We (Still) Need to Talk About Gender

Tracey Leese portrait

Written by Tracey Leese

Tracey Leese is an assistant headteacher, literacy specialist, parent governor and advocate for women in leadership. Tracey lives in Staffordshire with her two sons and fellow-teacher husband.

I am well aware that the land of gendered identities is an area in which attitudes and assumptions are rapidly changing… and that we are collectively beginning to see gender as more of a spectrum than a fixed binary position. But in our continued efforts to renegotiate our shared understanding of what constitutes gender or identity we can’t assume that female teachers are no longer subject to prejudice. 

Women are not underrepresented in teaching – in fact it’s a female-centric profession, but we are underrepresented at every single level of educational leadership – most prevalently at Secondary Headship level. In comparison to some other protected characteristics the issue of gender seems so straight forward. I can see why some people might feel that it’s time to put the issue of gender to the bottom of the priority list.

Similarly, it’s easy to underestimate the myriad reasons why women still earn and lead less in what is supposed to be a truly equal and ethical profession. The motherhood penalty, work/ life balance and women’s desire to work flexibly are all seemingly widely-held reasons for this. Together with my brother Christopher, I recently co-authored Teach Like a Queen: Lessons in Leadership from Great Contemporary Women as an attempt to contribute to the ongoing conversation around diversity within school leadership. Throughout our research for the book we interviewed countless power women and were surprised when recurring themes of self-doubt, imposter syndrome and fear of disapproval emerged. In some instances, these female leaders cited seemingly “small” issues such as wishing to attend their child’s school nativity as reasons why leadership seems unattractive to women. 

So, whilst we need to look at who is shaping policy and practice in education, we also need to be bold enough to imagine a future where more schools are ran by women and paid the same as their male counterparts. According to data from NAHT’s Closing the Gender Gap published December 2021, by the age of 60 male headteachers earn £17,334 more than female headteachers. 

Our book was inspired (and supported by) the work of #WomenEd who are relentless in their work towards inspiring, empowering and supporting more women into leadership posts, the data tells us that in spite of the brilliant work already underway, that there is still so much work to do. So we absolutely cannot assume that the issue of gender is anywhere near resolved nor that the profession is as equitable as we’d hope. 

We are all charged with addressing injustice in education – as leaders, as teachers and as stakeholders.  The disproportionate representation of women in leadership and the gender pay gap absolutely amounts to injustice. Our students deserve to attend schools which are led by visionary and diverse leaders. So if a world without gender inequality is an unrealistic destination, I am just happy to be part of the journey. 

Teach Like a Queen is out 30th May and published by Routledge: www.routledge.pub/Teach-Like-a-Queen

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Weaving Diverse Narratives into the Curriculum with Human Stories

Anna Szpakowska portrait

Written by Anna Szpakowska

Professional Development Lead at Lyfta

The importance of using a wide range of diverse human stories in our classrooms cannot be underestimated. There is clearly a desire amongst staff and students to broaden the curriculum to include these stories. Beyond that desire, however, there are numerous benefits to using diverse narratives in the classroom that include improving student engagement, nurturing character development and supporting academic progress too. In this blog, we’ll explore the importance of using diverse human stories, how this can be done and the potential impact it can have for your students. 

Why diverse human stories? 

It’s clear that the past few years have seen a heightened awareness and desire amongst the teaching profession to make the curriculum a more diverse and inclusive one. All teachers are bound by an adherence to the Equality Act of 2010 as well as the Public Sector Equality Duty, but recent polls have shown that there is still a desire to do more. For example, one survey commissioned by Pearson and conducted by Teacher Tapp revealed that 89% of secondary teachers and 60% of primary teachers felt that there was more diversity required in the set texts that they teach. 

However, this clearly isn’t just an issue that concerns English teachers. Pearson’s own report, Diversity and inclusion in schools, reveals that teachers feel that their curricula are not fully representative of the communities in which they work. The results reveal that teachers feel most concerned by the under-representation of people of identify as non-binary and people identifying as LGBT+. The report goes on to list a variety of different reasons as to why this representation is important. These reasons include:

  • creating a sense of belonging for staff and students alike
  • reducing instances of bullying and mental health problems 
  • reducing barriers to achievement

So how do stories help us achieve this? Narratives have long been at the heart of teaching and learning and  real-life stories have the potential to inspire students. For example, research conducted by Immordino Yang shows that experiencing human stories can motivate students into action and that the best learning takes place when students care about what it is they’re learning. 

If stories have the potential to motivate students and to make them care, it’s clear that there’s a reason to embed them in our curricula. More than that, it’s clear by ensuring there are a wide range of diverse voices included, it has the potential to improve student wellbeing and progress too. 

How can this be achieved? 

Lyfta is an educational platform that allows students to travel the world without leaving the comfort of their classrooms. Teachers can teach lessons or set lessons for students to complete independently, that take them into Lyfta’s 360° storyworlds. Storyworlds are immersive environments that contain images, 360° videos, articles and short documentary films. These short documentary films connect students with individuals from the communities that they are visiting. All of Lyfta’s documentary films contain an inspiring central character who models resilience, problem solving and positive values, supporting students to think creatively and critically. 

Lyfta has a wide range of lesson plans for teachers to use, to support them to successfully embed diverse narratives into their curriculum. These lesson plans are mapped against 12 different subject areas, cover a range of protected characteristics and all 17 of the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals. 

We’ve seen great success of teachers using the platform with students from key stage one all the way up to key stage five. We know that students enjoy their lessons with Lyfta with 94% of Lyfta users indicating that their students are highly engaged or enjoy using Lyfta. 

What impact will it have? 

When assessing the impact of our work, we’ve seen that not only do students enjoy using the platform but that there are a number of other effects on their personal development and educational achievement too. Students at a sixth form college in Kent describe the experience of recognising the shared experience of humanity across the world, describing the moment they realised that the people in Lyfta’s documentary films were ‘thinking about the [same] things we do in our everyday lives’ and that preconceptions or ‘assumptions’ the students may have had beforehand ‘were undone’. 

In addition to this work done at a secondary school in Essex revealed that Lyfta’s wide range of documentary films and storyworlds helped teachers to embed school values, with the vast majority of students finding that their understanding of their school values increased after completing a unit of work, using Lyfta lessons. In exploring values across the world, students are able to see our shared human values, thus normalising diversity and helping students to understand that we have more in common than our perceived differences. 

These findings are also supported by independent research, conducted by the University of Tampere in Finland. This research revealed that ‘the multi-sensory and participatory nature of immersive 360° experiences led to a decrease in learners’ sense of social anxiety about meeting people from different cultural backgrounds. Engaging with new people in an immersive virtual setting gives students the opportunity to identify common interests and, as a result, develop more positive feelings towards them.’ Therefore, the way Lyfta helps to normalise diversity has two significant implications; first, it helps to reduce anxiety and prejudice amongst those students who feel worried about others who are different from themselves. Secondly, for those students who may have experienced discrimination or marginalisation, Lyfta’s storyworlds and documentary films also allow them an opportunity to see themselves reflected in the stories presented to them at school. 

