Time for Men to ‘Woman Up’!

Patrick Ottley-O'Connor

Written by Patrick Ottley-O'Connor

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

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

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

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

Alison Kriel, @AlisonKriel raised some important questions:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

In conclusion, my call to men is to:

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

 Access further articles and resources here from Leanin.org:

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How to Imbed Inclusion and Diversity in Schools

Jess Gosling portrait

Written by Jess Gosling

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

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

Tackling gender roles

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

Discussing cultural differences

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

Addressing disabilities

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

Expressing viewpoints

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

References:

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

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

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Why Are Pictures of Prophet Muhammed Forbidden in Islam?

Zahara Chowdhury portrait

Written by Zahara Chowdhury

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.

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


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


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

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

 

WHY ARE PICTURES OF PROPHET MUHAMMAD FORBIDDEN? 

 

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


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


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


TEACHING AND LEARNING THE UNCOMFORTABLE

 

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


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

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

 

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


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

 

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

 

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


Was the teacher’s use of the image offensive? 

 

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


NEGATIVE BIAS AND ISLAM 

 

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

 

 

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


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


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


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


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


References: 

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

 

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

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Neurodiversity

Dr Sarah Chicken portrait

Written by Dr Sarah Chicken

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

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

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Engaging With Diversity – Giving Pupils a Voice

Gaurav Dubay portrait

Written by Gaurav Dubay

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

The need to diversify

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

 

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

 

What did our pupil voice dialogue look like? 

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

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

 

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

 

The outcomes of the discussion:

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

What we learnt:

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

 

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

For further information, please follow us @english_hgs 

Personal Twitter handle: @GauravDubay3

Bibliography:

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

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Black Woman’s Load

Shonagh Reid portrait

Written by Shonagh Reid

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

I am often contacted by colleagues who want to share their experiences of being an educator who is from an ethnic minority. This blog explores research and some of their personal experiences. 

If you’ve watched ‘Motherland’ on BBC you may have come across the character of Meg, the new character in series 2. She’s vivacious, on top of her game and successful. In one episode Julia asks her how she manages it all. How does she manage to stay on top of her work, managing the children, being present for the children, being a ‘good wife’ and doing all of that with good cheer? Julia is struggling with all of the above and with a husband who just doesn’t get it. Meg calls this the ‘mother’s load’- the extra bits that women pick up along the way: the packed lunches, thinking about what kit or clothes the children need, planning the shopping etc. etc. The ‘mother’s load’… it resonates with working mothers. Of course I laughed; it’s funny because it’s true. But I know Meg has another load, but she doesn’t talk about this in the series. She doesn’t talk about her ‘black woman’s load’. She doesn’t mention this: the extra baggage that you have to carry around on top of everything else due solely to your race. 

Black Woman’s Load: The Evidence

I was recently invited to contribute to a report by UCL Institute of Education. I met with Antonina Tereshchenko and she asked about my experience as a black educator. In her final report, ‘Making Progress?’ also written by Martin Mills and Alice Bradbury, she outlines some bleak facts and statistics most of which we might expect such as the low representation of ethnic minorities in schools and the higher prevalence of these communities in Pastoral roles and disadvantaged areas of the UK. 

In addition, the report is littered with ‘black woman’s load’. I’m focussing on the black female experience here as the intersectionality is important, the report says: 

‘Our participants highlighted how both overt and covert racism takes a toll on BAME teachers’ wellbeing, progression and job satisfaction. BAME teachers had the same high levels of workload as all teachers, plus an additional ‘hidden workload’ of coping with racism’.

What does this look like for black women in schools? We know it isn’t overt, it’s quiet, it’s discreet. It’s watching situations dealt with differently for groups of people whether they are children or colleagues and when you examine situations closely and reflect from all possible angles, having no explanation for the different treatment at all. 

Black Woman’s Load: The Tropes

Aggressive. Intimidating. Loud. Frightening. Unprofessional. 

These are the tropes that are placed on black people and black women in particular. And it is these tropes that provide the ‘black woman’s load’.

Aggressive

Why are black women so often described as aggressive? What is it about our behaviour that gives us this label? Do we shout at colleagues? Do we actually physically fight or threaten others? 

