenge for us is that like every other aspect of language (spelling, pronunciation, meaning, to name but three), appropriacy is always changing. And we need to keep up. Complaints about language change are commonplace: common across historical time and across languages. “Why can’t we say X anymore?”or “I hate that people say Y now, that word always sounds hateful to me”. Such comments make me think about the story of King Canute commanding that the tide stop. Language change is normal.

Conceptual baggage is another important concept to consider. Conceptual baggage is the associations we have with words and such baggage varies from person to person. As a result, effective communication takes account of these potential associations and when we are speaking formally, or with strangers, we probably avoid potentially problematic, colloquial terms in order to reduce the chance of causing offence. A perfect example is the word “queer”. To some people, it’s an inclusive term that they embrace; for others, especially those who have been on the receiving end of its use as a derogatory term, it retains its power to hurt. The words we choose to use depend on context. Appropriate words in a situation vary across historical time (common words becoming slurs, slurs being reclaimed and embraced) and they vary according to the audience (the words you use with your mum are different to the words you use with your friends, your boss, your students, and so on). 

It’s often said that all teachers are teachers of literacy and it follows that all of us are teachers of language. We all have a role to play in showing our students that language is not fixed, but shifting, and its use is contextual. This is not about being Orwellian language police, proscribing terms without explanation. This is about providing an explanation and explaining the importance of context. Take the example of swear words: there are adults who don’t use them, but many do and children hear them being used. Simply telling children that they shouldn’t swear is likely to be ineffective. However, explaining that adults do swear in certain contexts but not in others is more likely to have the desired effect. If we want young people to use language effectively and with empathy, they need to be taught the rules. The rules of appropriacy are as important as spelling and grammar: why one word is considered offensive and why another is considered a more polite and appropriate alternative.

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Sustainable Wellbeing and Lifelong Learning: Education as if People and Planet Matter

Dr Harriet Marshall portrait

Written by Dr Harriet Marshall

Head of Educational Research at Lyfta and has been a global education advocate for over 20 years, as a teacher, researcher, consultant and education project leader.

Education is stuck between 6th extinction predictions and talk of a 2nd renaissance in human capabilities resulting from the 4th industrial, technological revolution. Though there are obvious contradictions between these two trajectories, there are also areas of overlap – both can seem immensely overwhelming and both are frequently accompanied by calls for a change in mindset. The problem I have observed here links to how often the ‘mindset change’ strategies work with a very narrow definition of education. Whenever there is talk of ‘educational solutions’ it is usually in reference to formal schooling and the education of young people, as if this is the only educational space that is of any importance.

Formal schooling (e.g. primary, secondary or SEN providers for 4 to 18 year olds) can no longer be considered in isolation from, or as any more significant than, other educational spaces in life. Especially not if we are to have any chance at all of meeting key climate and energy targets or the United Nation’s 17 Sustainable Development Goals. 

It is easy to understand why formal school has been historically targeted for humanity’s medicinal or instrumentalist agendas. It is a neatly bounded space with relatively clear systems and structures, and crucially it is a space which the majority of us actually understand (mostly because we experienced it – let’s be honest, everyone has an opinion of how the education system should or should not be that is mostly derived from their own experiences of schools). And so, we’ve had the following kind of thinking… Quick, we don’t have enough people with the right skills, let’s change the school curriculum. Quick, there’s a growing gap between rich and poor, let’s change the school curriculum. Quick, we need to act differently or we’ll all boil or drown because of climate change, let’s change the school curriculum.

Our learning does not stop when we leave formal schooling, in fact this sort of thinking is incredibly damaging.

Let us therefore start by emphasising the need for an all-inclusive, lifelong learning definition of educational and learning spaces. UNESCO’s Institute for Lifelong Learning has been doing exactly this and have demonstrated how vital it is for all educational sectors and spaces to work more effectively together if we are to have any hope of creating a more sustainable and socially just world. To this end, we need to better understand and incorporate intergenerational learning and participation, especially in country contexts like the UK where age-divides have never been so wide. Related to this is the need to better demonstrate the equal importance of non-formal schooling learning spaces for all ages, from the after-school club for children to the day centre for older people.