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Raising Awareness of Showmen in Education

Future for Fairgrounds logo

Written by Future4Fairgrounds

Future4Fairgrounds formed in September 2020. We are 6 lady Showmen. Our group is an additional voice of our community. We are celebrating our past, raising awareness of our present situation and protecting our future!

Future4Fairgrounds are a group of 6 lady Showmen who came together in September 2020 because of our concerns surrounding the issues Showmen were facing due to the impact of the pandemic. Our initial focus was to highlight the fairs that were unable to open during 2020 and create a better understanding of the amount of Showman families that were affected because of this. We attended many locations that would have had fairgrounds with our #f4f banners which displayed our aims – “to celebrate our past, raise awareness for the present and protect our future”. We raised our profile on social media, contacted our own MPs and became an additional voice for our community establishing ourselves alongside the number of trade body representatives that speak for our industry. We realised from the interest in F4F that there was a very real need for a community group such as ours and we were very proud to be mentioned in a Westminster debate in December of 2020.

We have continued to remain as a proactive group for a full year and our group F4F celebrated being one year old on 24th September 2021. 

This anniversary took place during World Fun Fair Month. An initiative we created to help raise further awareness of our community and join together with other Showmen on a global scale. 

“I Am A Showman” was declared by Showmen of all ages, genders and nationalities and highlighted a community coming together united in their pride for who we are as a people. It was a perfect start to a month-long celebration. The WFFM logo was also flown at fairgrounds in the U.K. and around the world making its way to Australia, New Zealand and even Times Square New York! WFFM was supported by so many people that it became much bigger than we ever expected. The project evolved organically and we were overwhelmed at the success of the event. 

One major success of WFFM involved the newly published independent reading book The Show Must Go On. Having been contacted by co author Michelle Russel early on in F4F’s conception it was wonderful to hear about the positive representation in this book. We did not have any input in the book’s creation but we could see the huge impact this little book could have and we wanted to make sure this ground-breaking book was available to as many schools as possible. With the help of money we had donated to us and money we had raised we were able to place an initial order and buy 1000 copies. To tie in with WFFM we gave them to schools that had fairgrounds linked to their towns during September. 

This amazing little book is so much more than a reading book it can be used as a tool to spark a thought, start a conversation and raise awareness of our community and with the help of WFFM making further links to the towns the Showmen visit annually. Many teachers have been in touch as they are aware that there is a lack of understanding and knowledge about Showmen. They understand the need for positive representation of our community in their school and in the education system as a whole. Since September our “book project” has gone from strength to strength and we have purchased a further 4000 books! They have been given to schools that have Showman children in as well as schools without Showmen students.

In 2022 our focus remains with raising awareness of Showmen in education. This has been extended from our initial look at primary schools into every stage of learning and teaching. We are hoping we can make changes in early years right through to higher education. Especially with more Showmen than ever before staying on in school, achieving fantastic exam results and following their academic career into university. We think education is key to raising awareness. If we can help stop misconceptions and prejudice by offering an authentic voice and sharing positive, accurate information with teachers in schools and universities to share with their students. We can create a better understanding of who Showmen are from the ground up. We hope that we can encourage schools and universities to identify the Showmen that they do have in attendance in an official way on enrolment forms. At the moment our community is invisible on most forms. With our collaboration with the organisations who worked on the GTRSB pledge into higher education and this being developed and adapted to be applied in other educational settings, we are hopeful we can make a difference to how Showmen are seen and bring about a change for the better. 

F4F is certainly here to stay as a community voice and we look forward to celebrating World Fun Fair Month with everyone again in September!

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Forming a BAME International Teaching Community for Safety and Success

Daryl Sinclair portrait

Written by Daryl Sinclair

Daryl completed his PGCE at UCLIOE and has worked in both the private and public sectors in the UK, Europe, and Asia since 2011. He completed a further MA in Development Education and Global Learning, receiving a Merit and received the 2014 Jack Petchey Award for Outstanding Leader due to Outstanding Service To Young People.

As the community of BAME international teachers grows, they need community support and I hope to support this progression – read on to learn how.

Navigating entry into international teaching is a challenging step to take. Combine that with the specific challenges faced both professionally and socially by the BAME community and you have something truly daunting.

A Wobbly First Step

From the beginning of my international teaching journey, I searched for a support network. Simple, generic advice was always easy to attain, but I needed answers specific to me. I needed a conversation with someone familiar with the challenges of navigating the space as a man racialised as black.

What I needed was a community that I could easily access which was populated by people who had seen international teaching through a BAME lens. At the very least, people who could speak with sensitivity and awareness to the questions I ask.

Unfortunately, I was not able to find it, but as many people do every year, I dove head first into an experience that I knew I wanted. This ‘into the deep end’ approach definitely led to additional challenges. Challenges I hope to help others avoid.

Identifying the Problem

Even when researching to ensure accuracy while writing this article, the results when trying to find a supportive community were not encouraging:

  • Promising forums lacking focus on international teaching such as r/teachersofcolor and dead links —  http://forum.expatteachernetwork.com/#home 
  • ‘Secret Groups’ and invite-only FB groups which are more trouble than they are worth to find and join. 
  • Communities which are ‘universal’ but heavily dominated by the experiences and expectations of US-based white teachers — r/internationalteachers 
  • Companies or organisations which prioritise training courses and paid services or membership fees

The formation of a community of BAME teachers is being prevented by low engagement triggered by a variety of barriers to entry and minimisation in more general forums.

Solutions to the Problems

We must ensure that there is visible and community-driven (constructivist) support available for BAME teachers which people can easily dip in and out of as necessary. 

This means:

  • No financial barriers to entry 
  • Publically visible and easy to find with simple searches online 
  • The group must be open to all with minor gatekeeping against spam, exploitation, and any suppression of the BAME voice 
  • If some ‘premium’ services are available, they should be secondary 
  • Resources, responses, stories, and guidance are generated by community interactions to ensure they directly represent their voice and knowledge base

A widely visible community with no barriers to entry is needed. Simple actions such as following accounts on Twitter, subscribing to people, and popping into forums and groups to occasionally share a response can make a world of difference.

The Dream

  • A broadly visible community where you can easily connect with real people on a variety of platforms and engage
  • A community which supports each other with relevant experience and sensitivity to the personal needs of the person asking. 
  • A community approach that protects from single stories and excessive generalisations. 
  • A community which organically increases the online visibility of BAME international teachers and makes it easier for others to connect.

We all have a story, and many of us are willing to share it. But we may not want that to become a full-time job or for our story to be a central one. If we follow the concept of Each One Teach One, we can become a community which supports the activity and success of BAME teachers.

The Market Importance of Forming a Community

The value of BAME teachers is becoming clearer and is expressed in changes to recruitment at major international recruiters. DEI initiatives are becoming common and more actively invoked rather than the simple lip-service they often represent even today. This has provided potential financial benefits to engaging with the BAME international teaching community for both recruiters and schools.

By forming a more visible community, BAME international teachers can protect themselves from being a resource exploited or excluded by the international teaching job market. Instead, they become a market which can safely and profitably engage with the resource of international teaching opportunities.

A community populated by people who recognise their value, help each other prepare for the reality of employment and life internationally, and support mentalities of ‘I am not alone, I am seen, I understand, and I do not simply have to accept’, is the most powerful market there can be.