We don’t want to be seen as aggressive. So what do we do? We ensure we plan our conversations carefully. We read books on difficult conversations and plan in detail what we are going to say. How will we sit? Where will we sit? What will we offer in a way of refreshment? What will we wear? We need to ensure we don’t appear aggressive so let’s examine colours, fabrics and the cut of our clothes to soften the image. How will we speak, we need a quiet soft tone and we must make sure we keep an open body language and don’t lean forward in the chair.

Intimidating

We black women who are successful are very intimidating, but why? Is it our success that is intimidating? Is it what we were told in our ‘talk’ as children, that you have to work ten times as hard to reach the same goals as your white counterparts? Do they know that, and does that intimidate them? Is it the fact that we have to be more organised and more thorough to prove that we were worth giving the job to? Does this intimidate people? 

So what do we do? We try to choose clothing and hairstyles that keep people at their ease. We mind how we speak, we consider more carefully how things will be received by our colleagues. We debate how far we will ‘smooth out’ our blackness to appear less intimidating. 

Loud

When we come across another black person the guard can come down just a bit. We can relax just a bit and be just a little bit more ourselves. We share a similar cultural experience and therefore culture comes through, the laughing, the gestures, the big voices, the exuberant good byes. Is that just a bit too ethnic? Just a little bit too black? Just a bit too loud? The noise is intimidating. 

So what do we do? We turn it down. Turn it down ladies. Don’t appear in groups of black people that are too large because you could be perceived as a gang or not mixing well enough with your other colleagues.

Frightening

What is it that is frightening about us? Why do we create fear? Tereshchenko’s report says: 

‘Several additional teachers also felt that articulate, outspoken, unionised, top of the pay scale BAME teachers were ‘feared’ the most and subjected to covert (and at times overt) racism’

Why? Is it our appearance? Is it the typical news stories and stereotypical images of black people in general of being violent, drug using musicians or sports people? Is it our abilities? 

So what do we do? More of the same really, tone it down, turn it down, watch how you speak, watch what you say, watch how you say it, watch what you wear, watch how you wear it…

Unprofessional

Is this not the label that we fear the most? Unprofessional. By this point, you’ve worked harder than your peers, outperformed them, earned your promotion and more. You have to be more professional than everybody else. How do you demonstrate that? Well, you don’t miss deadlines, you have a clear vision, you forget nothing, your work is a high standard at all times, you take on more work for others and continue to deliver, you drive your area forward. You may even have considered the other trope of afro hair being ‘unprofessional’. Maybe you relax your hair not because you want to, but because you just want to appear to be a bit more professional and a bit less wild and intimidating.

Black Woman’s Load: The Impact

These are considerations over and above the normal considerations that our white counterparts have in schools and other industries. The impact of these considerations is exhausting. The impact of these considerations is your ‘black woman’s load’. The extra space in your life is taken up by constantly thinking about toning it down, being less intimidating, not appearing aggressive, not being yourself, not being loud, not being frightening. 

This is the extra, unseen workload that is referred to in the earlier extract from the report, 

‘Our participants highlighted how both overt and covert racism takes a toll on BAME teachers’ wellbeing, progression and job satisfaction. BAME teachers had the same high levels of workload as all teachers, plus an additional ‘hidden workload’ of coping with racism’.

Black Woman’s Load: The Future

Tereshchenko’s report identifies several recommendations for schools including, 

‘A better preparation of school leaders and a conscious effort by them to improve the racial literacy and diversity within the SLT is paramount for a favourable racial climate for BAME teacher retention’.

This would of course help, but it isn’t just about SLT, it’s about the entire school community and Trust executive teams. 

Meg in ‘Motherland’ tells Julia that she passes her ‘mother’s load’ on to her own mother. Great idea, pass some of the drop offs, the washing etc. on to someone else with more time and probably more patience. You can’t pass on your ‘black woman’s load’.  It simply can’t be done. It has to be borne, carried and endured. 

Nationwide ethnic minority educators are trying to work with schools to discuss diversity and decolonise the curriculum. Looking into the distance of time, there may be a fairer experience for black female leaders in education and other industries, our colleagues may understand more about our lived experiences and their own fears and biases. When that happens we may be able to be ourselves, focus on our jobs rather than how others perceive us, have people judge us by the content of our characters and performance. We may put down our loads. 

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Think Equal – Equality Education in Action

Ben Mearhart portrait

Written by Ben Mearhart

M.Ed. in Educational Leadership and in his 10 years as a senior leader developed practices and curricula which progressed teaching, learning, outcomes and personal development to ‘Outstanding’ levels.