Following on from a broader and more inclusive understanding of education – we then need to re-examine the idea of a curriculum for life both in terms of content and pedagogy. Sociologists of education have illustrated for decades the importance of examining educational policy and practice through a lens of power and control. The need to be aware of how core knowledge is constructed, selected, prioritised and recontextualised (and by who) in educational spaces has never been so urgent. Recognising the historical power of ‘traditional’ knowledge disciplines and their corresponding linear models of knowledge acquisition is crucial because sometimes they are in opposition to the sort of interdisciplinary knowledge and systems-thinking also required for innovation and action for a more sustainable world. An illustration of the legacy of this power dynamic can be seen in formal schooling today. Take two minutes to reflect upon (a) which subjects are deemed the most important and why, and (b) when new curricula like ‘citizenship’, ‘environmental studies’ or ‘social and emotional learning’ are added, what status do they really have in relation to those subjects that have a clear line of ‘progress’ towards an exam (to be used as a form of credit to exchange for future employment)? 

Of course, we no longer know what ‘employment’ is going to look like in the next few years as jobs and industries shift at breakneck speed. This fact alone requires any ‘curriculum for life’ to be something that can adapt to external shifts and needs, where the ability to ‘unlearn’ and ‘relearn’ will be all part and parcel of general learning how to learn and where progress will be measured in a whole range of ways.

One of the most powerful curricular and pedagogical concepts I believe around today is the idea of ‘sustainable wellbeing’. When we are reconsidering the purpose of education or learning in the current #NoGoingBack context, this is one of the best answers anyone can give. Policy makers and educators in Finland have certainly thought so, where sustainable wellbeing has been made one of the six guiding principles of the education system (others include equity and equality; inclusiveness and life-long learning). A growing body of thinking around this concept makes for exciting reading in the way, for example, it brings together the fields of positive psychology, ecology and environmental science (to name just a few). 

The beauty of sustainable wellbeing as a guiding principle for a curriculum for life is that it speaks to our needs as individuals simultaneously separate from and in relation to wider societal and planetary needs. Sustainable wellbeing recognises the interconnections between our own health, wellbeing and that of others. If we properly recognise the interdependent nature of all of the goals, it is also at the heart of the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals (see previous piece on education for/about the SDGs here). Our futures will not be ‘sustainable’ unless others feel the same way. Sustainable wellbeing helps us understand purpose and the wider systems at work, in so doing, it can support resilience building. The guiding principle of sustainable wellbeing suggests a curriculum that supports the development of: empathy skills and interbeing understanding; an associated set of values related to equity and global social justice; and knowledge that is sensitive to indigenous as well as more dominant knowledge forms required for addressing the world’s increasingly complex ‘wicked’ problems.

For education to be powerful, relevant and guided by the principle of sustainable wellbeing we have to stop thinking in age, space, time and knowledge silos – however this may not necessarily require the radical systemic changes some are calling for. Could we instead begin reimagining and empowering all learning spaces through a better demonstration of their impact and value? Could we emphasise the importance of intergenerational methodologies and spaces through the sharing of the growing numbers of amazing examples of practice (for example, local cross-generational sustainable living projects)? Could we raise the profile of social and emotional learning, social justice education or ecological literacy by better showing how it is also a crucial variable for achieving academic success and/or health and wellbeing? Those of us in the bubble of sustainable development or environmental education also need to remember that not everyone shares our assumptions or values – in so doing we are less likely to judge those who, for example, want to adapt systems in an ‘evolution not revolution’ way.

We must also remember that there are forces at play that will continue to shift educational systems and spaces whether we like it or not. These forces are frequently outside of the control of educationalists and policy makers and have the potential to render any radical plans for system reform redundant. For example, if we decide that the current emphasis on performance in examinations is the root cause of our problems and set about enacting reform, it could be that progress measurement is forced to change soon anyway (think about the impact of Covid-19 when formal exams went out the window and imagine how we are going to police examination performance when mobile technology is no longer ‘external’ to a learner’s body and therefore invisible to an examiner’s eye). If we are serious about creating education systems where ‘people and planet matter’ then we need to start with what is in our control and is ambitiously achievable – my favourite contender is our collective power to change our perceptions. We can change our perceptions of what we consider important learning spaces (ie not just formal educational institutions) and we can talk more about learning opportunities throughout life. We can work towards a loosely agreed set of values, skills and knowledge forms required for individual and planetary resilience and sustainable wellbeing. We can strengthen or create the interdisciplinary and intergenerational learning spaces needed if humanity is to adapt, innovate, survive and thrive. 