Become part of this movement and support the change by joining and contributing to groups, resources, and forums that you come across such as:

Let us create and contribute to the community which will support so many and destabilise the current systemic issues faced by BAME international teachers.

You can connect with Daryl via @dsinclair17, dsinclairwriting@gmail.com, https://medium.com/@dsinclairwriting, https://www.linkedin.com/in/darylsinclairgeography/ and dsinclairwriting.com

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On Being ‘In’, ‘Out’ and ‘In-Between’

Glyn Hawke portrait

Written by Glyn Hawke

I am a deputy head in a primary school in South-East London. I completed a doctorate in education at King’s University and was awarded my doctorate in March 2020.

This was first posted on my blog during the first lockdown.  

It’s been a really eventful time for primary schools up and down the country. So much has been going on and school staff have had to bend, flex and adapt like never before. Funnily enough, we’re pretty good at it. But even primary school teachers have their limits. No-one is really talking about the well-being and mental health of the staff that have kept essential and key worker services going over the coronavirus pandemic (which isn’t over yet). I’m guessing that’s because people assume we are beyond human and have a never ending well of emotional and psychological resources to get through any life-threatening crisis. I mean, there’s nothing like watching friends being able to work from home and keep themselves safe when you have to continue to go to work everyday. Then again, it’s better to have been able to keep a job when so many people have lost theirs. I think I’ve done a pretty good job in not totally collapsing, but have noticed in the last couple of weeks that my ‘well’ is running dry. I’m tired. Not just a little bit tired. But tired to the very core of my bones. There’s nothing left – at the weekend, I try to read in the afternoon and find myself falling asleep. For a little nap. A four or five hour nap. On both days. During the week, coffee has become my best friend and my nemesis. My best friend in terms of jolting my body awake in the morning so that I can function – to a greater or lesser degree. And my nemesis because, if I have one too many, that perky morning pick-me-up quickly descends into a jittery state of anxiety, with my mind whirring at a hundred miles an hour with thoughts of falling sick, self-doubt and inadequacy. In other words, it’s all a bit doom and gloom. Usually I’ve got enough resources to keep those types of thoughts at bay. But lately, the defences are down and they just keep on coming. I’m not looking for sympathy. I know I’ll be okay in the long term. And it helps to talk (or write) about it. Shaking off the demons and all that. I have no problem admitting that I’m struggling. Even as a school leader. Some people might argue that in my position I shouldn’t show ‘weakness’ or vulnerability. I disagree on both counts at the best of times. So right now, talking about feeling fears and anxieties I think is completely acceptable. It’s also a good reminder that perhaps other staff are feeling the same way. We’re human after all, not machines. 

So, given my anxiety and vulnerability at the moment, I am very thankful to be in a school where the staff have embraced our work on equality and diversity. The pupils have amazed me with their reflections and responses to the death of George Floyd, and their passion for a fairer and more just society. The posters, banners, demonstrations, letters, artwork and poetry show a sophisticated response to Black Lives Matter, and to hear such young children clearly articulate how it makes them feel has been deeply moving and encouraging. And credit needs to be given to the teachers who followed the children’s lead, who didn’t try and dodge what is a very sensitive subject, but metaphorically sat with the children in states of questioning and exploring that was often challenging and uncomfortable. There can’t be true progress until we acknowledge and recognise the pain, suffering and violence caused by systemic racism and, if white, question our role in perpetuating this violence in inequality through our choices and actions. Tough pills and all that. 

As I explored in my previous posts ‘Hijacking or Highlighting’ and ‘Sharing the Rainbow’, there came a point over the past few weeks when LGBTQ+ equality came up in relation to Black Lives Matter. After some open discussions between staff on the meaning of the rainbow and who ‘owned’ it as a social signifier, we realised that it was LGBTQ+ Pride month. All over the globe there would be marches, protests and events (this year largely online) that would highlight the continuing inequalities affecting, as well as celebrate, LGBTQ+ lives. And as Black Lives Matter’s manifesto includes LGBTQ+ BAME people, then segueing into Pride seemed a natural progression. Exploring Pride had the potential to broaden the discussions around BLM (who is included and why) and also to critically examine the image of the rainbow (what it represents and to whom). We like to do a bit of critical thinking with our children. Education, education, education. 

So, on both a personal and professional level, I found it extremely liberating when our headteacher said that we ought to be doing something to acknowledge Pride. Let’s just put this into context. I’m 48 years old. I’ve worked in primary schools for over 15 years. I’ve studied resistance to LGBTQ+ inclusive curriculum for a Masters degree and explored the experiences of LGBTQ+ teachers in primary schools in England for my doctoral thesis (did I mention that I’m a doctor?…). And I know that many, many schools still do not include LGBTQ+ people in their curriculums. I know because for the past 15 years I’ve had to tread lightly, make suggestions, keep bringing up the exclusion of LGBTQ+ lives in the curriculum and have had a variety of responses. Sometimes it has been a straight (excuse the pun) ‘no’. Sometimes it has been to make it personal – ‘Imagine if some of the parents knew you were gay!’ (I think that was supposed to be supportive, but it’s really not). Sometimes it was about it ‘not being the right time’. That the school in question had more important priorities. And sometimes there was a concern about the parents. Would they be offended? Would they object? What would their reactions be? (This is one of my particular favourites as it can often mean that school leaders’ latent homophobia can be hidden behind the parent community. Where to even begin unpicking the classism, racism and homophobia that unconsciously exists within such a response). So to have a headteacher who simply said ‘we ought to do something’ was huge. I jumped straight onto the computer, typed out some suggested books with ideas for different year groups, and circulated it to staff. All within an hour. Quite easy to do when the books and lesson plans are all sitting in the cupboard waiting for the ‘green light’. 

To say that the staff embraced the work is an understatement. They used age-appropriate texts and language (I hate the fact that I’ve used this phrase, but I’ve included it just in case there are any bigots reading this who honestly believe primary school teachers would do anything but….) and engaged the children in critical discussion and debates around LGBTQ+ lives. With younger children it was about discussing different types of families, what it means to be a boy or girl, and making rainbow flags. With the older children, there were discussions around the intersections of faith, race and sexuality. What does it mean to be BAME and LGBTQ+? Are all religious people homophobic? Are identities more complex and nuanced than overly simplistic assumptions and generalisations? What is LGBTQ+ equality? What were the Stonewall riots? Who was Bayard Ruskin? And why hadn’t children heard of him? So at his point in time, I find myself working in a primary school that mentions LGBTQ+ beyond the narrative of homophobic bullying. That understands the intersection of our lives across different identity labels. That asks questions to prompt critical thinking in children rather than giving simplistic answers. Identity, equality and diversity work is complex. And our children can handle it. So, I find myself working in a school where staff talk about LGBTQ+ lives in a positive and historical way. Liberation, liberation, liberation. 

And so came the inevitable. The issue of ‘coming out’. Should I? Should I not? What would be the purpose? What does it even mean to come out? And what am I coming out as? It might sound like the answers to these questions are quite simple, but it is far from that. Education has been described as being a particularly hostile profession towards LGBTQ+ people. Let’s not forget Section 28. And let’s not forget the lack of commitment to, or knowledge of, the Equality Act (2010). And finally, let’s not forget the ‘debates’ around the new RSE curriculum and the demonstrations that the new curriculum sparked. To argue that education has moved on and is less hostile would be to deny the violence in the recent debates, language and protests. It would also be to deny the ‘pick and mix’ approach to equality that the new RSE curriculum risks creating. It also denies the homophobia that exists in the lack of clarity from the DfE. 

