On Kindness: Intentionality, #DEIJ, and Difficult Decisions

Matthew Savage portrait

Written by Matthew Savage

Former international school Principal, proud father of two transgender adult children, Associate Consultant with LSC Education, and founder of #themonalisaeffect.

A few years ago, there was lots of talk about “random acts of kindness”, and many a school assembly took place across our schools, using that idea to encourage kind words and actions among and between staff and students. 

However, I have since realised that kindness is never random. It is intentional. We make a conscious choice to be kind, or, conversely, not to be.

I reflected on this today, as a disabled, wheelchair traveller, treated like livestock at Madrid Airport: dumped in a corner and facing the wall, ignored, patronised and humiliated, and denied access to food, water or a bathroom, for 3 hours. 

When finally pushed to the plane door, after every single able-bodied passenger and with minutes until take-off, I shared my experience so far, and then explained that I had mistakenly also been allocated a seat at the back of the plane, which I would not be able to reach without risk, pain, discomfort and delay, if at all. 

I politely asked if the steward could request a passenger in a row further forward in Economy to swap with me, so as to avoid those things. They repeatedly, and emphatically, refused. 

On hearing our conversation, a traveller in the very first Business row immediately stood up and insisted he swap with me and take my seat instead. The steward tried to persuade him not to do so, as he would lose his Business seat, but he made it quite clear that it did not matter, as my wellbeing and safety were more important.

I wish I could thank him properly. However, I suspect he would not mind. After all, when we intentionally choose kindness, we do so unconditionally and without expectation.

On the subsequent flight, I reflected further on this. In the leadership of our school communities, we also have the opportunity actively and intentionally to choose kindness, every single day – in our conversations and our actions; in policy and strategy; and in the decisions we make. 

Sometimes this is easy, but when it feels difficult, we can and must still make that choice. We must ask ourselves what would be the kind thing to do. And then do that.

If kindness remains random, it will also be inequitably applied, and, in turn, perpetuate the marginalisation of those who need it most. Therefore, kindness should be at the heart of any #deij strategy too, and that strategy can help propagate intentional kindness as a result.

If we choose kindness, always, not only will kindness infuse the climate and culture of our schools, but others will follow our lead. Just like its absence, kindness cascades.

Does intentional kindness guide and permeate your school, or is it still random?

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“Grandmotherly Duties” – Let Loose!

Jackie Hill portrait

Written by Jackie Hill

An experienced teacher trainer, Jackie is a Founding Fellow of the Chartered College, Network Leader for WomenEdNW and Co-Founder / Strategic Leader for WomenEdNI.

NB This blog is suitable for all ages…

“Grandmotherly duties” – thoughts around this phrase have been rumbling in my head for some time. I’ve never been quite sure if, when or how I should share those rumblings and it was only on a recent trip to a “soft play” centre with my two favourite little learners that I decided it was time to “let loose”!  

Firstly, I want to make it very clear that, in my experience, becoming a grandparent can be one of the best new roles that you can ever take on. However, I have been surprised to find that it can also bring an unwelcome “tag”…

Let me explain: in January 2019, both my husband and I moved to a more flexible working pattern (3 days a week) but the processes to arrive at that, and the perceptions regarding our motivations, were quite different.

For me, the consequence of my request for a more flexible working pattern, was that I had to accept a move to a new role, giving up the one that I had loved and had hoped to retain.  Of course, this is a scenario which has faced many other women in education – I just had not expected it at that stage in my career.  I had explained that I wanted to be more actively engaged in certain professional networks, interests and activities – all of which would actually have enabled me to carry out my workplace role even more effectively.  These included DiverseEd, WomenEd (I’m Co-Founder and Strategic Leader in WomenEdNI and a Network for WomenEdNW), and The Chartered College (as a Fellow, and more recently Council Member).  

Coincidentally I had become a grandmother a year beforehand and when the initial communications announcing the change in my professional role appeared, the focus had shifted.  Yes, the explanation given for the move was that I wished to focus on other things, but only one was mentioned – “grandmotherly duties”!  I was really taken aback as I felt it created such a false impression – so I asked for it to be changed immediately. And it was, straightaway, thankfully.

Now, anyone who knows me, also knows that I adore my grandchildren (more than one now!) and may be wondering why I would be so annoyed at this interpretation. Well, in my view it goes to the core of my identity or rather the way many people’s perceptions of identity change when they find out you’re a grandmother – you’re now “over the hill” / past your best / on the way out – too OLD!   I subsequently discovered that one of my colleagues had a 4 year old much loved grandson but rarely spoke about him, for exactly this reason!  

Of course, this is a reprise of something similar that many colleagues in education experience earlier in their careers when they are told “it’s time to just focus on being a mum”.  However, when your children have grown up, you would think those judgmental assumptions would now be relegated to the past, so it’s a shock when they reappear in another way later in your career.