People and planet will matter more to all of us when we better recognise that all education and learning spaces matter, regardless of how old we are or what stage of life we are at. Unless we do this, we run the major risk of implying that saving the future of the planet, humanity and biodiversity is solely the responsibility of the young. Just because we are 65 does not mean that we are too old to change our behaviours or unlearn old knowledge, but an over-emphasis on 4-18 schooling gives us the excuse to say that it is so. 

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Still a Challenge: Raising Awareness of and Tackling Islamophobia

Saira Hassan portrait

Written by Saira Hassan

Senior Education, Training and Strategy Officer at EqualiTeach. Trustee for CareStart. Saira is determined to create a better future for disadvantaged individuals so they can showcase their talents, always striving to pass on her knowledge, experience and expertise to others.

November is Islamophobia Awareness Month, established in 2012 ‘to deconstruct and challenge the stereotypes about Islam and Muslims’. In this blog post I will be sharing some definitions of Islamophobia, real life examples, personal experiences and my thoughts on how we can reject and tackle Islamophobia to create a more inclusive environment for all. 

What is Islamophobia?

So, what is Islamophobia? The All-Party Parliamentary Group (APPG) for British Muslims state “Islamophobia is rooted in racism and is a type of racism that targets expressions of Muslimness or perceived Muslimness” (All-Party Parliamentary Group, 2018). Alternatively, MEND defines Islamophobia as “a prejudice, aversion, hostility, or hatred towards Muslims and encompasses any distinction, exclusion, restriction, discrimination, or preference against Muslims that has the purpose or effect of nullifying or impairing the recognition, enjoyment or exercise, on an equal footing, of human rights and fundamental freedoms in the political, economic, social, cultural or any other field of public life.” Islamophobia has become a systemic and institutional problem preventing many Muslims from progressing in the workplace, having a complete sense of freedom and being able to feel comfortable within school, the workplace and general society. 

One sector where we can clearly see that Islamophobia is rampant is within the media. Miqdaad Versi, Director of Media Monitoring at the Muslim Council of Britain has singlehandedly spent many hours highlighting the gravity of the situation. Miqdaad has been described as the “UK’s one-man Islamophobia media monitor”. A 2018 Guardian news article on Versi’s fight against Islamophobia revealed that out of 24,750 articles on Muslims that he had recorded since August 2016, 14,129 were negative. A 2007 study revealed that 91% of articles on Muslims and Islam published in one week were negative painting an inaccurate and negative picture of Muslims in the minds of readers. Baroness Sayeeda Warsi has stated that the media are complicit in the increase of Islamophobic views and attacks because of the “daily poisoning” exhibited against British Muslims by the media. 

“Still a Challenge for Us All”

Often people may have an unconscious bias towards Muslim students or colleagues which clouds their judgement. The Runnymede Trust published a report in 1997 titled ‘Islamophobia: A Challenge for Us All’ which highlighted the extent of Islamophobia across the United Kingdom. 20 years later they published another report ‘Islamophobia: Still a Challenge for Us All’ which reiterated the extent of the deeply entrenched Islamophobia . The report states “As with many Black and minority ethnic groups, Muslims experience disadvantage and discrimination in a wide range of institutions and environments, from schools to the labour market to prisons to violence on the street.” There are now countless case studies that highlight the mistreatment that Muslims and those perceived to be Muslim are facing. 

“As a visibly Muslim woman the shock I felt was evident instantly. I had to take a moment to absorb what I was hearing. As the workshop lead, I felt I had to pause before hearing other experiences of identity-based bullying in case I could no longer carry on.”

