What if we replace toxic masculinity with intersectional masculinity?

Zahara Chowdhury portrait

Written by Zahara Chowdhury

Zahara is founder and editor of the blog and podcast, School Should Be, a platform that explores a range of topics helping students, teachers and parents on how to ‘adult well’, together. She is a DEI lead across 2 secondary schools and advises schools on how to create positive and progressive cultures for staff and students. Zahara is a previous Head of English, Associate Senior Leader and Education and Wellbeing Consultant.

In 2021, I led a conference at Beaconsfield High School on how schools can overcome toxic masculinity by revisiting their gender behaviour policies. 16 schools, students and parents heard from Hira Ali, Harry Moore, Leila May Lawrence, Aaron Pandher and the Global Equality Collective, The Terrence Higgins Trust and Headteacher, Peter Tang, on how we can create equitable behaviour policies and create a culture of respect in secondary schools. Over a year on, the discussion continues as schools are now tasked with tackling the rise of online hate and misogyny fuelled by Andrew Tate. 

In schools, amidst the pressures of a recruitment crisis, a cost of living crisis and exam period, education about misogyny and sexism is being called on. As someone who is heavily involved in leading, researching and writing about this area, I worry, as an educator, as a parent and as a human, we’re talking more than we’re listening. An uncomfortable opinion perhaps: in the age of social media, content consumption, likes, comments and information overload we are overwhelmed with the problems, the dangers and fear. Whilst these feelings may be justified, we are looking for quick solutions before we understand the problems of toxic masculinity. 

For those of us who parent and teach, we know young people can be insecure sponges, looking for a sense of belonging, validation and acceptance. Amidst the doom and gloom of school, online comparison and tackling their mental health, they’re also looking for fun.  We know how impressionable young people are. We know for the most part, they just want to fit in – and therefore they look and listen for where this might be. So many have found a sense of belonging, entertainment and acceptance online with accounts and material that perpetuates – in this case –  historic and systemic misogyny. The conference I led and articles I’ve written are tools to support schools to resolve this. What I realise now, though, is I was yet again facilitiating a great deal of information (albeit, valid and necessary) without listening to those it affected: the boys. 

Professor Scott Galloway explains that our understanding of masculinity has been misconstrued and in many ways, caught up, in toxic masculinity – or what we perceive to be toxic masculinity. The data, research and case studies show that young men need support, whereas social media and the news imply masculinity is the problem – this all becomes a vicious cycle of information where many of us end up none the wiser. 

Of course, as a woman and a woman of colour, I am well aware of the whataboutisms, counterarguments and rebuttals that may be flung my way. For the sake, success and safety of all our students, we now need to pause and create space for intersectional male experiences of our young people. 

I say this because, as simple as it may sound, every young boy we come across has a different lived experience and whilst we hurry to find out how to make sure our children are safe, educated and staying away from the vile content they come across online, are we actually listening to them? 

  • Are we listening to the boy who has sisters he loves and respects, and knows exactly how to ally with women – because he is surrounded by strong people? 
  • Are we listening to Black and Asian boys who are still living amidst the trauma of George Floyd’s murder, and recently, the tragic murder of Keenan Anderson
  • Are we listening to Muslim boys who feel their faith and identity are constantly under a negative spotlight, or a spotlight entrenched in patriarchy and misogyny? 
  • Are we listening to boys who don’t like sport, but don’t know where else to go on the school playground? 
  • Are we listening to boys who are gay and don’t know where to turn, who to talk to, out of fear of what may happen? 
  • Are we listening to boys who are constantly told to be strong, but don’t know how?
  • Are listening to boys who are vulnerable, without dismissing their feelings? 
  • Are we listening to boys who are struggling with their mental health but don’t know where to turn? 
  • Are we listening to boys who are told they will take on responsibility for the family once they’re old enough? 
  • Are we listening to girls who have wonderful relationships with their fathers and brothers and are collectively working together for equality and equity? 
  • Are we listening to boys and girls who share healthy relationships? 

I could go on, and on and on. And, I know the same questions apply to women – intersectional feminism is perhaps a more well known term than intersectional masculinity. Equally, there is an absolute understanding and appreciation that intersectional masculinity is systemically privileged and of course, within that hierarchy of privilege, some men are more privileged than others. Having taught boys for a good few years and now, parenting a boy, I think part of the solution here is not just to teach them, but to listen. To understand who they are and who they want to be; to listen and then question their understanding of social norms, gender stereotypes and more. To understand their relationships, their communication, their hobbies. 