Overly simplistic notions of coming out are based on the assumption that coming out is a universal and homogenous process. That all LGBTQ+ people experience coming out in the same way. That we all have the same internal and external resources to make coming out a possibility. Overly simplistic notions of coming out also conflate outness with ‘authenticity’. Ouch. I guess it depends on what is meant by an ‘authentic’ life. Is remaining in the closet because coming out might risk your life not an authentic response? Or, from a position of privilege (for those people who have successfully come out) is there a demand to come out regardless of the consequences, regardless of the risk to life, regardless of whether or not the individual has the internal and external assets to do so? You can probably tell that I have a few issues with the conflation and over-simplification of ‘outness’ = ‘authenticity’. Who decides when somebody is being authentic? Let me give you a little bit of background so that I can explain further. The following section comes from my thesis. 

The coming out imperative

‘Gay brothers and sisters, … you must come out… come out only to the people you know, and who know you… break down the myths, destroy the lies and distortions. For your sake. For their sake. For the sake of the youngsters…’ (Harvey Milk cited in Shilts, 1982: 368)

Gay rights activists in the early 1970s constructed the closet as oppressive and ‘coming out’ as playing an essential part in claiming a healthy and full sexual identity, moving from a place of secrecy to acknowledging one’s true, and therefore ‘fixed’, identity (Woods, 2016; Vaid, 1995). Coming out became a collective responsibility (Sedgwick, 1990; Woods, 2016; Vaid, 1995) and was constructed as a means of making things better for the next generation, challenging homophobic discourses and feeling better about oneself. The benefits were both collective and personal. Pro-LGBTQ organisations continue to call for ‘authentic role models’ and encourage individuals, particularly teachers, to come out (Brockenbrough, 2012). And the language used describes such ‘out’ teachers as ‘trailblazers’, ‘authentic’, ‘rising to the challenge’ and ‘courageous’ (deLeon, 2012). Teachers that don’t can often be labelled as lacking honesty, as not being prepared to face the risk (Formby, 2013), as being ‘part of the oppression (Patai, 1992) and as living a false life (deJean, 2008). Critics of coming out argue that, in order to be accepted as legitimate and non-threatening, some LGBTQ teachers arguably mirror acceptable heterosexual norms through a ‘politics of assimilation’ (Warner, 1999) that is couched in homonormative discourses of an ‘acceptable gay’ (Connell, 2015). Neary (2014) argues that LGBTQ teachers who are married, in relationships or in civil partnerships have access to normative traits that potentially make coming out easier. This new-found legitimacy risks excluding those ‘who do not fit neatly into the lesbian/gay binary’ (Neary, 2014: 58-59). The coming out imperative can therefore create further psychological pressures on LGBTQ+ teachers as emotive language obscures personal histories and leaves little room for individual agency over collective responsibility. As Connell (2015) writes: 

….anyone who does not comply with the imperative to come out risks being marked as a traitor to his or her sexual community. This directive – be out and proud or else – helps fuel the dilemma faced by gay and lesbian teachers (Connell, 2015: 25).

Resisting the coming out imperative

‘… for whom is outness a historically available and affordable option?…For whom does the term present an impossible conflict between racial, ethnic or religious affiliation and sexual politics?’ (Butler, 1993: 173). 

deJean argues that there is value in hearing stories of LGBTQ teachers having been successfully ‘out’ in school contexts (deJean, 2008; deJean et al, 2017). However, such stories are arguably problematic if they do not also include a critical analysis of the assets that make it possible and/or easier for some rather than others. As outlined above, the coming out imperative risks subjugating LGBTQ teachers for whom being out is not a preferred option (Rasmussen, 2004). Gray argues that gay rights discourses have conflated silence with shame and being out with pride. Given the emotive language used as outlined above, ‘shame’ can be generated, at least in part, by the discourse of the coming out imperative itself. Individual choice, agency and context are significant factors in making outness possible. As the language of LGBTQ authenticity demands an allegiance to a sexual identity as an individual’s primary identity marker, the coming out imperative risks marginalising or obscuring other identity markers that might motivate LGBTQ teachers in their work. For example, Brockenbrough’s (2012) study focuses on five US black male elementary school teachers who chose to maintain their sexuality invisibility within their settings. Coming out was not as important to them as addressing social justice issues surrounding black children’s education. Although aware that remaining closeted was in part due to the homophobia exhibited in the community, their ‘outness’ was not a significant feature of their teacher identity or seen as relevant to their professional motivations. For these teachers, the closet did not reduce their capacity to be impassioned teachers, but rather heightened it. In their context, coming out risked erasing their racial and social class identifications.

Critics of coming out further argue that resistance to the heterosexist ‘demand’ for LGBTQ people to come out equalises LGBTQ sexualities with heterosexuality (Youdell, 2006). Silence can be a form of ‘active resistance’ by challenging the ‘naturalness’ of heterosexuality and by demanding a ‘naturalness’ for LGBTQ sexualities through ‘undeclaring’ (Ferfolja, 2014). Ferfolja writes:

‘…one is not necessarily in or out of the closet, but may move between or even straddle these constructed spaces. Hence, depending on context, one may be in or out, or in and out; regardless, one is present’ (Ferfolja, 2014: 33). 

‘By presenting gay and lesbian educators as either in or out of the closet, some scholars wash over the complexities of negotiating the ‘closet door’… some scholars take a more realistic approach of portraying ‘out’ as a continuum or process with fits and starts’ (Jackson, 2007:9). Ferfolja (2014) further argues that LGBTQ teachers who do not come out are not necessarily ‘oppressed’ but are navigating their ‘outness’ in different ways.

Tensions posed by the silence as resistance discourse

Regardless of whether silence is enacted as a resistance strategy, the resultant LGBTQ+ teacher invisibility is the same as that which results from silence demanded through heterosexist and homophobic practices. Russell’s (2010) research with three Canadian teachers highlights the tensions generated between role model and LGBTQ-as-threat discourses. Whilst wanting to support pupils, her participants’ hyper-awareness of the LGBTQ as danger discourse contributed to fears of being labelled a pervert and impacted on their reluctance to engage with and support queer students. Rejecting the role model subject position can be emotionally and psychologically challenging and her participants had to negotiate their own sense of failure and guilt in doing so. For Russell, both pro-LGBTQ and homophobic discourses can subjugate and oppress. She writes that:

‘As long as queer-as-threat is entrenched within schools, queer teachers must continue to recognise ourselves as spoken into existence in order to envision a new way of speaking which is not based solely on the archetype of role model or predator. Both invariably harm us and our students’ (Russell, 2010: 153). 

Wowsers!! So not quite so simple after all. Clearly the closet is a contested concept. What exactly is it? When is it deployed? Is it the same for everybody? Are there times when it is used strategically by somebody who is LGBTQ+? Is the closet always oppressive? Is coming out always liberation? 