In the last fortnight I have personally heard examples of Islamophobia when delivering workshops in schools. Most recently, whilst discussing identity-based bullying, when asked to share an example of where they had witnessed Islamophobia, a Year 8 student revealed a time when a Muslim student volunteered to take part in a play during a History lesson, another student shouted out that the play was not about terrorism, therefore the Muslim student wasn’t required. I have since shared this example with other settings and the shock, horror and heart-breaking feeling that I experienced the first time has not disappeared. Other examples included Muslim girls having their hijab pulled off. As a visibly Muslim woman the shock I felt was evident instantly. I had to take a moment to absorb what I was hearing. As the workshop lead, I felt I had to pause before hearing other experiences of identity-based bullying in case I could no longer carry on. I did not want the students to stop sharing their experiences, but I had to take a moment to compose myself. This was the impact of just hearing the incident, I wondered how the young students who experienced these forms of Islamophobia had felt in those moments. Did anyone stand up for them? Were they confident enough to challenge this themselves? Did the class teacher step in and use this moment as a learning tool to educate the class about Islamophobia? Did the classroom teacher check-in with the Muslim student and other Muslim students in the classroom? Has the school recorded this incident? Many questions whizzed through my mind. 

What surprised me further was the lack of intervention from teachers and other members of staff, and the lack of awareness of how to deal with identity-based or prejudice-related bullying. Our advice when prejudice-related incidents take place is for teachers to always intervene and challenge, as well as record each incident to see trends and find solutions to prevent prejudice-related incidents. Each school and educational setting should have a robust procedure in place to tackle any type of prejudice-related bullying. Although there are many teachers that would intervene, it is unfortunate that many feel unequipped to do so, or simply ignore the matter. 

Islamophobia in the workplace

Within the workplace many Muslims have also experienced Islamophobia. I have personally experienced a lack of understanding of my religion, my choices to wear the hijab, and judgement for choosing to fast during Ramadan by previous employers. For example, at that age of 18 whilst working for a leading Law firm, my manager often made jokes regarding fasting and would often say no one could see me therefore I could break my fast. In another incident, a joke was made about removing my hijab to show everyone my hair. I often wonder why these individuals felt entitled enough to make such derogatory comments about my religion and religious choice. More recently in my previous position, I and other Muslim colleagues often had lengthy discussions about how we would ask for time off for Eid as there was a culture of negativity towards asking for a day off to celebrate with our loved ones. I recall many Muslim colleagues choosing to work rather than have the difficult conversation to request leave. Other colleagues were asked to cancel other annual leave to keep a day spare for Eid and many were told to teach their morning lessons then have the afternoon off. If supply staff could be called in at the last minute to cover sickness, why could supply staff not be given a few days or weeks’ notice to allow for a Muslim teacher to celebrate Eid?

A research report co-compiled by Dr Suriya Bi and Muslim Women Connect found that 47.2% of women stated they had encountered Islamophobia and discrimination as a challenge in the workplace. One woman revealed: “Colleagues would ridicule me when fasting, asking ‘are you still starving or whatever’. Colleagues would ask me to talk about Muslims and things she’d see in the media, as if I was the spokesperson for the entire religion. Colleagues would jokingly put alcohol glasses in my face asking if I wanted to drink it. Colleagues would get annoyed when I said I couldn’t go to the pub.” (Muslim Women Connect and Bi, 2020: 29).

Furthermore, members of the Muslim community are often expected to speak up when terrorist organisations misuse the religion of Islam. Speaking up for your community, or religious group, is a very personal choice, but Muslims are expected to condemn terrorist attacks as if they are to blame or have a part to play. This can have a detrimental impact on someone’s mental and physical health, as well as forcing them to question their position in the environment. 

The gravity of attacks against women and girls

Muslim women and girls are often singled out as the focus of Islamophobia rhetoric and attacks. The 1997 Runnymede Report highlighted the gravity of attacks against women. The anniversary report in 2018 further explained how Muslim girls and women continued to face even more Islamophobic hate, especially concerning their freedom of speech and dress. Often women are mislabelled as oppressed and their choice to adopt the hijab (headscarf) or niqab (veil) is framed as forced and disempowering. Muslim men are then labelled as misogynistic and controlling (Runnymede Trust, 2018). Stereotypes like this are denying Muslim men and women of their agency. Increasingly, men and women are bravely sharing the Islamophobic hate they have experienced. 