Jo Pellereau’s blog “Concentrate on Being a Mum” (and forget about work) outlines her experiences beautifully (Pellereau, 2020). Her assertion that “in many ways my commitment to education has been increased by my new identity as a mother” really resonates with me.  My new identity as a grandmother has not only re-invigorated my commitment to education but has also taken it in new directions which have been both challenging and uplifting.

I asked my husband if anyone ever said to him “Now’s the time to focus on your “grandfatherly” duties”.  His look of disbelief, said it all!!!  Of course, they hadn’t!  

This also got me thinking about “grandmotherly duties” – what are they? What could or should they involve…?  

Of course, each grandparent’s circumstances are different, so there can be do fixed set of “duties”, job description or person specification for this role that would work for all. However, I’d like to share just a few grandparently duties that are important for me: 

  1. Try to be a visible role model – for other grandparents, parents, carers and, of course, my family (especially the wee ones).  Remain professionally active and involved, and, where possible, demonstrate that abilities, understanding, desire to keep learning and sharing do not have to cease to exist or be important, just because a person has this additional role.
  2. Continue to develop my “voice” to support schools and other education settings to become diverse, inclusive and equitable communities – where different families, like my grandchildren’s, and indeed all others, know and feel they belong.
  3. Look for ways to help my grandchildren discover the wider world outside their own little corner, so that they realise they are global citizens, and understand how that opens the world to them (as well as their responsibilities to look after it and one another).
  4. Help them to develop the joy of learning and also of reading all sorts of books (was it wrong of me to feel a little bit pleased when my grandson became upset recently because the library was closed!?!?)
  5. Spend time together and have fun.

What other “duties” have I missed?  What would you add?

“DiverseEd; A Manifesto” feature in my day of grandmother duties because I took it with me to read at Soft Play! (Yes, I was the only Grandma doing that…)  The wonderful Chapter on Age includes insightful stories and reflections of others, highlighting the underused and undervalued potential contributions that many older colleagues still have to offer.  This also cuts across some of the other Protected Characteristics and, as the Editor for Chapter 4 “Marriage and Civil Partnership”, I’ve read, researched and reflected a lot about families and relationships, and firmly believe that ALL families should “experience the same positive environment, level of support, opportunities and VISIBILITY across the curriculum”.  The fact that this includes families with, or even headed by, grandparents is sometimes missed.

So, in practice, how should that visibility work?  In what ways could it break away from stereotypical images (rather than reinforcing them)? How should it be demonstrated through the staff in our schools and other educational settings too?

In reflecting on all of this, I’ve been reminded of the important role that my own amazing Gran played in my upbringing and her enduring influence on me.  She lived with us and she was a wise, constant and loving presence, a cornerstone for our immediate, and indeed wider, family – while at the same time being an independent, working woman who read widely, and managed her own finances plus other responsibilities, whilst also supporting others. In her sixties, she travelled abroad for the first time, on her own, to Australia.  She spent several months there, and wrote to us regularly to share her experiences – my brother still has the didgeridoo she carried back for him!

Similarly there are people like her today – who are ready to take on new challenges, to develop their professional and/or personal roles, and who are fit, willing and able to continue doing so.  What a waste when we write them off, or high-handedly decide for them that it’s time to “focus on being a mother” or their “grandmotherly duties”.  The choice should be theirs and roles need not be mutually exclusive. 

Moreover, there is a clear case for employing older workers (Makoff A, 2021) – increased knowledge-sharing through a multi-generational workforce has been identified as a particular benefit.  Makoff cites Stuart Lewis, founder of Rest Less (a digital community for the over-50s) who asserts that “demographic and societal changes including an aging population, delayed retirement and multi-generational workplaces will continue to be the direction of travel for a long time to come… the employers and HR teams that recognise this early, get ahead of the trend and embrace it early are going to be the workforces and businesses that thrive over the next decade.”

So I’ll leave you with some questions to consider:

  • How do you view colleagues and others in your school community and/or education setting and/or networks who are grandparents (or are of an age that they could be grandparents)?   
  • Have you relegated them to the “former players” stand or are you making the most of their experience, expertise and possibly even renewed outlook and perspectives on education, learners and schools?  
  • How could you ensure that diverse families, relationships and roles are visible and valued in your classroom, staffroom / workplace and communications?

References

Pellereau J, (2020) Concentrate on Being a Mum.  Available at: https://physicsjo.science.blog/2020/10/06/concentrate-on-being-a-mum/  

Kara B and Wilson H (2021) DiverseEd: A Manifesto University of Buckingham Press

Makoff A (2021) How can employers embrace an age-friendly workplace Available at: https://dileaders.com/blog/how-can-employers-embrace-an-age-friendly-workplace-culture/

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Review of Diverse Educators: A Manifesto, ed Hannah Wilson and Bennie Kara (University of Buckingham Press, 2022)

Jill Berry portrait

Written by Dr Jill Berry

Thirty years teaching across six different schools in the UK, state and independent, and was a head for the last ten. Has since completed a doctorate and written a book.