Intent

 

As a joint-Headteacher of a forward-thinking primary school I was always on the look-out for initiatives which spoke to the heart of what I most value – the children’s actual experience and equipping them for leading rewarding lives. Think Equal’s social and emotional literacy programme achieves this and so much more.

 

I can’t think of anyone I know who wouldn’t benefit from enhanced social and emotional literacy.  From engaging the compassion that it can grow, for ourselves and everyone around us.  What do you do when you feel completely lost?  When you feel you’ve made a terrible mistake?  How do you support yourself or others when they feel this way?  How do you treat people as they would like to be treated?

 

This, to my mind, is the true work of a curriculum, of a school; namely to cultivate an authentic social and emotional literacy which is steeled with a depth and breadth of real world understanding that together can make the world we leave for our children better than the one we inherited.

 

Implementation

 

You may of course learn such things through trial and error.   Or, to be more certain of success, you can embrace social and emotional literacy as a golden thread of your learning and understanding as a student, of your pedagogy and support as a teacher and of your vision and impact as a leader.  The mission, content and execution of Think Equal’s programme achieves this too. Bold claims I know, but treat those seeds of doubt to a quick glance at Think Equal’s Committee of Advisors and Academic Partners to see how this might be possible.

 

From Understanding the World to Personal, Social and Emotional Development – and all the fertile vertical and horizontal links between and beyond – Think Equal’s programme can instantly enhance your curriculum, pastoral care and ultimately the love and cohesion that unites your school community. And at a time when children’s minds – at their most plastic – can be so ripe to engage with what so many adults, myself included, can find paralysingly-awkward and difficult to negotiate in reality.  What is true fairness?  How are we different and how are we similar?  How do I show you that I genuinely appreciate you as a human being? The programme largely enables these developments through consistently engaging and inspiring stories and activities.  

 

Diverse narratives:

At age- and stage-appropriate levels, the children explore and embrace vital concepts like equality, emotion and race within the comparative safety of the experiences and choices of a beautiful range of characters.

 

Emotional intelligence in action:

Their discoveries are then reinforced with the help of the programme’s carefully scaffolded and inclusive activities so that they are ready to respond when reality calls.

 

Impact

 

And oh the difference! At its most essential, we found that our planning for Personal, Social and Emotional Development for the year was pretty much covered.  Done.

 

More importantly…within weeks we saw elevated levels of kindness and consideration.  We saw children often reserved and tentative now emboldened and asserting their values.  We saw children who knew themselves and their friends with deeper understanding and confidence, who had normalised the range of emotions we experience but not the negative actions they can drive. 

 

Children who, self-confident and upright, were happier, more engaged, independent and much more likely to approach conflict with courage and solutions(!).   The positivity rippled through our staff and to home too. These days there is rightly much talk of a mental health and well-being crisis (pre- and post-Covid 19).  In times of joy, sorrow and everything in between I don’t think we can expect more than to ride those waves to the best of our ability. Pursuing the Think Equal programme enhances that ability and not as a reactive solution – a bolt on – but as a pro-active and living, breathing and growing reality.

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Using Students Voice to understand Diversity

Roma Dhameja portrait

Written by Roma Dhameja

Secondary Vice Principal responsible for Teaching and Learning with a particular passion for Student Voice and teaching students Business, Economics and about Money.

Google ‘What is Diversity’ and you will see it defined as the ‘process of involving people from a range of different social, ethnic, gender, sexuality backgrounds.’ However, the way we often portray it is through a lens of polarisation. White or non-white. Male or Female. We know life is more complex than that. I, as a woman in her 30s of Indian heritage, cannot speak for every woman with that background and in that age bracket. Our experiences vary. It also doesn’t mean I have nothing in common with a middle-aged white man.

 

This doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t endeavour to ensure diversity in our board rooms/staff body. It means we have to pay closer attention to experiences rather than the way we classify ourselves, and that’s why I want to focus on the element of ‘involving people’ in the above definition. Because unless the communication channels are open, our understanding of unique experiences and similarities will remain stunted.  

 

With this in mind, I have loved conducting student voice activities throughout my teaching career. Our students’ backgrounds affect the way they engage with education. I know this, I have experienced this. At age 4, I joined the British education system with English as my third language and not entirely fluent in it either. Rather than celebrate my trilingual abilities, I was always innately aware that having not mastered English first I was seen to have a disadvantage. This became more apparent as I studied English Literature at A Level and whilst my peers could reference Greek Gods I had a wide variety of Hindu God’s I could refer to with an impressive array of powers but none that were going to make me understand references in the poetry required on the syllabus.