There is research to suggest teenagers fare better in group therapy; the best conversations I’ve had with boys is in small groups, in the classroom. It’s the best place to listen to their lived experiences, challenge and discuss their views and form trusting and safe relationships – for them and young female students, too. Plus, the banter can be pretty entertaining. 

Listening is a part of a wider solution and I know we are all still trying to figure out what that is. For now, though, let’s change their algorithm and introduce them to positive online male role models such as:

  • Steven Bartlett
  • Vex King
  • Jay Shetty
  • Marcus Rashford 
  • Ali Abdaal
  • Dr Alex George

…and I’m sure the list can be much longer. There is absolutely a need to rid systemic and social structures of misogyny. Part of that battle – perhaps, part of the solution –  is to listen to the experiences of young men too. 

“Andrew Tate is a father figure to me” - lessons learned from talking to young people in schools

Bold Voices logo

Written by Bold Voices

Bold Voices is an award-winning social enterprise preparing and empowering school communities to recognise and tackle gender inequality and gender-based violence through the delivery of educational talks, workshops, training and resources for young people, teachers and parents.

On January 3rd, the Bold Voices team arrived for our first staff training of the year. We love delivering staff training in schools, and we were excited to be back, if slightly unprepared for the early start and January rain. The session ran smoothly and the staff were engaged and passionate, all seemed as usual until we asked if there were any questions. Dozens of anxious hands shot up and they all had the same question – what can we do about Andrew Tate?

It wasn’t a surprise to any of the team, especially after the most recent news over the Christmas break, but the number of times his name has come up in schools in January has been unprecedented.

Back in July 2022 we began to hear students talk about Tate, and in order to get ahead of what we could see was a growing issue, Bold Voices released our Parent and Staff Toolkits to equip adults with the skills and confidence to have conversations about the ‘King of Toxic Masculinity’ with the young people in their lives. As the education sector catches up with the fact that this popular figure is not going anywhere anytime soon, we have seen a whole range of approaches to dealing with his popularity amongst teenage boys.

One strategy which we’ve seen is the blanket ban – sanctions for anyone who says his name in school. Another approach is whole school assemblies to speak about the harms of his content and messages. The young people we’ve spoken to don’t feel this works; they either say they feel silenced, or that the school is making too much of it. It is completely understandable that this is how many schools are responding. We certainly don’t have all the answers at Bold Voices, and we are always keen to hear back from other educators and parents who have found effective ways to address this issue (please let us know!) but for now we are encouraging schools to focus on one method that we know can have an impact: starting a conversation.

However, the reality is, these conversations are not easy. Here is a snippet of how they normally go:

“Miss, can I ask you a question? What’s your opinion of Andrew Tate?”

“Well, I’m much more interested in your opinion – what do you think of him?”

“He’s a top G miss. He teaches men how to be men. He makes money. He gets females. He’s a fighter. He is a traditionalist. He has four Bugattis. Those trafficking charges are lies. Those things he says? Taken out of context. Miss, it’s the Matrix. He’s a father figure to me.”

These conversations don’t always feel possible, or respectful, because these young people have internalised the message that anyone arguing against Tate is an idiot, hasn’t woken up to the truth, or they’re simply wrong. This makes it much harder to do our jobs – but we have seen success. In a school which had banned any mention of his name amongst pupils, when we opened up a conversation in a classroom, the feedback we received afterwards was: “I thought Andrew Tate was good but I realised what he does and all the hate against women.”

So what can we do to make more of those conversations successful? How can we move from fear of even starting a conversation, and those that go nowhere, to helping young people to choose for themselves if they want to continue to support Tate and his harmful messages?

Our response is three things (and they’re not easy):


This can feel extremely difficult when the messages Tate puts forward are so explicitly dangerous and incite violence, but the more we condemn his words, the more we play into a right or wrong binary that pushes defensive teenagers even further away. Narratives around the Matrix incorporate the idea that there is a “great lie” going on, and figures like Tate (and Trump and other populists who brand themselves as anti-establishment) use this condemnation to push the idea: “that’s what they want you to think”. Break out of this binary by opening a dialogue and empowering young people to see all sides and opinions and to have the autonomy to make their own decisions about who they follow and believe. The aim should not be to have our children believe everything we believe because it’s scary when they don’t; we want to raise a generation of critical thinkers who can form their own opinions.