This book is a collaborative tour de force. Rarely have I read anything which has made me think as much as this book has.  Tapping into the experiences of a wide range of writers whose lives have been, in so many ways, quite different from my own, has been sobering, humbling but ultimately energising.  This book deserves to be widely read, robustly discussed and, crucially, its key messages need to be acted upon so that we work to change our world for the better – for everyone.

I appreciate that this is not necessarily a book most people would read from cover to cover.  It is a weighty tome!  It devotes one section to each of the nine protected characteristics, adds a chapter on intersectionality, a prologue and an epilogue.  It is an amazing accomplishment, bringing together the views of 125 contributors, including the ten chapter editors, and Hannah and Bennie, who all share their stories and their perspectives.  The book goes far beyond the exploration of personal stories, however.

I imagine that many people would identify a specific section, or several sections, about which they wished to develop their knowledge and understanding, and would focus on that part of the book.  But I want to advocate for reading it all.  Even if you feel that there are certain characteristics that you believe you fully understand and appreciate – perhaps you share them – I suggest that every section has something to teach us.  And as you make your way through each separate section, you appreciate the connections, the echoes and the common ground, reinforcing the essential humanity which underpins this story of ‘difference’.  As Bennie says in our Myatt & Co interview about the book: ‘No-one is just one thing.’

The range of contributors is one of the reasons this book resonates.  Different contributors ranging from teenagers to the considerably more mature contingent; UK and overseas perspectives; primary, secondary and FE educators; state and independent sector teachers and leaders; many who share a number of protected characteristics offer their experiences, views and their own learning with generosity, honesty and courage.

Many of the stories are strongly grounded in research, and the book contains a great number of references, on which the contributors draw and which they share for those who wish to explore further through additional reading.  It is also eminently practical, with key takeaways, key questions and specific commitments at the end of each chapter and a final section in which Bennie and Hannah make clear how readers can act on their reflections as they have worked through the different sections and what they have learnt as a result.  They exhort us to consider: what difference will this make?  It made me think of Zoe and Mark Enser’s words in ‘The CPD Curriculum’: “CPD does not happen through a particular input of information; CPD occurs through what happens next.”  When you get to the end of the book, you are strongly encouraged to think about what action you will take as a result of the experience.

I strongly recommend ‘Diverse Educators: A Manifesto’.  Bennie Kara’s words in the epilogue mirrored perfectly my own response to the book: “Throughout the book, I have been struck by the honesty of the contributing authors… I have seen in the writing parts of myself – feelings, thoughts and experiences that have served to demonstrate how we as education professionals have complex and interweaving experiences…In reading these chapters, even if I do not share a particular person’s protected characteristic, I have recognised the intensely human need to be heard.”

I would encourage you to make the time to read the whole book.  I am confident that you won’t regret it.

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RIP Amanda Carter-Philpott

Hannah Wilson portrait

Written by Hannah Wilson

Founder of Diverse Educators

It is with huge sadness that we share the news that one of our community, Amanda Carter-Philpott, passed away on April 17th.

Amanda was a passionate disability and diversity activist and campaigner who demonstrated an unwavering commitment to inclusion. She consistently advocated for social justice and consciously became a voice for the voiceless.

As a disabled professional she spent over 30 years in the social welfare/criminal justice field both as a social worker and as a senior probation officer in Milton Keynes and the surrounding counties.

As a trainer, educator, public speaker and activist in the disability community she engaged with many diverse audiences sharing her dynamic approach to life with optimism and a dry sense of humour.

Amanda is a contributor to our book, she has blogged for us and she has spoken at #DiverseEd events. Below is an extract from the conclusion in her contribution to the  Marriage and Civil Partnership Chapter:

Commitment, Choices and Courageous Conversations

Key Takeaways 

  • Create safe informed environments for conducting courageous conversations around the issues mentioned in this chapter.
  • Challenge misinformation and misunderstanding of disability issues through curricular exposure.
  • Develop an effective evaluation system for analysing impact incorporating feedback from staff, students/pupils, parents, local community groups and other agencies .

Key Questions 

  • Teachers: How far have you considered disability, marriage and civil partnerships in your PSHE sessions? 
  • SLT: What are the main barriers to disability awareness/confidence in your institution? 
  • Governors: How can you consult with and engage the disability community in raising awareness/confidence in your education settings? 

Key Commitment for Diverse Educators’ Manifesto 

Facilitate forums for courageous conversations with both children, young people and staff in relation to marriage, civil partnerships and disability.

Amanda had a huge heart and loved the work she did, she will be deeply missed by our network.

We are thinking of her family and send our condolences to everyone who knew her. We will be making a donation on behalf of the network to a local charity that supports the campaigning she did for her community.