Where do these questions leave me and what did I do? If I answer the question, then am I succumbing to a heterosexist or a pro-gay rights demand to be out? If I answer that I am out in school would the readers of this text read it differently? Would readers give the text more ‘authority’ and listen in a different way? Do I become a ‘legitimate’ and ‘authentic’ LGBTQ+ teacher full of courage, willing to take ‘risks’ and be a ‘trailblazer’? And if I said ‘no’ would readers dismiss my arguments, claiming that they are invalid as they are written by somebody who is, by default ‘inauthentic’, a ‘coward’, and somebody who is complicit in their own oppression? If I don’t come out, am I really exerting my ‘queer resistance’ to the coming out imperative or am I simply afraid of the heterosexist violence I might experience if I do? Is my silence actually a succumbing to the homophobic demand to stay silent and invisible? How do I navigate these complexities and tensions that, I would argue, are unique to LGBTQ+ primary school teachers given the nature of the profession? 

I am going to try and resist answering such questions in an overly simplistic way. I may have some normative traits that make it easier for me to come out in school. I may use those traits in conversations both with pupils and parents to ‘out’ myself in different contexts. I may respond when children ask if I’m married or have children, with the language of civil partnerships, mentioning my ‘husband’ and stating his name. When a child exclaims that ‘You can’t marry a man!’ I might simply respond with, ‘Yes, it is possible. Men can marry men and women can marry women’. I may also wear endless ‘rainbow themed’ t-shirts (the children’s favourite being the rainbow dabbing unicorn) and have a rainbow lanyard as a subtle, yet visual, resistance to silencing. No, I don’t work for the NHS. It’s a gay thing. I may do all of these things. But, I may not. Some days, I may be exhausted and simply not have the energy or psychological resources to engage. I may be feeling vulnerable and decide that the situation is too hostile and that ‘coming out’ in that moment is not conducive to my own well-being. I may simply decide that I do not want anybody in the school knowing about my personal life (some heterosexual teachers do this too). All of these are possibilities. And possibilities aren’t fixed. They aren’t final. Possibilities are fluid and contextual. Possibilities might overlap, collide and intersect. Possibilities might mean that I am standing in the foyer of the school and be ‘out’, ‘in’ and ‘in-between’ the closet at the same time. Out to those people who know me. In the closet to those people who don’t. And in-between to those who ‘suspect’ or who have read the signs. I don’t greet everybody who enters the school building with ‘Hello, welcome to our school. My name is Glyn and I’m gay’. (Some colleagues might argue that the t-shirts are a bit of a give-away, but I could just be an ‘ally’. Depends on who is ‘reading’ the t-shirt I guess). Then again, maybe I do by dropping in a one liner about my husband (see how that asset makes coming out so much easier. So much harder if you’re single). Maybe being a deputy head gives me a sense of security that I can come out whenever I feel like it that I didn’t have when I was an NQT 17 years ago. Maybe the asset of being on the SLT and not feeling so vulnerable just ‘being’ a new teacher helps. 

What is clear, is that being ‘out’ is relational. It demands an ‘other’. We can’t be out sitting in a room by ourselves. Or can we? Am I ‘out’ if I go to a shop, meet a cashier and don’t tell them that I am gay? At that precise moment, am I whoever the cashier assumes me to be? Am I back in the closet or not? If I go to the supermarket with my partner, do I ‘cash in’ on my normative traits and assume that I’m out to everyone we encounter? What would happen if I were single? Do I have to try and make it more obvious so that I’m out all of the time? I don’t think I’ve got enough rainbow t-shirts in my collection. 

My point is that ‘outness’ is fluid and contextual. Yes, there is a collective history and one to which I am truly grateful. But to assume that all LGBTQ+ people have the resources and traits to make being out a possibility is misleading and oppressive. To also demand that LGBTQ+ teachers ‘should’ come out risks becoming oppressive, regardless of the demand coming from pro-gay rights organisations. Using language such as inauthenticity, lacking honesty or living a false life is abusive. (Butler also questions what it means to have an ‘essentialised’ sense of self, but not enough time to go into this here. I’ll come back to it – promise). Placing LGBTQ+ equality in primary schools on LGBTQ+ teacher ‘outness’ also takes responsibility away from school leaders, including LAs and the DfE, from ensuring that all primary school curriculums are LGBTQ+ inclusive. By making LGBTQ+ teachers ‘responsible’, schools that do not have any LGBTQ+ teachers can continue to be make LGBTQ+ lives invisible within their curriculums. And, as the DfE guidance suggests, they can introduce LGBTQ+ ‘issues’ when the school leaders feel that it is ‘age-appropriate’ to do so. Suggesting that something is ‘age appropriate’ also suggests that it might be ‘age inappropriate’. There’s that old virtual equality again. I think the tensions here are clear. School leaders are given control of LGBTQ+ ‘outness’. If they feel that being LGBTQ+ is not ‘age appropriate’ are they then implying, not so subtly, that LGBTQ+ teachers should stay in the closet. Has the patrolling of LGBTQ+ teacher lives simply passed from clearly homophobic policy such as Section 28, to a more subtle form of homophobia where school leaders and parents, through the language of the new RSE curriculum, create and patrol the closet? What would it be like to be an LGBTQ+ NQT in such a school? Hardly the safe, nurturing environment all teachers deserve and should experience. 

Until all primary schools embrace a fully inclusive curriculum, primary education will continue to reinforce violently homophobic and heterosexist attitudes and behaviours. Focussing on teacher ‘outness’ will mask the heterosexist violence still taking place in primary schools in England. Demanding ‘outness’ risks becoming a part of the violence. Replacing the demand for teacher outness with the demand for an inclusive curriculum is the only way to stop primary schools being potential sites of violence towards LGBTQ+ teachers. 

And so yes. My defences might be down. I might be exhausted by the events of the last term and demands placed on us by the responses to the coronavirus. I might be experiencing negative thoughts and self-doubt. But at the same time, there is such hope. I’m surrounded by teachers who embrace equality and diversity and who are doing great things with the children. So I’ll celebrate that I work in a school where the staff continue to reflect on and develop an inclusive curriculum. I’ll adjust to what it feels like to be in a setting where children learn about Pride and the history and injustices faced by LGBTQ+ people. I’ll enjoy watching children learn about Bayard Ruskin and how he was part of both the black and gay civil rights movements. I’ll adjust to what it feels like to be acknowledged and to not be seen as a ‘threat’, sometimes by well-meaning colleagues. And I’ll take a moment to acknowledge how far we’ve come as a school. 

I’m going to resist telling the reader how ‘out’ I am and leave my ‘outness’ in the realm of possibilities. I need to adjust to this new feeling of liberation where my outness isn’t a ‘thing’. It’s strange and might take a little time. But just in case anybody demands that I ‘should’ be in or out of the closet let me be clear. I’ll be out, I’ll be in and I’ll be everything in-between. I will choose to speak or not speak depending on my own history, the assets that I have that might make it easier, the context, and my own state of well-being. I will ignore demands to be ‘out’ as the curriculum is the focus for LGBTQ+ visibility, regardless of my presence. After all, a truly inclusive curriculum shouldn’t be about me. If it is, where does that leave primary schools where ‘I’ am not present?