This ties into avoiding condemnation – when we stand up and tell young people he is dangerous we give him notoriety and power. Andrew Tate has branded himself as the antidote to cancel culture, so his popularity is not tied to his morality. Not only that, his messaging around gender roles mean that he can discredit those who speak out against him with misogynistic myths – case in point, I asked a student if he would stop liking him if Tate was convicted for the trafficking charges and he said “well, the women are probably just lying for money and attention.”

Attempts to laugh at Andrew Tate have been more successful in damaging his reputation than pointing out how dangerous he is. The closest to this that I’ve seen is this twitch streamer’s video and Greta Thunberg’s infamous tweet. What I don’t like about these tactics is that they use old tropes of emasculation to put a pin in his puffed up performance of masculinity. Relying on his tools to tear him down won’t create meaningful change in the long run (we’ll just see a newer version of him spring up to his place).


This brings us to the most important point – we need to change what questions we’re asking about Andrew Tate – instead of asking “what can we do about him?” we need to ask “what is it about him?” And “what is it about this current climate that allows his version of masculinity to thrive?”

His brand of masculinity is what draws people towards him: words like traditional, realist, role model for how to be a man. To most adults he looks like a cartoon of all the most ridiculous tropes of toxic masculinity; the cars, the money, the ideas about mental health. The alleged trafficking of women, the misogyny. So when we’ve looked at why he’s so popular the next question needs to be, what is the context and climate that means he is appealing?

When having these conversations I like to zoom right in, then all the way out. Instead of arguing his actual points with evidence or debating his intentions, I ask questions about what he represents, then look at the bigger picture, and ask why is that appealing right now?

The context in which boys are gravitating towards Andrew Tate is one in which they feel victimised and powerless. As an educator in the gender-based violence sector this can feel frustrating. But ignoring it and saying, “suck it up”, men have had power since the beginning of time, is not helping anyone.

Conversations around violence against women have completely transformed since I was at school less than 10 years ago. In a way that we can see paralleled with the movement for racial justice, conversations around gender-based violence have been radically shifted by events of the past decade: The #MeToo movement, Everyone’s Invited, Ofsted investigations, Sarah Everard’s death and many more. It’s confusing for young people.

Girls, trans and non-binary pupils have more awareness and knowledge than ever (thank you TikTok) about the ways in which they are victimised within a culture of gender-based violence. And they still suffer many different forms of this. But boys feel under siege too. They feel more under threat of being falsely accused than ever. Andrew Tate offers them a different narrative from the one in which they feel they’ve been cast as the baddies. There are no alternative models of masculinity on offer. We go into schools and tell young people that what Andrew Tate puts forward is an unrealistic stereotype of masculinity that ultimately harms everyone. Sometimes they see that, but when we exist in a system that punishes those who don’t fit a stereotype, we construct a reality where it is preferable to be an Andrew Tate rather than a man who can express his emotions and show weakness and vulnerability.

The quote at the beginning says it all. “Andrew Tate is a father figure”. This is how teenage boys feel when there aren’t any other role models for masculinity that seem valuable in today’s world.

The options are; see the problem with masculinity and try your best to not embody it, or go sit with Andrew, the realist, who can show you how to stop apologising for being a man in a world where stereotypes are just ‘the way things are supposed to be’. 

As educators on this subject we can tell you that having these conversations on the ground is hard work. It’s a painful slog that feels unrelenting and sometimes futile. Watching boys copy his physical stance, treat me with suspicion, shout down my logic and questions and cling to their idolisation of him makes me realise something; they are clinging tightly because he makes them feel safe and understood. And taking that away is difficult and can feel cruel when we aren’t offering good enough alternatives. If it was anybody but Tate, I would never question a vulnerable year 9 boy’s father figure and role model. I’m so glad he has that. I wish it wasn’t one who would teach him that depression isn’t real, that he should value women as possessions, and that his worth is measured in what he can win, and how dominating he can be. I want to give him a hug.


1- Talk about him, don’t condemn him. At Bold Voices we will keep going into schools and having these conversations. And if you have young people in your life please use our toolkits to start having these conversations too. This part is the intervention and it’s more necessary than ever. The aim is not to condemn and create a right or wrong, it’s to open a dialogue where there is more than one narrative to choose from.

2- Make Tate uncool – but not him specifically and not through emasculation. Instead through promoting other role models of masculinity who seem more appealing than Tate. We look to people like Marcus Rashford, Stormzy, and Steph Curry (get in touch if you have others you promote!)

3- Look at the conditions that make Tate popular. Ask questions and don’t stop asking.