Some tributes from the writing team she contributed to:

Amanda was a wonderful member of our Chapter Team and her perspectives, through what she wrote and also what she contributed during our virtual team meetings, made such an impact.

Due to the focus of the chapter, we shared personal experiences and information during our discussions and, although we never met in person, we got to know one another quite quickly.  

She positively challenged and enlightened us all and enriched the whole chapter with her contribution.  What a mighty educator and amazing role model!  

Jackie Hill

What a loss. My thoughts and condolences go to all her family, friends and colleagues.

Jessica Austin-Burdett

Our chapter is even more special now in Amanda’s memory. Thoughts and prayers with her family and friends. May she Rest in Peace.

Sarah Mullin

Amanda was such a warm and generous member of our team.

James Pope

Very sad news. But I hope the legacy we’ve started to build will make an impact on so many. 

Sending love and strength to Amanda’s family.

Kiran Satti

Amanda was such a lovely, warm and engaging lady.

Laura Davies

I will be thinking of her family and friends. 

Bex Bothwell-O’Hearn

It is hard to believe that we have lost such an important voice.  Her contribution to the field of DEI will not be forgotten. My thoughts are with her family.

Bennie Kara

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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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On single-sex schools

Hollie Panther portrait

Written by Hollie Panther

DEI Lead, Mental Health First Aider, secondary Science & Psychology teacher and Teach First Ambassador.

Should they still exist in this day and age?

Currently in the UK around 10% of state secondary schools are single-sex (most secondary schools in England were single-sex until the 1970s in England, though in Scotland and Wales there has always been more of a co-ed approach). Broadly, I feel that segregating learners based on any characteristic that doesn’t directly affect their learning should stop (i.e. I’m still for schools that specialise in SEND and disability, and those that specialise in educating learners with behavioural issues — though I wonder if such learners would in fact benefit from incorporation into mainstream schools if done well, as opposed to lumping them in there due to budget restrictions?). Interestingly, nowadays it seems single-sex schools don’t technically prevent other-sexed learners from joining, just as religious schools don’t technically prevent learners joining who follow religions other than that the school centers on, and indeed, learners who come out as trans aren’t made to change schools, due to protection under the 2010 Equality Act.

When engaging with some of the research literature on this topic, it was difficult to find a clear answer as to whether single-sex schooling improves academic outcomes. With a critical hat on, it seemed much of the evidence may have been subject to confirmation bias — that is, that researchers set out to find support for their preferred method of education. There is some evidence for the idea that gender stereotypical subject uptake (i.e. English for girls and STEM for boys) occurs less in single-sex schools, but after I stumbled across a study published in possibly the most highly regarded journal within science, ‘Science’, I decided I’d look no further:

The authors argued that the movement towards single-sex education “is deeply misguided, and often justified by weak, cherry-picked, or misconstrued scientific claims rather than by valid scientific evidence”. The study goes on to conclude that “there is no well-designed research showing that single-sex education improves students’ academic performance, but there is evidence that sex segregation increases gender stereotyping and legitimizes institutional sexism.” (Halpern et al., 2011)

One more, slightly perpendicular, point on research in this area: I’d bet most of the research cited in arguments for single-sex schooling doesn’t consider trans and non-binary pupils. Interestingly, there is evidence suggesting that girls’ schools tend to be better set up to support gender-diverse pupils than boys’ or co-ed schools, due to their more critical and less binary approach to gender (Renz, 2020). It will be interesting to see what effects research finds on trans and non-binary pupils in different types of schools going forward, now that such learners are being considered more in this research area. Even though such pupils are a minority, their experiences are valid and deserve to be described when taking into account whether to legislate on single-sex schooling.

Having taught science in a ‘boys’’ school, I can’t say I noticed any advantages to it being single-sex. Female sixth formers talked of a culture of sexual harassment from younger male pupils which they believed came from girls not being usualised in the school. After trans and non-binary pupils started coming out in the school community, questions were raised as to whether to drop the ‘Boys’ from the school’s name altogether — I would be in favour of this, and more.

Ultimately, I’m against single-sex schooling as I can’t see any real benefits and don’t really see that it has a place within modern society. Single-sex education came about because society believed that men and women should learn different things, due to their differing abilities and also roles within society. Racial segregation in education came about for similar reasons, and no-one would suggest that was a sensible thing to continue, even if one race would do better out of single-race schools.

Let’s move forwards and scrap single-sex schools.

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Ukraine, Russia, Palestine, Israel, Afghanistan, Covid-19, Climate Change…and so much more: how to get Political Impartiality right.

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.