“Islamophobic comments from an impolite customer regarding the hijab telling me that she wished I wouldn’t wear ‘that thing’ as British women had fought for the right to vote and do what they wanted and not for people ‘like me’ to have to wear it.” (Muslim Women Connect and Bi, 2020: 29). 

Most recently, Zarah Sultana Labour MP for Coventry South bravely shared her experience of receiving Islamophobic hate which you can watch here. Zarah Sultana continues to fight against Islamophobia within politics and continues to encourage more young Muslim people to join the political arena to ensure there is fair representation.

From these testaments and my personal experiences it is clear that Islamophobia is still a problem. I recently read a personal account of an employee being treated unfairly because they requested time to perform their daily prayers and was timed throughout their break. The afternoon prayers take approximately 10 minutes to complete, often even just 5 minutes. The image below sums up exactly how some organisations need to change their views towards any type of religious observance, and what they should be doing to be more inclusive for their Muslim employees and Muslim students. It is extremely important that we all work together, as a collective, to undo the unconscious bias that revolves around Islam and Muslims, to work towards a more accurate understanding of Islam and Muslims across the world.

Going forward

Organisations

  • Engage in EDI training 
  • Don’t force any of your Muslim employees to be the spokesperson for their community 
  • Do ask how they are when horrific events happen where the Muslim community feel blamed or held responsible by others, offer support and guidance, they might want to discuss something but there should be no pressure for them to act as a spokesperson.
  • Evaluate your policies – are they inclusive for all? 
  • Ensure that there are clear mechanisms where employees can report discrimination and harassment and clear procedures as to how these are dealt with, which all managers are aware of and implement consistently
  • Create an inclusive environment which provides opportunities for employees to engage with their faith and accommodates time off for religious festivals
  • Engage in anti-Islamophobia events and training 

EqualiTeach can provide bespoke support for organisations doing this work. Find out more here: Workplace EDI support

Educational institutions

  • Deliver anti-Islamophobia workshops with young people
  • Create robust procedures to tackle prejudice-related incidents and bullying and ensure that all students and staff are aware of how to report incidents and have reassurance that these will be consistently dealt with and not dismissed
  • Diversify your curriculum so that it is truly representative of the wider community and allows you to address any misconceptions young people might have about Islam or Muslims
  • Ask all students if they would like to share parts of their faith and/or culture with the class – ensure this is a personal choice and not enforced on young people and that young people are not singled out or put on the spot. 
  • Invite Muslim speakers from all backgrounds to come and share their experiences with your students

Find out more about the services EqualiTeach provides to support schools with this work here: Equality services for education settings

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Therapeutic...

Ayo Awotona portrait

Written by Ayo Awotona

Ayo Awotona specializes in confidence building for girls in education. She does this through programs, workshops, and keynote speeches.

This blog post serves as both a loving reminder and some encouragement! Just like our physical health, it is vital to check on our mental health and discover ways to improve or sustain it.

One approach is understanding what you find therapeutic.

Fun fact: the Greek origin of “therapeutic” means to attend (a.k.a to deal with) or to treat. 

It is usually associated with medicinal treatment. However, there are many other methods and activities that help treat and restore our mental health. 

Being open to exploring different activities is worthwhile to know what is therapeutic for each of us. 

Two of my personal methods are not having any social media notifications on my phone and having daily “switch off” and “wind down” times (actually scheduled on my calendar to avoid my workaholic tendencies from taking over!)

The significant benefits we get to enjoy include: 

  • Outlet/Release
  • Neutralises stress and worry 
  • Creates ease 

Essentially, we are intentionally taking care of our well-being and creating a healthy environment in our minds. 

So the question remains – what do you find therapeutic?

I challenge you to make a quick list of therapeutic activities and methods you would like to try out this week.