Bold Voices is an award-winning social enterprise preparing and empowering school communities to recognise and tackle gender inequality and gender-based violence. 

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A Mother Tongue: Not a Metric of Disadvantage

Elen Jones portrait

Written by Elen Jones

Director at Ambition Institute. Former teacher in South London and West Wales.

We celebrate International Mother Language Day on 21st February.  Let’s re-frame the discourse around EAL and celebrate the wealth that comes with being multi-lingual rather than considering those who have EAL as deprived because of it.

I had a great aunt who once explained to me why she didn’t teach her children to speak her mother tongue: Welsh.  She was a passionate educator, a teacher all her working life and she supported me in applying to and eventually attending university.  She believed that learning Welsh would take up space in her children’s memories, space that could otherwise have been used for something more useful.  So the children didn’t learn any Welsh.  

Now since my aunt made that decision, over half a century ago, we know much more about the process of learning and how our memories work.  Thanks to the awareness of cognitive science that is accumulating in the sector, we know that long term memory has huge capacity.   No knowledge is going to fall out of a person’s long-term memory in order to accommodate another language.  However, being EAL, having a mother tongue other than English, is often framed as a challenge at best, a disadvantage at worst.  Seldom is the discourse a celebration of the diversity of language in our communities.

Language is the tool we use to communicate, to make meaning and to articulate our thinking.  We can only use what we know to do this.  The word for turquoise in Welsh is gwyrddlas, literally translated greenblue.  In Welsh to think and the mind are the same word: meddwl.  These subtleties of perception and understanding give those of us who are EAL more, not less, to think with and about.  Studies into the cognitive processes of those who are bilingual have found a number of advantages for cognition. 

Like any aspect of identity, each individual with EAL is shaped by their own experience and one’s mother language is just one aspect of identity that intersects with many others.  Many EAL learners who enter the English education system early in their lives fare well, at least as well as those with English as a mother tongue.  Those who enter the education system later tend to fare less well.  Pupils who are EAL and live in poverty are less likely to make good educational progress than their peers.  Supporting EAL pupils to progress along language levels and grade boundaries, and to become fluent in the languages of their communities, is important, of course; but in the drive to do so, do we sometimes omit the ways in which EAL pupils can enrich the understanding of others by sharing their perceptions and experiences?  

On International Mother Language Day let’s actually celebrate.  The diversity of language, and of thinking and culture that come with it, add huge wealth to our communities.  The day-to-day support for people with different identities that translation, re-explanation and careful communication requires of us as members of communities with a range of mother languages builds inclusion.  It’s a habitual reminder that we are all both other and the same in many regards.  

I recently had a long train journey from London to North Wales.  On the last leg I shared a seat with a German family.  I speak almost no German.  They spoke almost no English.  The mother had two sons and the boys squeezed in between the two of us.  I understood almost nothing of their conversation, but as a mother of young children I completely understood the efforts involved in trying to keep two energetic, hot, excited and travel-weary children entertained and contained for a long journey.   The final part of the train journey follows the coast of North Wales along the Irish Sea.  As the train approached the coastline one of the boys called out meer.  In Welsh y môr, in English the sea.  Without a common language we all knew what we were talking about.

Using language is one of the qualities that unites us as humans.  Let’s celebrate the way in which we all use language, and all use different languages, to communicate and form communities.  All else being equal (and too often it is not) pupils are richer, not poorer, for celebrating their mother tongue.  

Darkness, Light and Legacy

Serdar Ferit portrait

Written by Serdar Ferit

Filmmaker, digital experience designer, and teacher who has won numerous awards and worked in over 20 countries on film, new media and education projects. Co-CEO of Lyfta.


I founded Lyfta with my amazing wife, Paulina, 7 years ago, and since then we have built the most phenomenal team. Our journey started in 2004, with a story that inspired us, and over the years it has developed into our life’s work. Like many of the people we work with in education, we want our legacy to be one of big, positive and lasting change.

For those who don’t know, Lyfta is a learning space for children where they can access powerful, real-life stories through short documentary films and explorable immersive environments. We learn through stories and Lyfta is designed to teach children about the incredible and varied web of people and communities across the globe.

Legacy is something I have been thinking about a lot lately. Just as I thought Lyfta was finally finding its feet, with a complete team and a sense of a gear change on the horizon – a less intense one for me, I hoped! – I found out that I have colorectal cancer. This was in early October. The doctors initially said it was at an early stage and a slow grower, but after a couple of biopsies and numerous scans, in mid November, I found out that it has spread to my liver; stage 4. A bit of a curveball at 42.