The last few weeks, or perhaps years, feel like a surreal blur when thinking about our global context. From the outbreak of Covid-19 to the recent war in Ukraine, it is now as if we are living through the dystopian and historical literature I once taught through fictional and non-fiction texts in the classroom. As teachers and educators there is an expectation that we not only educate students about these topics, but we must know and be aware of every article and news feed that emerges on a daily basis. In many ways, the recent Political Impartiality Guidance released by the DfE was as much to refresh our responsibilities as educators, but also to reassure teaching professionals too; unfortunately, social media coverage and wider analysis of the guidance seems to suggest the opposite. Our students and colleagues want to learn, discuss and explore current affairs, but how do we do this in light of this guidance and a school climate, where GCSEs, A Levels, limited time and limited resources dominate? 

Much of the specific economic and political facts go over my head (even as a DEI Lead). Equally, my advice to teachers and schools is that you do not need to be a global, political, geographical or economic expert to address these matters. Instead, in order to get political impartiality ‘right’, whilst prioritising curriculum, teaching, learning and pastoral needs, we must remember what teachers and schools do best: we can critically navigate and evaluate the differing perspectives of world politics without being political. We can support students in how to challenge and respectfully discuss contentious topics. We can also help our students learn to be empathetic, acknowledge their emotions whilst being mindful of others too. 

However, this in itself is challenging considering the ‘diversity’ within teacher training and lived experiences too. To help teachers and education professionals, below are some key learning points and explanations that can help schools get political impartiality right; if we are aware of them, we are more likely to create inclusive, safe spaces for all of our students and staff too. 

Media Bias 

There has been an outpouring of sympathy, global empathy, local and community charity and Influencer support for Ukrainian refugees – and rightly so. It has been heart-warming and necessary to see so many come together at a time of intense suffering to protect and support our human race. However, the media coverage and perception of refugee status has been problematic. In many ways, it seems some Western media outlets have usualised poverty, strife, pain and refugee status for particular races and regions but portray it as wrong for Western, white, ‘blue eyed’ individuals to experience the same. The question for teachers that might arise here is how do we explore such controversial media bias without making it ‘political’? 

Aisha Thomas, founder of Representation Matters, asks a pivotal question: what story is your curriculum telling – a question that could not be more relevant in light of media bias, social media algorithms and being politically impartial in the classroom. 

  • Does your curriculum teach success stories from the East, North, South and West? 
  • Does it teach socio economic barriers (and opportunities) in the West, East, North and South? 
  • Is it gender equitable? 
  • Does it elevate the voices of all protected characteristics? Does every member of your class ‘see’ and ‘hear’ themselves in lessons?
  • Is it intersectional? 
  • Is it fair? 
  • Is it truthful? 
  • Does it allow students to question, critique and evaluate the situations independently? 

These are worthwhile questions to bring to the forefront of any CPD training and classroom work you do to strategically address belonging, equity, anti-bullying and teacher/student safety. 

The media sources referenced above also contain bias – pretty much everything we read, see and explore does. However, it is important to explore the language and literacy of a range of media sources so students are able to have critical, mature and nuanced discussions – what every school ultimately aspires to!


Selective Empathy

Selective empathy is when we empathise with a particular group, particular causes and people for many reasons: it is dominant in the news; we relate to it, or maybe it feels close to ‘home’. Whatever ‘it’ is, it somehow resonates so much that we find ourselves becoming socially just, publicly outraged and visibly allying with a particular cause or issue. For example, you may notice that certain members of staff or students visibly ally with some causes more than others, whether that be the war in Ukraine, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, anti-Semitism or LGBT+ rights. 

Being selective in how and with whom we empathise in a globally diverse society is problematic. In many ways, it can lead to ‘whataboutisms’, alienation and further antagonism. If we are really committed to creating a diverse and inclusive world where protected characteristics need not exist and everyone feels a sense of belonging, we must approach all areas of DEI consistently – with nuance and transparent, shared values. Schools, teachers and students will need to ask themselves how they are creating safe, equitable spaces of belonging regardless of geography, economics, beliefs and values. Individuals with and without protected characteristics, individuals from marginalised and non-marginalised backgrounds need work together to create a sustainable culture for DEI. Equally, centralising ‘lived experiences’, the intersections of society and people who often fall victim to decisions and events beyond their control are who we need to ally with – they need our voice and their voices amplified. This is not political, that is just empathy and being human. 

However, acknowledging our empathetic responsibilities can feel jarring; it can make some feel uncomfortable, critique ‘woke culture’ and more. Some may feel they are able to unapologetically selectively empathise – why should it matter that I empathise with one cause more than another? Why does it matter that I share my outrage for the war in Ukraine but not Syria? The answer to this question requires some introspective work: 

  • if we felt uncomfortable advocating for the rights and safety of Palestinian citizens in the Spring/summer of 2021, but little discomfort advocating for the safety and rights of Israeli citizens (I am using citizens and geography intentionally here as this is not a Semitic discussion), we must ask why? Does this discomfort or lack of responsibility enter your sphere of allyship with Ukrainian refugees? If not, why? If yes, why? If you feel your heart pang when you see your child or your students in a young Ukrainian child, but not in a Palestinian, Afghan or Syrian child, question why? If you are collecting charitable donations for Ukrainian refugees but this did not necessarily feel as urgent or necessary last summer again, question it. Do you find supporting and understanding the barriers faced by the LGBT+ community more accessible than anti-racism? Why? 