References and further reading: 

Brockenbrough, E (2012) Agency and Abjection in the Closet: The Voices (and Silences) of Black Queer Male Teachers (International Journal of Qualitative Studies in Education, 25:6, 741-765)

Butler, J (1993) Bodies that matter (Routledge, Oxon)

Connell, C (2015) Sch

Connell, C (2012) Dangerous Disclosures (Sexuality Research and Social Policy, 9, 168-177)

Connell, C (2015) School’s Out – Gay and Lesbian Teachers in the Classroom (University of California Press, California)

deJean, W (2008) Out gay and lesbian K-12 educators: a study in radical honesty (Journal of Lesbian and Gay Issues in Education, 4:4, 59-72)

deJean W et al (2017) Dear gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender teacher: letters of advice to help you find your way (Information Age Publishing, North Carolina)

deLeon, M et al, (2012) Cycles of fear: a model of lesbian and gay educational leaders’ lived experiences (Educational Administration Quarterly, 49:1, 161-203)

Ferfolja, T (2014) Reframing queer teacher subjects: neither in nor out be present (in Queer teachers, identity and performativity, Gray, E et al, Pallgrave Macmillan, Hampshire)

Formby, E (2013) Understanding and responding to homophobia and bullying: contrasting staff and young people’s views within community settings in England (Sexual Research and Social Policy, 10:4, 302-316)

Neary, A (2014) Teachers and civil partnerships: (re) producing legitimate subjectivities in the straight spaces of schools in Queer teachers, identity and performativity ed. by Harris and Gray (Palgrave Macmillan, Hampshire)

Olson, M (1987) A Study of Gay and Lesbian Teachers (Journal of Homosexuality, 13:4, 73-81)

Patai, D (1992) Minority status and the stigma of ‘surplus visibility’ (Education Digest, 57:5, p35-37)

Rasmussen et al (2004) Youth and sexualities: pleasure, subervsion and insubordination in and out of schools (Palgrave MacMillan, Hampshire)

Russell, V (2010) Queer teachers’ ethical dilemmas regarding queer youth (Teaching Education, 21:2, 143-156)

Sedgwick, E (1990) Epistemology of the Closet (University of California Press, California)

Shilts, R (1982) The Mayor of Castro Street, the life and times of Harvey Milk (St Martins Griffin, New York)

Vaid, U (1995) Virtual Equality: the mainstreaming of gay and lesbian liberation (Anchor Books, New York)

Woods, G (2016) Homintern: how gay culture liberated the modern world (Yale publishing, USA)

Youdell, D (2006) Impossible bodies, impossible selves: exclusions and student subjectivities (Springer, The Netherlands)

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Why We Need Anti-Sexist Language Resources in the Curriculum

Sophie Frankpitt portrait

Written by Sophie Frankpitt

Applied Linguistics undergraduate at the University of Warwick

A culture of sexual- and gender-based violence is being enacted through our words. But we still aren’t listening – and we still aren’t talking about language.

In June 2021, the government published a review of sexual abuse in schools and colleges. It showed us that sexual- and gender-based violence is rife, and that girls are disproportionately affected. The figures were stark, but for many of us that did not come as a surprise. What came as a surprise for me is that – as far as I’m aware – no-one pointed out that most of the sexual harassment was perpetrated through language. 

I’m a Linguistics undergraduate, which means that studying language is what I do. Ever since the review was published, I’ve spent days rereading it, trying to work out how to articulately say that this survey shows us how important language is. It is through working with Our Streets Now for the last few months that I have been able to work out how to say what I think needs to be said. 

The review stated that 92% of girls thought sexist-name calling happens a lot at school, and 80% thought that unwanted sexual comments are a regular occurrence. Other recent studies have also shown us that sexual- and gender-based violence are often perpetrated through language. For example, in 2018, Plan International reported that 38% of girls experience verbal harassment at least once a month. This is likely to be higher amongst women of colour and those in the LGBT+ community. In the National Education Union’s (2019) study, over a quarter of teachers hear sexist language daily at school. On Our Streets Now media, the campaign against Public Sexual Harassment, you can see various testimonies that explain the effects of verbal (and other) harassment. 

You might say that sexist language is the least of our problems, and that we should be dealing with things like physical harassment. But sexist language establishes a conducive environment for sexist behaviour. It enacts and builds a culture in which sexual- and gender-based violence is standard. This means that, by using and hearing sexist language, a culture of sexual- and gender-based violence is normalised. There are many, many studies that have shown the detrimental effects of sexist language on wellbeing. And this is why language is important. 

Part of the reason language is powerful is because it shapes our worlds often without us even realising. Within our words lie our values, our beliefs, and our identities. Because of this, language has a massive role to play in the fight for gender equality. 

The first step is recognising how important language is – and thinking and talking about it much more than we currently do.

Secondly, we can incorporate teaching about anti-sexist language use into the curriculum. Our Streets Now currently has – and is working on – resources for schools that examine the role language has to play in combatting Public Sexual Harassment. The resources educate about Public Sexual Harassment, ranging from topics like being an active bystander to recognising victim-blaming narratives. 

And finally, we can make Feminist Linguistics more mainstream. Language affects all of us, so it’s damaging to keep it confined within academia. Every day and for everything, we use language – so we should all understand the power that words hold. There are a few resources that can help us to learn a bit more about language. I’d recommend starting with the blog language: a feminist guide, taking a look at Our Streets Now’s website, and learning about feminists (such as Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, Amanda Gorman, Laura Bates –Every Day Sexism and many more) who use language to empower, uplift, and educate.

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Being Transgender in the UK, Transphobia and How to be Inclusive

George Hughes portrait

Written by George Hughes

Senior Education, Training and Strategy Officer currently working for EqualiTeach. Having previously worked as an English teacher, George has a passion for writing. They are currently studying an MA in creative writing at Manchester Metropolitan University and hope to one day publish their own children's novel.

With roughly 200,000 – 500,000 trans people living in the UK (Government Equalities Office, 2018), and more celebrities coming out as gender diverse, trans people have become a popular subject for discussion. While many transgender people are celebrated around the world, discrimination and transphobia is still being faced daily with devastating consequences. This blog is about being transgender in the UK, what we mean by transphobia, and what we can do to be inclusive of all members of the community.  

First of all, what is meant by the term transgender?  

The word transgender is a term which describes people whose gender identity is not aligned with the sex they are assigned at birth.  

What is gender identity?  

A person’s gender identity is their personal and internal sense of who they are regardless of their hormones, internal and external sex organs, and chromosomes. Gender is no longer regarded as a binary model wherein people have to identify as either man or woman; it is instead a spectrum in which a person is able to freely identify themselves as one of over 60 different gender identities.  (Abrams and Ferguson, 2022)  

What is transphobia?  

In simple terms, transphobia is negative feelings, attitudes or actions against people who identify as transgender. It also covers those who identify as nonbinary, transsexual or androgyne. Transphobia can be seen in many different forms and can range from inappropriate language, prejudice-related bullying, to full-blown violent attacks.  

The transgender community have become a topic more frequently discussed by the British tabloids. Panic and prejudice have been propagated by the press and gender critics. Research carried out by Forbes (2021) has claimed that 375 transgender people were murdered in 2021 – twenty five more than the year before. According to records, this is the ‘deadliest year of violence against gender diverse people since records began.’  