If this is proving to be a struggle for whatever reason, perhaps these two questions would help:

  • What is your focus on? 
  • Does it help or hinder you? 

2020-2021 has been particularly difficult to navigate through – for many many reasons! Many of the plans we once had in place have been changed or swept away and intentionally embracing change has become our new way of life. 

Now is a pretty good time to ask ourselves “what am I focusing on?” Whether good or bad, what we focus on, is what our minds will consume.

Many of us probably appreciate a good camera, one may be its ability to focus. The better focus the camera has, the sharper and clearer the picture. 

It’s a similar approach to life; when we are intentionally focused on our priorities, we capture a clearer vision and direction for our future. 

Let’s be mindful and careful of what we’re giving our attention to. Because what we give our attention to, our time and energy go with it. 

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Section 28 is still hanging over us – but you don’t have to be a LGBT+ expert to make your school inclusive

Dominic Arnall portrait

Written by Dominic Arnall

Chief Executive of Just Like Us, the LGBT+ young people's charity.

One in five (17%) teachers in the UK are uncomfortable discussing LGBT+ topics with their pupils, our new research at Just Like Us has found.

It may have been 18 years since Section 28 was repealed in England and Wales but clearly things have not changed as much as we like to think. Growing up LGBT+ is still unacceptably tough, as a result, and huge challenges also remain for LGBT+ school staff who are often afraid to come out in their workplace or to pupils.

Just Like Us’ latest research also found that only a third (29%) of teachers are ‘completely comfortable’ talking about lesbian, gay, bisexual and trans topics in the classroom, despite government guidance of course reinforcing the need to include LGBT+ topics.

We found that primary school teachers are even less comfortable with discussing LGBT+ topics at school, with 19% saying they are uncomfortable and only 25% ‘completely comfortable’, despite OFSTED requiring primary schools to include different types of families – such as same-sex parents – in lessons.

The survey, commissioned by Just Like Us – the LGBT+ young people’s charity – and carried out independently by Teacher Tapp surveyed 6,179 primary and secondary school teachers across the UK. So we know this is sadly not an anomaly. 

Why does this matter? Well Just Like Us’ report Growing Up LGBT+ found that having positive messaging about LGBT+ people in schools is linked to all students having better mental health and feeling safer – regardless of whether they’re LGBT+ or not. The evidence is there: LGBT+ inclusion in schools really is beneficial for everyone’s wellbeing.

When so many teachers say they’re uncomfortable discussing LGBT+ topics, such as mentioning that some families have lesbian mums, this has serious knock-on effects for LGBT+ young people’s wellbeing and mental health, who are currently twice as likely to be bullied and have depression. Having silence around LGBT+ topics only results in shame, stigma and students feeling that they don’t belong in school.

We don’t blame teachers for feeling uncomfortable. Some school staff simply may not have had the resources or personal life experiences – but all you need is a willingness to support your pupils and Just Like Us can help provide lesson plans, assemblies, talks and training so that you feel confident discussing LGBT+ topics with your pupils.

It’s also essential that we get the message out that teachers don’t need to be experts on LGBT+ topics to support their LGBT+ pupils.

You also don’t need to be LGBT+. Often we see in schools that this vital inclusion work falls to staff who are LGBT+ themselves rather than all school staff taking on the responsibility of making their school a safe, happy and welcoming place for all of their young people. This work doesn’t need to be done by LGBT+ staff – in fact, how amazing is it for students to see adults in their lives being proactive allies?

One incredible teacher, who is an ally, and a brilliant example of this is Zahara Chowdhury, who teaches at Beaconsfield High and the Beaconsfield School, in Buckinghamshire. She says it’s a “human responsibility” to include LGBT+ topics in the classroom and has been the driving force behind School Diversity Week celebrations at her schools.

It all starts with a willingness to support your students or simply diversify your lessons using our free resources – sign up for School Diversity Week and you’ll get a digital pack of everything you need to kickstart inclusion at your school. 

Already doing this work? Let a colleague or fellow educator at another school know by sharing this blog – the more we share resources and reassure staff that you don’t need to be LGBT+ nor an expert, the sooner and better we can ensure all young people feel safer and happier in school. 

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