These are difficult questions. They are challenging, jarring and some may choose to dismiss them immediately. I encourage you to work through the discomfort and potential feelings of offence. This is not a criticism, unnecessary ‘wokeism’ or misplaced social justice work; this is a call to critically address and navigate feelings of empathy. Empathy is a skill that needs to be nurtured and learned. Allyship is a set of actions that need to be consistently practiced and addressed. This is only possible if we are always sitting and working through our discomfort. It does not need to shake our core values and beliefs – instead, it reinforces that our core values and beliefs are wholly inclusive and respectful of all human life – not selective. 

 

Intersectionality 

The last 3 years isn’t a movie set in the past or a book we might be currently studying in lessons. It isn’t a case study for exam boards (yet). It is the lived experience of all of us. There are intersections to recognise, people to listen to and an opportunity to learn about globalisation, economics and geography in real life. Ask students what changes they’ve noticed: Chanel, Netflix and more no longer trading in Russia- what does this actually mean for the global economy, but also the different intersections of society? Create opportunities to learn about the intersections of economics and business and what the world will look like beyond this war. Ask students to question the impact of certain decisions and suggestions they see (and potentially support or refute) on social media. This can help overcome the fear and uncertainty associated with the current global climate – along with create opportunities for young people in a new and equitable manner. 

Explore global inequality and diverse perspectives – why and how is the current world a result of a past world? There are multiple answers to explore here. This is where history, PSHE, RE, Geography, Economics, Philosophy and Politics can take precedence on the curriculum. Consider the questions and ways in which these topics are explored in their relative subject areas and how other subject areas can adopt their approaches. How can we make changes or additions to curriculum areas to explore wider perspectives? 

Intersectionality is in effect, the very key to the success of every student, regardless of their background, protected characteristic, lived experience and more. An appreciation and amplification of nuance within our schools, society, student and staff body will create a culture of belonging and there is plenty of research to suggest that ‘belonging’ leads to success. 

It is possible to remain politically impartial and work within a rich and valuable teaching environment. If we take a proactive, diverse and critical approach to current affairs we will be able to overcome the fear and discomfort associated with discussing ever-changing global and social climates. And, ultimately, we have the power in a classroom to create trusting and safe spaces for our students, communities and professional bodies – something that often goes amiss in the ‘politics of social media!

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The Non-Linear Road To Recovery

Bianca Chappell portrait

Written by Bianca Chappell

Bianca Chappell is a Mental Health Strategic Lead, Cognitive Behavioural Coach and Mental Health First Aider.

When things go awry, we like to know what to do and how to do it, so that it can be sorted out – it’s a totally natural response. With some illnesses, the treatment is simple and we are able to move on. Unfortunately, mental ill health isn’t so straightforward, and to make it even more frustrating, recovery is hardly ever linear either – we don’t experience feeling better in a nice, neat, straight line.

Life is mostly unpredictable and there’s only so much that we can control. Our mental health can take a knock-back from the things which go on internally for us, but also the things which happen externally.

We may have been going along all hunky-dory and then something happens to cause one of those sinking-stomach rough patches that we work so hard to avoid. Similarly, we might have had a long murky spell and then find that something happens to give us a lift.

Our mental health isn’t stationary, it’s transient and a counter reaction of so many individual factors. It’s difficult to always know what’s helping and what’s not, to be able to make changes to rebalance and create new habits to feel settled again. 

It’s hard work and sometimes we’ll put time and effort into something that isn’t quite right for us which can be demotivating and use up energy which is in limited supply. The very nature of mental ill health is that it depletes our energy resources, so we’re always having to weigh-up where we are, with where we’d like to be, but to also be mindful that we’re not using up all of our future energy supplies. It’s a never-ending puzzle.

Life in itself is full of ups and downs. When we add mental ill health to the mix, those lows can feel extraordinarily painful and crushing. We’re working so hard to move forwards, towards good health, and those setbacks can really dent our hope and confidence. We might find ourselves in a spiral of ‘well I’ve tried so hard and things are still going backwards so everything is hopeless and I’ll never get better so there’s no point in trying any more’. It can be very easy to get into this spiral and it is very hard to get out of it again. Hitting a blip doesn’t mean that everything is hopeless and it certainly doesn’t mean that all of our hard work is for nothing. When it all feels a little much, take some time out to hunker down and up the self-care. It can feel counterintuitive but energy, hope and motivation aren’t in limitless supply, we often need to stop, to take stock and top-up.

On the face of it, it often seems as though there’s no logical reason for our mental health deteriorating. But there’s usually something, however small it might seem, which has affected how we feel.