 

Often this lack of exposure to Western cultural references can be seen as a gap, something to fix and fill, and I understand that. After all, we have to prepare our students to pass exams and wrestle with the demands of the English language. But we also have an opportunity to unpick what they come to the table with.

 

I recently spoke to a group of students with English as an Additional Language and was in awe at the experiences not only they, but their parents had. One spoke to me about his parents being refugees from Pakistan and how his dad had obtained a degree in the Netherlands, which is where he was born and had then moved to the UK at eight. When I asked him of his experience moving to the UK he spoke about how he was going to one up his dad by making sure he did his A Levels in the UK, degree abroad and then an MA in another country. To him the world was his home, he just needed some time to figure out society in each country. He was a global citizen.

 

I’d gone to speak to these young people to look at home/school communication. Many of the questions had been asked before.

  • Do your parents receive the letters we send home?
  • Do they read them?
  • Is it ok to send them in English or would you prefer them in a different language?

 

Yes, Yes English is fine, had been the response.

 

Digging a little deeper, it became apparent that the students were reading the letters going home to their parents. When asked if they read everything, their initial reaction was yes, of course. When I asked them to translate a paragraph for me in Urdu, it became apparent they would skip some bits. This made the school simplify the language of their home communication further, with students giving feedback.

 

I learnt a lot that day about the way we communicate with our young people and their parents. I learnt a lot about ensuring that we know who we are writing for. I learnt a lot about how many students are happy to talk about their background if they feel comfortable, and we are willing to listen and celebrate the richness of it.

 

On another occasion I learnt a lot more about why some of our students from diverse backgrounds were not applying to Oxbridge despite having the grades than I ever would sitting making assumptions. I won’t tell you why because their reasons may not be the same as those of the young people not applying at your school. And that’s what we need to unpick, all of us, through regular, consistent student voice activities. What I did love however is how many of them were making the right choices for them, taking into account their culture and the lifestyle they wanted to lead.

 

We also need to be careful about the way we interpret student experiences. For instance, students’ parents may not attend parents evenings because they have no experience of the British education system and may send older siblings, uncles or aunts instead. In these instances you can have a very engaged extended family. How do we work with that? The cultural experiences of our young people can be very rich and we have to ensure we are not, at some level judging them as good or bad when they may just be different.

 

Listening to our students’ voices can teach us so much: what our students value in their homes… what shapes their perspectives… who are their role models… This is all powerful knowledge. It is a two-way gift. Not only does it give us an insight into their world, it also encourages them to talk confidently about their experiences, no matter how different to the status quo they may be.

 

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The Room Where It Happens - Promoting Diversity through Fiction in the Sixth Form Library

Olivia Edmonds portrait

Written by Olivia Edmonds

Learning Resources Manager (with responsibility for the Library) at FE Level in Birmingham. Former Secondary English teacher of 10 years.

On my first day as a Learning Resources Manager at a Sixth Form College in the Midlands, the then Principal said to me, “Olivia, our students don’t read – and they need to. You need to get our students to read.” This was a challenge I was more than happy to accept, but looking at the wider context of the College, this turned out to be a bigger battle than I first expected. The College is situated in one of the most deprived areas in the country and serves a predominantly ethnic minority community, where many students use English as a Second Language. With limited opportunities to develop their cultural capital and without access to community Libraries (due to Government cuts), it made me realise the importance of the Library I was now in charge of, as well as the impact that it could have on the lives of its students. 

My first focus was to make our stock as relevant and engaging for our students as possible. This also presented its own unique challenges. The stock I inherited from the previous Librarian was completely out of date and based on my experience at my first school (which had a similar cultural and religious demographic), not fit for purpose. To me, the importance of representation in books is key to engaging young people in reading, so when the Library shelves contained the works of authors such as Geoffrey Archer and Barbara Cartland, it was easy to see why the Library usage was so low. Couple that with the severe lack of books representing any of the protected characteristics of the Equality Act 2010, and it was clear to see the areas that needed addressing. I wanted the Library space to be a supportive, inclusive and engaging learning environment. A place in which our students could, in a safe space, learn about and ask questions about things they may have never discussed before and for this to happen, major changes were needed.