The most difficult thing I have done in my life is telling our 8 year old son that I have cancer. Not being able to reassure him, with authenticity, that everything will be OK, triggered a cocktail of emotions I’ve not experienced before, and wouldn’t wish on anyone.

I’m not telling you this so you can feel sorry for me. I’m determined to beat this thing. I know that the key to this will be my frame of mind. I am a relentlessly positive person, but the last few months have been challenging in that regard. 

Darkness and Light

I know I’m not the only one who has had a difficult period. Most of us have had a very challenging last few years. As a leader, part of my duty is to see the light, and to guide my team towards it. Over the last couple of years, light has not always been in abundance. At times, for many of us, things have been rather gloomy. But I think we all know that there is always light, no matter how dark it seems. This is something I’ve had to remind myself recently. And look for.

I am constantly nourished through the meetings I have with other people and the authentic human stories that we have curated and collected on Lyfta over the years. Stories move me. They have been invaluable in giving me different perspectives, in helping me see outside of my own world. Hearing about other people – what they achieve, who they love, the hardships they face and overcome – these stories sustain and change us. 

Grown ups need stories too: a series of events to spread hope and inspiration. The amazing poet and storyteller Ben Okri said, ‘Stories can conquer fear and make the heart bigger.’ I think we need this at the moment – I certainly do. In an effort to inject some light and positivity into my life, and the lives of others, over the next year, I will be hosting a series of short online events where I will share short and powerful documentary stories that personify hope and resilience. 

These online sessions will be for anyone who needs a lift or a bit of inspiration. A space where you will be able to put your worries to one side and be taken on a short journey. We will immerse ourselves into real human stories of resilience and hope, followed by a reflection exercise which will give you a space to express your thoughts if you wish to.

The Format

The sessions will be an hour long and there will be six over the coming year. We will explore two very different stories in each session, followed by a short reflection exercise, and, over the series, we will travel to at least 10 different countries. The stories are incredible and I am honoured and excited to share them with a wider audience.

There will be an opportunity to donate too, which will go towards subsidising Lyfta for all schools and provide a bursary fund for schools in financial difficulty, or with pupils in need or crisis.

Lighting the Way: Please Join Me

If you are interested in joining me for this journey, for one, some or all of the sessions, please register on the Eventbrite link. You could also get tickets for loved ones, colleagues, or even a whole team! The strength of the sessions will be the stories that we see and hear on screen, but it will be your stories too, and how we find and weave meaning in our lives – it will be that which will make these gatherings so powerful. 

I look forward to meeting you around the virtual fireside, and finding the light to inspire us through 2023. I hope you can join me. 

Belonging on Purpose

Andrew Morrish portrait

Written by Andrew Morrish

Andrew is a former headteacher and founder trust CEO. He has also been an NLE, inspector, LA adviser, chair of governors, and trustee, so he has seen it from all angles. Andrew is now Director of Makana Leadership Ltd, a consultancy he founded in 2020, and author of The Art of Standing Out (John Catt). Andrew also co-founded Headrest during the pandemic, a free wellbeing support service for headteachers.

One of the greatest challenges during my two decades as a headteacher was trying to build a culture of belonging. 

For many schools, this becomes the holy grail. It’s easy to understand why. Research tells us that if staff feel isolated and vulnerable at work – that they feel as if they don’t belong – they are more likely to lack engagement, motivation, and commitment. As a result, productivity declines, and we see this often in the lowest performing schools. On the flip side, where there is a strong culture of relational trust for example, the likelihood of this impacting positively on student outcomes is significantly higher.

Leading change must always lead to impact (in this case a culture of belonging). Just because you think you are going about your business of leading, it doesn’t necessarily mean you are changing anything. Leadership without impact is not leadership at all. It’s just you being busy. 

So in order for change to lead to meaningful impact, it needs to be done on purpose. It also needs to be done from purpose. The two are very different. Let’s see how.

When we lead from purpose, we do so authentically from a position of strength. The main source of that strength comes from within; our core values and beliefs – the stuff that drives and motivates us. These are the things that we choose to do, not because we have to, but because we want to.  These beliefs also determine whether staff are more likely to feel as if they identify with you and the team, department, phase (or school even) that you lead. 

In order to lead successfully you need to know that everything starts and ends with you. Who you are, what you believe in, and why you do the things you do. This is at the heart of what it means to lead from purpose.