In August 2020, the Equality and Human Rights Commission published a report which showed the public’s attitudes to trans people. From the data, it is clear that many people do show a positive attitude. When asked to choose words to describe their feelings towards trans people, many chose words such as ‘respect’ and ‘admire’. However, there is still a percentage who selected ‘pity’, ‘fear’, ‘disgust’ and ‘resentment.’  

So why is there a growing level of fear-mongering and intolerance?  

Shon Faye (2021) states, “By and large, the transgender issue is seen as a ‘toxic debate’, a ‘difficult topic’ chewed over (usually by people who are not trans themselves) on television shows, in newspaper opinion pieces and in university philosophy departments. Actual trans people are rarely to be seen.” As a trans person, it is hurtful to have my existence debated by people without any lived experience. How often do we see ourselves reflected in the media, and not being spoken about by a cisgender person? 

As someone who has recently come out as trans, I am getting used to the daily microaggressions and comments about people’s ‘transness’. People have a lot of questions! The most common questions are “When you are having surgery or taking hormones?” as that is what people assume is everyone’s next step. It is not enough that we exist, we have to exist in a way that everyone expects us to.  

What is it like being trans in the UK?  

While there is lots of support, it is also incredibly difficult. In order to even be diagnosed with ‘gender dysphoria’ (the feeling of discomfort or distress that might occur in people whose gender identity differs from their sex assigned at birth or sex-related physical characteristics) and start medically transitioning, you have to be assessed by two psychologists with expertise in the area of gender development. These can be in excess of £1000 and that is just to get a piece of paper with your ‘diagnosis’ on. If you were to go through the NHS, wait times for the first appointment alone are a minimum of eighteen months – and that is if you are fortunate. Once you have your referral, you are faced with more waiting to see a specialist in that area. Even privately, waiting lists for hormone replacement therapy are a year long. So, while some of us will be going through hormone therapy or surgery, each time we are asked, it reminds us of the long waiting list ahead and the months to follow where we still don’t feel at home in the body we are in.  

How can people help? 

One way, is to avoid gendered language 

Reflect on the language you are using. Using gendered language such as ‘boys and girls,’ ‘lads’ and ‘ladies and gentlemen’ can be alienating for those who identify as gender non-conforming and gender diverse. Being referred to as ‘miss’, ‘ladies’, or ‘madam’ makes me feel uncomfortable every single time.   

To avoid this, use vocabulary such as: 

  • Everyone 
  • People 
  • Folks 

These terms are more inclusive and do not focus on someone’s gender or gender identity.  

Use chosen names and correct pronouns 

A person’s chosen name and pronouns are an important part of their identity. If someone has asked you to use these, ensure you are doing so in order to respect the person’s gender identity, and to ensure that they feel included and valued. Chances are, someone has spent a lot of time thinking about their name, so please use it!  

If you’re not sure of someone’s pronouns, ask! I have always really appreciated it when someone has asked me what my pronouns are. It immediately puts me at ease. If you are struggling to remember, have a go at saying their names and chosen pronouns aloud.  

For example:  

Sam is a trans man, he is using he/him pronouns.  

Jamie identifies as non-binary. They use they/them pronouns.  

What is a deadname? 

A deadname is the name transgender people may use to refer to the name they were given at birth. Some people may refer to it as their birth name. You should not ask what their deadname or birth name is, unless it is for legal or financial reasons. If someone wants to share this with you, they will. If you know someone’s birth name, don’t use it. Use the name that the individual asks you to use.

What if I call the person their birth name or use the wrong pronouns? 

People make mistakes all the time. It’s okay! If you happen to do this, apologise and move on. If someone corrects you, say ‘thank you’ and move on. It may take a while to remember if you have known the person a while. The most important thing is to show that you are trying.  

What if I’m talking about someone before they transitioned? 

Always refer to the person using their chosen name and pronouns unless they tell you otherwise. It is respectful to only use what the person is happy with. 

And finally, if there is a question that can be answered by Google, search for it! 

I started out thinking I had to be everyone’s guidebook to being transgender. I misplaced nosiness for support and said that I was happy to answer any questions at any time. I have since realised that it is not my duty to educate others; that is something that has to come from them. While I am more than happy to have conversations on being transgender, rights, discrimination and equality, I am not here to help people understand what being transgender means. It is tiring.  

If I was to use a metaphor to describe being trans, it would be this:  

Being trans is like floating around in a rubber ring in the ocean. You can see everyone else on their islands happily being themselves and being free. No matter how hard you paddle, you can’t get there. You’ve never visited and you don’t know how to. People keep telling you to visit, but you still don’t know how. Accepting you are trans allows you to start building a bridge from your rubber ring to the island. With each step you take to becoming yourself, another part of the bridge is added, until it is finally completed. When people call now, you can then cross the bridge and live on that island. It is then that you feel like you’re home.

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Creating Change – The World I want to Live In

Ann Beatty portrait

Written by Ann Beatty

Chief Executive, The Steve Sinnott Foundation

There is an urgent imperative for young people to learn about themselves, where they come from, their sense of place in their community and the wider world and most importantly their human rights. Do you have human rights? Do others have the same human rights as you do? Do you actually have human rights in your school?

The recent events of a school girl being assaulted in a school by police officers, the many wars across the world and the ways in which we see people being treated differently because of their skin colour, gender or social status has shocked many, but we know that many people experience discrimination on a daily basis in more subtle ways. 

Wherever you find yourself in the world there are different challenges in the provision of education. For us working in Cuba and Haiti brings different challenges in providing access to education than our work in The Gambia and Sierra Leone or the U.K, but we are all connected and have much to learn from each other. As a team Covid reminded us of that connection in many ways.

We believe in the potential of education to invest in each young person to flourish and as an investment in a more inclusive world in the future.  We want students to choose the topic that’s important to them right now and develop their ideas through creative arts, spoken word, painting, drawing, mime, drama, photography, or any creative medium they choose.

Working in partnership with the National Education Union and the Gambia Teachers Union we have produced a resource pack for schools Creating Change – The World I Want to Live In. We have launched a competition inviting students to give their voice to the topics that are important to them right now in this moment. We hope that students and educators will find the resource useful, return to the resource pack in the future and develop their own ideas.

You can register your interest here and download the free resource pack:

https://www.stevesinnottfoundation.org.uk/human-rights-competition

We hope that this creative approach to learning will cultivate healthier ways of having conversations about the topics that matter to young people; allow them to relate to one another and to society, whilst enhancing their wellbeing, promoting inclusion and encouraging them to engage with and find solutions to the many social challenges of today.

The deadline for competition entries is 1st June.

If you have any questions, please contact ann.beatty@stevesinnottfoundation.org.uk 

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The Great Hypocrisy - Racism in Arab Communities

Jenin Al Shalabi portrait

Written by Jenin Al Shalabi

Jenin Al Shalabi is a speaker and writer who is passionate about highlighting diverse stories that break barriers and ignite change. Within her school community, Jenin established a school-wide Diversity, Equity and Inclusion council.

I am seven years old. My grandmother and I drive through the streets of Jordan. I see billboard after billboard with images of women with fair skin, blue eyes, and Eurocentric features proudly plastered across them. None of these women look like the Arab women I know. All of them preach strange creams that apparently lighten their skin. 