Working alongside the College’s Equality and Diversity co-ordinator, as well as a focus group of students and other staff, we worked together to assess what of the current stock was fit for purpose, what stock was unfit for purpose, and what stock could be fit for purpose if appropriately updated. It was the findings of this exercise that I was then able to take to my Line Manager and then onto SLT, who approved the decision for me to fully replace all of our fiction/Reading for Pleasure books with more appropriate, relevant, and engaging stock. This up-front investment in stock has meant that any additional or recently published stock has only needed to be purchased in small amounts to reflect the changing times in which we live. 

When choosing new stock, I wanted to ensure that the variety of Own Voices stories was as wide as possible. I felt it was not only important for students to have access to stories relating to issues they have not come across before – such as different religions, sexualities, and cultures – as it was to have access to stories where they have some familiarity. Overall, my main aim in choosing new stock was for our students to be able to see themselves in the texts we have. With continued support from our students, as well as guidance from staff at Peters Books, Browns Books for Schools and our local Waterstones, we were able to create a collection that provided a solid base for us to build on as years passed. This collection has now allowed us to build our students’ engagement with a range of topics, including national and international events and cultural movements (thus improving their cultural capital), and has resulted in increased student loans, in depth liaison with teachers to provide further links between fiction and the Curriculum, and hosting a series of speaker events, ranging from authors to representatives from different religious backgrounds.

I feel that there will never be an end point when it comes to diversifying a Library collection, especially when it comes to Fiction. We live in an ever-changing society, where every day there are new issues raised and new opinions formed. Furthermore, the access to on the spot news being almost instantaneous means we, as Librarians, need to be aware of what our students are consuming and facing. If we can truly allow them to learn and be educated about a wide range of diverse matters in a safe environment, such as our libraries, then we have more chance of our young people being the true change that our world really needs.

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Autie@40

Katie Friedman portrait

Written by Katie Friedman

Katie Friedman is an ex-Deputy Headteacher and Future Leader who now runs katiefriedmancoaching.com and is an accreditation coach with the MTPT project.

I was diagnosed as Autistic with Attention Deficit Disorder (ADD) this year, aged 40. When I first discovered my brain was different, I felt like an imposter – like I had only been autistic for five minutes but of course, I was born this way. What is new is the unlearning of unhelpful narratives thrown together in the absence of diagnosis. It feels like this late discovery has propelled me to the core of who I really am, past the layer of who I pretend to be and the layer of who I am scared I am.

Nearly three years ago, spurred on by a national leadership programme, I felt it was time to move on from the school I had been in for 10 years. I was promoted to a school whose Executive saw my ambition and verbal skills at interview. What they and I didn’t acknowledge was the disorganisation that had been masked by admin support. I went to expand my repertoire moving from a Teaching and Learning remit to be a Deputy Headteacher with responsibility for Behaviour and Safeguarding. The conditions for successfully making the leap in expertise were not there; soon after starting, the Headteacher and Assistant Principal in charge of Safeguarding went on long term sick leave; my husband who was sharing a lot of the childcare of our three young children, landed a promotion in London.  It soon became clear I was out of my comfort zone and my support structures were dissolving at home and at school. I started to crumble much like the 1960s building I was working in. I couldn’t mask for long. I was overwhelmed, stopped sleeping and burnt out. When the decision finally became black and white: keep going and crash the car on the way to work or get well and parent my kids, I went to the doctors and got signed off. I now know that my experience of burn out was not simply the ‘glass cliff’ (where women often have to negotiate difficult roles in order to get promoted) and that my neurology also played a part.

After some mindfulness counselling and help from my union, I finally understood that walking away was wisdom and not failure and I decided to hand in my notice. I would have to do leadership differently and decided to train as a coach alongside part-time strategic leadership positions.  I realised that ease and staying with not knowing (essential to coaching) were not things I had much practice of after 15 years in teaching and school leadership.  Coach training helped me reconnect my mind and body, grounding me in the present and slowing my thinking to hold the space for others to think. 

I got great feedback on my coaching course but everyone said I needed to be kinder to myself. I realised there was a block to my self-acceptance. A psychometric test pointed to an unusual brain with all my top strengths being in one category: strategic. These milestones of self-discovery led me to read about autism. Tiana Marshall’s Asperger traits in women profile took about three reads before I realised just how much the profile described my lived experience. Suspecting autism was not helpful however as I was subscribing to all kinds of ignorant stereotypes of deficit; no empathy, no emotions, no theory of mind, black and white thinking blah blah blah….. 