When we lead on purpose, we do so deliberately, with accuracy, and care. We’ll take both of these in turn in a moment. First though, we need to appreciate that leadership – authentic and purposeful leadership in particular – is too important to lead to chance. It doesn’t just happen. We need to plan for it and to think deeply about when, where, and how it happens. 

It’s a bit like going shopping. You have to know what it is you need to buy (make a list), and then when you’ve bought it you then need to know how best to combine them in order to turn the items into something meaningful (i.e. meals). This is the whole point of doing the weekly shop –  to keep yourself and others sufficiently nourished. Leading is no different. 

The process of shopping (as with leading) is merely a means to an end. It needs to lead to something. And if we just left it to chance, who knows what we’ll up with. We most likely won’t starve, but it will hardly be enriching and enticing. 

When planning to lead well, leaders need to take care when thinking about their actions and behaviours. Careful leaders are ethical leaders, and – as would be expected – care passionately about the things they believe in. More importantly, they care passionately about the beliefs of others in a diverse workplace. 

If we do this all of the time, consistently, constantly, and convincingly (my three habits of authentic leaders) chances are these behaviours will become normalised. They become habits. Habits help us ensure that we do things automatically and precisely. They are done right each time, without thinking, such as driving to work, talking to a parent, or giving feedback to a pupil. 

Precision is essential but only if it’s accurate, for it is this that ensures we are being precise about the right things. It’s accuracy over precision every time. 

You can be as precise as you want about sticking meticulously to the speed limit or the ingredients in your recipe. But if you are heading in the wrong direction, or adding salt instead of sugar, then you won’t achieve much. 

Accurate leaders do the right things on purpose, and from purpose. 

Authentic leaders are accurate leaders because it is done with care. They know that people rarely succeed unless there is purpose behind their actions. It is this sense of purpose – and associated success – that is the bedrock to belonging.

Success is the residue of belonging. It’s what’s left behind long after everyone has gone home. It sticks and lingers and is what makes people keep coming back for more. Success is permanent. 

And by success, I don’t mean Ofsted banners outside the school gates, or fancy logos on headed paper. I mean a true sense of deep accomplishment and belonging where self meets the world, the interface of which we call the workplace. 

It is of course the place where young people to go to learn, but it’s also the place where we, as adults work. It’s where we spend most of our waking moments, so it makes sense to at least feel as if we belong there. 

As poet and philosopher David Whyte says (quoting Blake’s words), “To have a firm persuasion in our work – to feel that what we do is right for ourselves and good for the world at the exact same time – is one of the great triumphs of human existence.”  

It is also one of the greatest challenges of school leadership. Known strategies such as allyship, empowerment and mentorship all make for great starts. In my new book, The Authentic Leader, I tell the inspiring true story of Dikgang Moseneke, a man who knew all about the value of these. But as Dikgang reminds us, unless all of these things are done through ‘collective agency’, on and from purpose, we may end up falling short when it comes to providing one of the most fundamental human needs: belonging.

Decolonising educational spaces: Lunar New Year 2023 reflections

Isabelle Pan portrait

Written by Isabelle Pan

Isabelle Pan is a secondary teacher. She is of Chinese heritage, grew up in France and England, and has studied in Scotland and California. She is from besea.n, Britain’s East and South East Asian Network, and is also working for MA Consultancy. Her interests are in equity in education, promoting books by authors of marginalised backgrounds to young people, and dance. She can be found at @readingwith.misspan (Instagram), and @mspanlanguages (Twitter)

For 3  of the 5 East and South East Asian Lunar New Year festivals, New Year’s Day was on Sunday 22 January this year (Spring Festival, Seollal and Tet), with some countries celebrating for 2 weeks until the Lantern Festival. To bring awareness to the festivals, besea.n (Britain’s East and South East Asian Network) published some Lunar New Year school resources which are culturally sensitive and accurate, and include lesson plans, assemblies, reading lists and form time resources to schools. 

In my own school, I presented 3 assemblies, to Years 7, 8 and 9. These were my 1st assemblies ever in my teaching career. Needless to say, I was terrified in the leadup to them.

I had thought about doing assemblies on East and South East Asian (ESEA) cultures before, but though I may be a teacher who presents to 28 students a lesson 5 times a day, and a dancer who has often got up on stage in front of hundreds, speaking to a room of 300 young people for ten minutes was a little too daunting. I avoided materialising this idea, for fear of students being disengaged, or worse, racist.