It can take a bit of work to figure out the sorts of things that might be contributing to our mental health dipping; habits, boundaries, obstacles, lack of support, triggers etc. We might need some help with identifying what our triggers are and in learning how to handle them. One of the things which can help is to keep a mood diary – this helps us to see patterns but also gives us an in-time reflection on what was what for us at any given time.

The more knowledgeable we are about our stressors, the more equipped we are to make decisions which are right for us and our mental health.

When our mood dips again, or we use behaviours we haven’t used in a while, it’s easy to feel hopeless, useless, and frustrated. We might find that we feel like nothing has changed, as if we’ve not got anywhere, and nothing is any different from last year, or the year before that, or the year before that.

Relapsing doesn’t erase our recovery. All the things we’ve achieved – keeping our mood stable for a while, going for a period of time without using behaviours, or something else – are still achievements.

When we look back, it’s the grotty and the great that we see – but the in-between stuff is just as valuable; there’s important knowledge we’ve gained and lessons we’ve learned which help us to be more informed going forward. Every time we go through a rough patch, we can take an insight from it to aid our recovery. Even though it might not feel like it, we will be in a different place from the time(s) before. We have more experiences and more skills than we’ve had in the past. We never go right back to square one because we’re approaching each rough patch from a slightly different place.

Mental ill health isn’t something we’d choose and it’s definitely not a stick with which to beat ourselves up about. We didn’t choose to be mentally ill in the same way that we don’t choose to catch a cold. When we punish ourselves for how we feel, it makes us feel worse and plays into the hands of the illness we so want to be free from.

Not being okay can be hard to cope with, we so desperately want to be okay, but it is okay not to be okay. Nobody can be okay all of the time and recovery will always be full of ups and downs as we learn new things. It’s when we own-up to our not-okay-ness that we find ourselves in a place more accepting of help, more likely to ask for help, and more open to changes, self-care and being gentler to ourselves.

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Maximising Connection During Maternity Leave

Liz Cartledge portrait

Written by Liz Cartledge

Senior Vice Principal at a large Secondary School in Sheffield. Leader of Inclusion, Behaviour and Designated Safeguarding Lead. Liz is the mother to twin girls and returned from maternity leave in September 2020.

As a leader, the constant care of students and staff is arguably the most important and biggest responsibility in the long list of daily tasks. Getting the balance right and knowing what to do in each unique case can be hard. 

It is true that we learn through our mistakes, however, sometimes it is helpful to be able to reach for some real-life guidance. Sometimes the hardest of experiences can make us the strongest. I personally experienced a lonely and isolating maternity leave due to the COVID-19 pandemic and lockdown in 2020 and thus feel I can offer some useful insights and support to schools who want to ensure their staff on maternity leave are cared for. 

Since returning to work, I have often been asked to support other newly pregnant staff and on occasion those off with long-term absence. I feel empowered to help staff and one key reason I cite for this is because I feel confident sharing my own personal struggles and vulnerabilities, which I encountered on the journey to motherhood. Through Nourished Collective who featured a series called Mother, Sister, Daughter, Woman  (Copy of This is How We Look (mcusercontent.com)), I shared my story which has helped me to break the silence that can exist around this issue. This has helped me personally and professionally to become a stronger leader.

The key is to build a school where staff feel valued, heard, and listened to.  Sharing my story has given me the drive to know I can provide others with the space and empathy they need. It doesn’t matter what the issue is, if we, as leaders, are open about our emotions it can mean we are relatable to others; so I urge you to be vulnerable and see the benefits from it.  

Recently, I have been considering the support we provide our staff with whilst on maternity leave. During my maternity leave I experienced reduced support, no baby groups and limited access to a GP. Maternity leave can be incredibly lonely and isolating. Connection is therefore key, and schools can provide this. 

Within any school there is an abundance of knowledge and talent. Schools can offer emotional sanctuary and security.  New parents/carers should be encouraged to share photos and updates regularly with a key member of staff. Furthermore, if you have a few members of the team off at once, could a group (perhaps via WhatsApp or equivalent) be set-up pulling all together? 

I am often asked to be the key person identified to talk to new or soon to be new parents/carers. Currently, I am in regular contact with new Mums on maternity leave to provide them with a close connection with school. This helps us keep in touch and is a lifeline on some days for those Mums. I know this having cared for twin babies during a pandemic!

Do you offer this 1:1 support for those on maternity leave? Do staff have the chance to have 1:1 chats with a named ‘go to’ person on SLT?  Could this help morale and well-being at your school if you make these subtle changes? 

What kind and frequency of contact do you have with those on maternity leave? They are, after all, still employed by the school doing what is arguably the most important job of their lives. We owe it to them. 

Remember, as leaders we can make a huge difference. Simple acts of kindness go a long way, sending cards or flowers can help bridge the gap that can grow when on leave. Creating a sense of family first is vital for staff retention. 

Occasionally, without bridging this gap, we can risk staff being anxious to return or not returning at all.  