I finally decided to brave a diagnosis. Just before the report was sent to me, I remember being really scared, a bit like the fear of social rejection; that I wouldn’t be autistic ‘enough’. I think I was scared that it would undermine my growing confidence in my intuition; that I was born this way and could stop trying so damned hard to do and be better. I needn’t have worried. Not only did I pass but ended up getting tested for ADHD which I had not been prepared for. 

My brain had to process all this in the middle of an intense period of home school/ work juggle when my husband had to work away for a week. I started to see everything I had masked over before and suddenly understood why the difficulties were described as a ‘disability’. It’s really frustrating when you are well above average in some areas and under average in others. It can feel like you are two people. Since the external validation of diagnosis, frustration has become empathy. I am starting to recognise my sensory needs and propensity for overwhelm and take steps to manage. I am more accepting of my challenges and find support rather than getting frustrated or believing they will go away if I just try harder. I can really appreciate my strengths having seen my test scores for the cognitive assessment and have stopped dismissing them as things that everyone must have. I can finally accept myself and take care of my unique brain and manage my energy and concentration. 

I am so glad I now know but I actually dread to think what rubbish I could have imbibed about myself if I had been labelled in the 80s and 90s. This insight is thanks to a well explained history of autism from the brilliant ally Steve Silberman in ‘Neurotribes’. Some adults from my generation have really shown their age with beauties like; 

– ‘we are all on the spectrum’. This negates my experience and misinterprets the spectrum as linear.

– ‘Alright, Rain Man’. Wow.

– ‘You’re still my friend’. Actually, not anymore. 

– ‘I always thought your dad and your aunt were weird’. Brilliant.

I am privileged to be married to someone who is well connected to his intuition, quietly confident, brilliant at admin, tidying and planning and for the most part, always up for the next adventure I instigate. I’m lucky to have many friends, educator colleagues and coaches in my life working in the self-acceptance, belonging, equality and diversity space. They are an army of people who own their labels and are willing to work hard in allyship with the intersectionality and inclusion of others. They have supported and championed me when I couldn’t. They have leant me their intuition when I couldn’t feel it, educated me, advocated for me, called me in and edited my work, applications and writing. @Clairerising, @itsaishathomas, @abitidball, @Angela_Browne, @comcoachingorg, and @DominiChoudhury I see you!

When I came out to the #actuallyautistic community on Twitter, I laughed through the tears as I realised I was expecting an outpouring of love and emotion from a tribe whose emotion comes when it comes not when someone asks for it. Integrity, challenge, drive and true kindness have been offered in abundance by people in the community and I know I am home. 

Lockdown has made me realise that my kids are neurodivergent too and we are now in the process of their diagnosis. I hated the admin but it was very empowering to say ‘I am an ex-Deputy Headteacher and I am autistic with ADHD’ to the SENDco in my children’s school. It pays to be a privileged insider. It also pays to lead, bravely.

I coach leaders in education who want to do things differently and people who think differently (diagnosed and undiagnosed). Coaching works on the premise that we are all OK and whole and do not need ‘fixing’. The truth is we all need to change, not who we are but assumptions and perceptions we have so that we can see ourselves and our leadership clearly. Coaching helps us explore safely without fear of failure. Really good coaching helps us see our gifts and access our wisdom free from sabotage. 17% of the population are neurodivergent (Autistic, ADHD, Dyslexic and Dyspraxic) whether they know or not. My intuition is that there are far more neurodivergent people who think differently in education than we realise. My guess is that many of us deeply understand the process of learning and yet we are described from a place of deficit as ‘disorders’. Whilst there are challenges to thinking differently, there is brilliance which we can’t afford to overlook. I am often taken with the creative language Neurodivergent clients use or the way they can get to the crux of something quickly and how they can generate ideas about how to move forward. I also know that there will be many creative minds who have left education as their Schools would not be flexible around their needs. 

Post-pandemic, we have proven that flexibility in work patterns and environment is possible and for some it may be desirable. People who are different and think differently are key to propelling the innovation needed to ensure education meets the changing needs of the 21st century, post-pandemic. The educational landscape has changed and neurodivergent trailblazers, liberated through understanding their neurodivergence can lead ahead of the curve if we nurture their talents.

You can find out more here: goldmindneurodiversity.com

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