Naturally, I was hugely nervous on the day. But what surprised me was how, as soon as I spoke into the mic, my nerves faded away. Being able to stand in front of an accumulated total of 900 students, to share with them the traditions of the 5 LNY festivals as well as my own family’s celebrations, and to see students engaging with the topic – this has been such a joy. 

The assembly talked through the similarities between the 5 festivals as well as the unique traditions of each festival. Lunar New Year festivals in East and South East Asia mainly come under the following five types:

  1. Spring Festival –  China, Taiwan, Hong Kong, Malaysia, Singapore, Philippines, Indonesia, Myanmar, Thailand, Cambodia, Brunei, Macau
  2. Tết (Tết Nguyên Đán) – Vietnam
  3. Seollal – South Korea, North Korea
  4. Losar – Tibet
  5. Tsagaan Sar – Mongolia 

In the assembly I also spoke about the growing tendency for the festivals to be more inclusively referred to as Lunar New Year (rather than just Chinese New Year) as an umbrella name for the five festivals, and to reflect just how many communities celebrate the festival. In addition, I featured photos and videos of my family celebrating in London but also my uncles, aunts, and cousins celebrating in China. There are many misconceptions about LNY and so the goal of my assembly was to give a fuller, clearer, and more sensitive view of the five festivals. 

I was touched by the positive reception these assemblies had. Afterwards, students and staff congratulated me on the assembly, told me what they learnt, asked me more questions about LNY, and students I didn’t know greeted me and wished me a happy Lunar New Year in the corridor. One colleague told me ‘thank you for your assembly, it was really informative. I have a Korean guest staying with me and now I know to wish her a happy new year this Sunday’. Children told me ‘Miss now I know we should call it Lunar New Year and not Chinese New Year’. 

I staunchly believe in decolonising our education systems, and the way the students (and staff) responded to this assembly is just another piece of evidence that such a change is desired and needed by our students. Young people want to learn more about a variety of cultures – it interests them, it enriches their minds, challenges them to think critically, and builds connection and empathy.

For the students and staff I presented to, this was only 1 assembly. It will not completely overhaul their belief systems. Even on the day I wrote this post, 2 students made ignorant comments with regards to East and South East Asian cultures, in front of me.

The effect such comments have on you does not disappear, but as a teacher you learn to take things less personally. It is still disheartening to hear such comments, but it reflects more on the other person than on you. And it also highlights the fact that education about ESEA cultures and communities is just so dire in this country. The education about ESEA communities in our system needs to exist – I cannot even say it needs to improve, as something needs to exist before it can be improved – in order to challenge anti-ESEA attitudes.

Though schools may occasionally speak on racism in PSHE and assemblies, the nuance is not yet there in many schools. Even when discussing anti-Black racism, I have seen resources that contain traumatic images or videos, triggering Black students who may be in the room. And painfully for me as an ESEA educator, I’ve noticed that issues facing ESEAs are often missing from resources about racism.

I wouldn’t say it’s the duty of ESEA people to speak up, as there shouldn’t be that kind of burden, but I also think change will be so much more powerful with ESEA communities believing we can take up space and speak up for ourselves in schools. 

Equally, non-ESEA colleagues are also crucial. A colleague in the Y8 team, who is not ESEA, is the one who had convinced me to do the Y8 assembly, then convinced me to do the Y9 one, and then I thought, ‘I might as well do the Y7 one too’. I’m grateful for her encouragement and her belief that this was an important topic.

Throughout my career, students have always asked me “Miss, where are you from?” I never told them as I didn’t know what they would do with that information, and this fear heightened with every racist experience I had in school. But with these assemblies, I finally very publicly shared stories from my Chinese heritage and family. I was proud of my Chinese heritage. 

My nerves which come with talking about ESEA cultures or even showing photos of ESEA faces will not simply fade away with delivering one assembly, because young people (and adults) will continue to make ignorant comments. But I feel increasingly better-equipped, motivated, and empowered to help young people overcome prejudices towards ESEA communities, and hope that there can be a movement to decolonise our education system, so that future ESEA educators and students can be publicly proud when talking about their ESEA heritages.

What are the key educational challenges faced in the classroom by teachers in working-class schools and how much time and space do you have to address them?

Darren Crosdale portrait

Written by Darren Crosdale

English and Media Studies-trained teacher, currently working in a large Liverpool comprehensive

I could list the oh-so-obvious issues faced by teachers in working-class schools but if you’re reading this, it’s likely you have already read similar compilations on a blog or a Twitter thread. So, I decided to do things a little differently.