Another key step to helping staff on maternity leave is to give them knowledge. By making them aware of the policy, for example what KIT (Keeping in Touch) days is a great start. It should not just exist in a policy given to staff to read. This could become part of pre-recorded videos shared with staff or information passed on in a 1:1 meeting before they leave. The impact of doing this is that it helps staff to be empowered and feel supported at this important time. 

When staff do return, make sure they have the chance to meet a key person they feel comfortable with and that well-being chats are regularly put in. A review meeting 6 months or sooner after returning is a must to help the member of staff feel supported and to be able to reflect on how they are coping with work alongside parenthood. 

Remember, it takes time for the member of staff to adjust to work. Schools move at a fast pace, and we must be patient. Small steps are acceptable. Don’t be too hard on yourself if you are returning and don’t expect too much if you have someone returning, at first- be flexible! Personally, it took me 12+ months to be myself again at work. Letting staff know this is great for their self-confidence and self-esteem which can be very low with sleep deprivation!

Celebrating the return of staff from maternity leave is important to share with all staff in briefings, in newsletters with parents/carers and with governors. It helps everyone see the member of staff returning as a new person which I feel is supportive and celebratory of their achievement/s! 

The more we share, the greater the understanding will be for all and the greater the potential for empathy can begin. 

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Whose Potential is it Anyway?

Ellie Garraway portrait

Written by Ellie Garraway

Chief Executive of Grit Breakthrough Programmes, a youth charity that delivers personal development and coaching programmes in schools, colleges and universities across the UK.

The odds are that, when you look at the website or mission statement of a youth charity, school, college or university, or when you come across articles, blogs and posts about young people and education, you’ll see the word potential. For those of us who work with young people it is vital that we ‘support young people to fulfil their potential’ and yet it’s a word that has become so much of a cliché we’ve forgotten what it really means.

I like this early definition of it: ‘That which is possible, anything that may be’. And at Grit we see that come alive in the course room. The young people recognise that their belief that ‘I’m a nobody’ (for example) is not, actually, a fact. They come to see there are so many more empowering ways of interpreting themselves and their lives. It is a lightbulb moment that can transform young people’s futures and is a privilege to witness.

The Latin root is: potencia ‘power, might, force’.  When we become liberated from the limitations of the past and understand the power we have within ourselves, we can make things happen in our lives that previously we believed were beyond our control. “Before Grit I never felt able to challenge a professional on how they were reacting to an incident or dispute, or how they were being with a particular student. It was almost as if I was letting them dictate how I did my job. Now I’m able to hold them to account.”

THIS is what gets me out of bed in the mornings. 

But recently it has occurred to me that there is a darker, oppressive, almost tyrannical side to potential. 

Over the last two years in particular most of us have been comparing our life under Covid with what our ‘best life’ is supposed to look like. But it’s not just the pandemic. The culture of self-improvement can create the assumption that no matter what life throws at you, you can still choose to be ‘happy.’ These expectations can leave us feeling that the imperative to ‘fulfil our potential’ is a pretty large stick to beat ourselves with. 

This is certainly what our young people are telling us. It’s bad enough that they’ve had to experience the anxiety, trauma, disruption of living through the pandemic. But they are also having to live with the narrative of ‘catch up’: the ‘wasted years,’ ‘the cohort with fake grades,’ ‘the ones who’ve fallen behind.’ In some ways this narrative is as damaging (if not more) than the experience itself. When we think about potential as another way of talking about the gap between our current reality and the way we think it should look, it can be paralysing.

In his book ‘Groundedness’ Brad Stulberg talks about the notion of ‘heroic individualism’. This is the idea that only by giving everything to our work, our sport, our latest endeavour, our every waking moment and leaving ourselves empty, can we truly know that we’ve reached our potential. 

But actually, this can create a really unhealthy approach to life, one where we constantly need to feel that the level of challenge is as high as possible. Here, ‘Fulfilling potential’ is not about being slow, thoughtful, restful, still, ordinary – quite the opposite. It becomes accepting this as a generic cultural norm about what potential looks like and judging ourselves against it: ‘I should get A grades’, ‘have a huge list of enriching activities on my CV’, ‘get a graduate-level job’ (whatever that means). Only if I appear impressive to others can I truly believe that I’ve really nailed this potential thing. 

But what happened to allowing our own life to unfold before us like the unravelling of a great mystery? What happens when the way we measure ourselves is based on what feels right and true, rather than what will most impress others? Isn’t this what potential is all about?

So, while so many of us in the charity sector are driven by our passion for giving young people the opportunity to fulfil their potential – perhaps it’s time to really challenge whose notion of potential we have bought into – for young people and for ourselves.

Potential may well be ‘power, might and force’ but like any form of power it’s how you use it that counts. Let’s give that power to young people so they can reclaim their potential, decide what it means for them. After all, whose potential is it anyway?

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