I don’t think much of it.

I am ten years old. I sit in a classroom and listen as a teacher mocks a student for having monolid eyes, calling her eyes ‘little Chinas’. We all laughed it off. 

I am twelve years old. I frown as I hear family members mimic and mock a typical ‘Indian’ accent, coupled with exaggerated hand movements and facial expressions. I scowl, but I don’t speak up. 

This is just the tip of the iceberg. Racism is a virus that has embedded itself into the heart and soul of Arab communities, thriving on ignorant perpetuation.

The matter of the fact is that racism is, and always has been, deeply ingrained into Arab communities. It’s ironic: I have, on countless occasions, heard fellow Arabs express great frustration at the amount of bias and prejudice they received from those outside their communities. Arab communities have long been the target of belittling stereotypes, harmful remarks, and heinous micro aggressions. 

So – how can these same communities then so freely indulge in displays of racism towards other minority groups? How can we eternalize the same racism that has brought down our own communities for so long? 

Many Arabs don’t feel compelled to question their bigotry, because it has been so deeply ingrained into our cultural hegemony, that it becomes second nature. Take a quick flick through some Arab TV channels – the only time you would see people with darker skin tones was when they were portrayed as servants or villains. Ideally, the actors had porcelain skin that glistened on screen. Despite the fact that in the US alone, 20% of the Muslim population is Black. TV constructed an unobtainable beauty standard for the Arab population – teaching them to equate dignity with Eurocentrism. 

And it doesn’t stop there – growing up, many Arab children would have been introduced to a desert called “Ras ilabed”, which literally translates to ‘the head of the slave’. This dessert is composed of a marshmallow center dipped in chocolate, said to resemble the head of a slave due to its dark color. Thousands enjoyed this sweet without caring to confront its racist origins.

All the examples I’ve provided above may seem like mere jokes, silly comments, or meagre coincidences. But the actuality is, these insignificant occurrences are indicators of larger webs of underlying prejudice that can easily spawn into something much bigger, and much more horrifying.

A prime example is the murder of George Floyd – which shone a light on the ever-growing racial prejudice that dominates many corners of society today. Many of us have become increasingly familiar with the murder via social media. 

But, something that the media might’ve neglected to tell you: the corner shop that had originally called the police on Mr. Floyd was run by a Palestinian American man, Mahmoud Abumayyaleh. Mr. Floyd was murdered right in front of his store. We enabled the atrocious murder of an innocent Black man. We stood on the sidelines. We allowed our deeply ingrained prejudices to interfere with our humanity. 

We think we aren’t a part of this story, but we are. 

We cannot complain about the hatred towards Arabs that has been promoted by Western media if we are willing to project that same hatred onto other communities. Contributing to a cycle of such hatred is the epitome of hypocrisy. 

Racism in the Arab community doesn’t stop at anti-blackness, unfortunately. The Arab community has also been an epicenter for appalling portrayals of bias against South Asians. All this, despite the fact that Arabs and South Asians have many cultural beliefs and practices in common.

I went to a predominantly Arab school, in which there were only two South Asian students in our entire year. These students were constantly isolated and ostracized. Any open expression of their culture was met with frowns and whispers. Living in Dubai, I had always believed the country to be a hub for diversity; a cultural melting pot. Hence, I found it sickening that in what was meant to be such a culturally aware landscape, many felt it difficult to move past archaic stereotypes that they had been spoon-fed.

What do we, as a community, gain from ostracizing and belittling other communities of color? Should we refuse to acknowledge the poisonous biases that lay deep within all of us, we will be feeding a cycle of hypocrisy and contributing to the suffering of many.

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The Cure for What Ails Us: Reigniting a Healthy Sense of Well-Being and Belonging in Schools

Jennifer Johnson portrait

Written by Jennifer Johnson

As a parent, a former educator, an entrepreneur and a passionate change-maker, Jennifer is on a mission to empower young people to be their best selves to create a better world. She has an M.A. in Education in Curriculum, Teaching and Organisational Learning.

Since launching the Captains & Poets Program in schools in 2019 we have been exploring the ins and outs of what it means to be human – and all with the backdrop of a series of crises at home, at school and on the world stage. 

The erosion of the social fabric in schools over the past two years has led to notable increases in issues around mental health and well-being, and in bullying and hate crimes. While the two may or may not be directly correlated (a topic for another blog perhaps), what they have in common is the unprecedented level of uncertainty, the minimizing of interpersonal connection, an absence of ritual, a sense of complacency and rudderlessness that has set in, the shrinking of young people’s worlds and the associated loss of opportunities for identity formation – do I need to go on?

The premise of the Captains & Poets program is that there is a unique Captain and Poet in each and every one of us that, in partnership, enable us to be our best, most authentic selves. And, when the Captain and Poet are operating in full partnership, we are better able to live from a place of “emotional courage” and “inspired action”. Today, we need Captains and Poets everywhere.

Emotional courage is about being brave enough to be vulnerable, to feel the uncomfortable emotions and follow your inner truth in the face of conflict with the outside world. 

Inspired action is the ability to live from a place of meaning and purpose, where our values inform our actions, where we let our passions guide us. It is about truly being the change you want to see in the world.

To quote 12-year-old Sam in our documentary video: “When the Captain and Poet come together, they give you courage which is different than confidence. Because confidence is thinking you have the ability to do something, but courage is knowing what’s right in your heart.”

But how do we thrive when the world is in such a state of upheaval? One of the main things that keeps me afloat and even thriving in these times is having a sense of purpose and agency in the world with the work we are doing at Captains & Poets. As challenging and depleting and heart wrenching as these times have been, they have helped us peel the onion on what we all need, not only to survive, but to thrive. We are all at risk of developing the same set of symptoms in these times: languishing, anxiety, complacency, overwhelm.

What we have learned in the delivery of the Captains & Poets program thus far is that many of the issues society aims to remedy seem to lead back to the same thing – having a positive sense of identity in the world. The journey to Self is a lifelong one and at its core is self-awareness and the ability to connect with the world around us in meaningful ways that have a positive impact on ourselves and others. 

The message we need to send to young people now more than ever is that they are whole, resourceful beings who have everything they need inside of them to thrive; and, that what they yearn for deep inside is similar in spirit to what others want. Perhaps now is a time in history where we can all draw on our collective Poets to guide us, and our collective Captains to bring that vision to life.

Imagine a world where we all lived from a place of emotional courage and inspired action. We would take care of ourselves and each other. We would derive an innate sense of belonging from the shared journey we are on. We would seek to understand before judging. We would be more fully expressed in who we are. Connection with ourselves, others and the world around us would be our lifeblood.

While it may sound idealistic, this is the human journey we are on. For some of us it takes a tragic event or a significant life change to connect more deeply with what matters most and to begin operating with a greater sense of purpose. But what if we could make having a sense of agency in the world more accessible for everyone? 

Perhaps the cure for what ails us is closer than we think. The phrase we use to help young people embrace and celebrate their uniqueness is “We are all the same because we are all different.” We all want to be seen, to connect, to matter. And we all have a Captain and Poet inside of us ready to help us heal. 

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