In over twenty years of teaching, I have had students disclose a wide variety of issues. That they are trans. That their parents are separating. That they had unprotected sex with a neighbour’s lad while their mothers were downstairs chatting. That they were smuggled into the country in the back of a lorry and almost froze to death. The list goes on.

I have never, however, had a student tell me they are poor. That they are hungry. Or that the weight of poverty on their young shoulders was unbearable. Never. And I know from colleagues up and down the country, this situation is replicated.

Occasionally, students ask me to pay for their lunch (and I know I am not the only teacher, sadly.) Every now and again a student will say ‘Those apples look nice sir,’ pointing at the apples on my shelf. (I am known for having a Pink Lady at break time. I will always hand one over.) Never, however, has a student divulged that they are ‘poor’ or ‘struggling’ or ‘disadvantaged’ as our teacher parlance states. There is an immense shame attached to poverty in our society. A shame that is rarely spoken about or directly confronted by staff and students alike.

One of my favourite lessons asks students to think about how much the government thinks their education is worth: not some flimsy philosophical description but raw numbers, please. We start off by discussing the world-famous private school, Eton College. Its fees are approximately £46,000 per year. When students begin to brainstorm how much your average secondary comprehensive receives from the government for each child, you can see lights twinkling in eyes. I sit back and listen carefully.

“I reckon the school gets £50 for us,” a girl said recently.

“Per year?” I reply.

“That can’t be right,” retorts a lad. He’s good at Maths.

“Actually,” another student asks, “Do the teachers’ wages and the leccie bill and glue sticks come out of that money too?” She’s better at Maths.  

“Yup,” I reply.

“So, it has to be more than £50!” another student snorts.

And so, the discussion continues. This is one of those lessons all teachers enjoy: the students are teaching each other; they are thinking, critically, about our society; it’s one of those lessons where they question the way in which inequality works. Invariably, the students’ suggestions about how much their education is worth moves up from £50 but they can never settle on a figure. Whatever total they hover around, however, it is far, far away from £46,000.

Because these regular comprehensive students simply feel they are worth less than those who attend Eton.

Because they know Eton and their comp are both schools but that one is so very different from the other.  

Twenty of the fifty-seven prime ministers the UK has had, went to Eton, including Boris Johnson. Our illustrious former prime minister is in the news as I write this. He earned £1m in just six weeks for after-dinner speeches. It also turns out he is living, rent free, in a phenomenal London town house as well. (https://www.gbnews.uk/news/boris-johnson-living-for-free-in-20m-home-in-britains-poshest-street-despite-earning-1m-in-six-weeks/422207) Because of course he is.

Parents will tell you that one of the fascinating aspects of raising young people is around their acquisition of language. My young people do not yet have the power to say “the myth of meritocracy makes our lives more difficult”. (https://news.harvard.edu/gazette/story/2021/01/the-myth-of-meritocracy-according-to-michael-sandel/) But they can damned well draw a link between Boris Johnson attending Eton, becoming Mayor of London, failing upwards to prime minister, getting caught bending the truth, time and time again, stepping down, only to earn more in six weeks than they ever will in their lifetimes.

I haven’t even mentioned the pandemic yet. Ask any teacher and they will tell you there is a clear demarcation between Before and After two years of lockdowns. Things may have been tough Before but After is a whole other thing. Lockdowns were damned difficult if you were in a comfortable house, worked from home, took regular exercise and did not lose anyone to the awful disease. For those who were already struggling, however, lockdowns were perhaps a last straw. All inequalities were magnified – health, finances, education. A friend who teaches in London told me he insisted during a lockdown lesson, that everyone in his A-Level Biology class turned their cameras on. He was desperate to boost morale and add that human touch so very missed during those dry, dry lessons. A student reluctantly, finally turned on her camera, only to reveal a tiny bedroom with six other siblings wearing headphones, trying to focus on their own online lessons. “That’s OK everyone,” he said, heartbroken after a few seconds of realisation, “You can turn them off if you want.” She immediately clicked that small camera icon off. 

The worst of it is that, although our new normal is acknowledged – poor mental health, widespread substance abuse, clear mobile phone addiction – these issues have simply been tacked onto the other issues the most vulnerable in our society have been fighting with for decades.

So, no, I didn’t discuss list the typical list of problems working class school face – recruitment and retention, teachers’ pay, non-sticky glue sticks and a Michael Gove-created exam system that is clearly linked to British children ranking as some of the most unhappy in the Western world … but all of that is in attendance too.