Wellbeing: Why it’s Time to Take an Ecosystemic Approach

Nikki Levitan portrait

Written by Nikki Levitan

Nikki ​started The Visionaries out of her passion and commitment to supporting young people and those working with young people to discover their visionary potential. She helps to resource others to play their part in building a healthier, just future.

A whole systems approach to wellbeing is a growing buzzword and tactic, one that is becoming higher up on the agenda to improve productivity, retention and a sense of belonging within the workplace.

The science of wellbeing also shows us the importance of taking a preventative approach to prevent mental health reaching crisis point later down the line. Something that is still all too common amongst young people.

But when it comes to changing a whole system and culture, it is natural to feel a sense of stuckness and overwhelm.

“The only way to make sense out of change is to plunge into it, move with it, and join the dance.’ – Alan Watts

A great way to explore how to enact lasting systems change is to look at the healthy functioning of natural ecosystems, like a rainforest or a national park. They remind us of the importance of diversity, interdependency, collaboration, and to embrace  cyclical thinking. We can use these as a way to reflect on and improve our own education systems. 

Like the species within an ecosystem, members of your organisation act like a community network of interactions between organisms and their environment. They create together, influence one other and are all affected by external disruptions and change outside of their control.

At The Visionaries we are passionate about supporting youth organisations. Burnout and endless firefighting is a common reality for teachers, youth workers and informal educators. Many struggle to take the time to look after themselves and leave working days feeling a sense of helplessness, wishing they knew how to do more to support the needs of the young people.

This cannot be left on the shoulders of individuals, none of us has this capacity to hold what we do alone. As the saying goes, “It takes a village to raise a child”, and it is only when entire organisations, institutions and communities commit to a culture of wellbeing that the mental, physical and social health of their members and beneficiaries can truly be supported.

Our one day training on 31st May 2022 will give you space to explore your work within an ecosystemic framework, providing simple ways to weave wellbeing into the everyday culture of your organisation, that anyone can lead, and which can be put into practice immediately.

You can expect;

  • Self and collective enquiry: How do we create a culture of wellbeing? What does it mean to be well individually/collectively? How does tending to our wellbeing have a positive impact in communities we are part of?
  • Appreciative Inquiry: Discover what you are already doing well; Dream into what could be; Design what should be; Deliver what you can do and how to do this.
  • An introduction to our ways of wellbeing – We apply biomimicry and nature’s intelligence to enhance our education systems for the long term.

The intention is for you to retreat: come away from your busy work environment, slow down, tune in, learn together and create space to map out your ecosystem. Who is in it? What roles do they play and what needs to happen to affect positive change for the whole?

See more details here and book your place now, there are only a few spaces left. We keep these training days small and intimate to ensure space for deeper enquiry and relationship building between education leaders.

https://www.tickettailor.com/events/thevisionaries/673864

You can see our full Regenerative Educator Training Course online here and see the other ways we support educators to create more life-affirming learning environments on our website here.

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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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Sorry My Mental Illness Isn’t Sexy Enough For You

Katja Pavlovna portrait

Written by Katja Pavlovna

MFL Teacher and founder of Sorry My Mental Illness Isn’t Sexy Enough For You

If I told you I had a serious health condition that kills one in ten of its sufferers, how would you feel? Sad? Sympathetic? Curious? 

How would you behave towards me? Kindly? Compassionately? 

If I told you my condition was a personality disorder, would you still feel the same? Or would you become fearful? Avoid me? Spread rumours about me? Tell everyone I’m clearly unstable/ an attention seeker/ making it up/ a danger to others because of my diagnosis? 

I have experienced all of the above reactions, and let me tell you the fact that 10% of people with Borderline Personality Disorder commit suicide, and up to 75% will attempt it at least once in their lifetime, does not gain you much sympathy. 

I decided to speak out about being a teacher with BPD (also known as EUPD/ Emotionally Unstable Personality Disorder) after years of battling with the NHS to obtain a diagnosis. 

BPD is characterised by nine main criteria. However to qualify for a diagnosis, a patient only needs to demonstrate five of the nine characteristics. This often leads to misdiagnosis, most frequently with bipolar disorder and CPTSD. In BPD the main features are fear of abandonment, unstable relationships which flit between idealisation and devaluation (splitting), unclear or shifting self image, impulsive and self-destructive behaviours, self harm, extreme mood swings and emotional dysregulation, feelings of emptiness and outbursts of uncontrollable anger. I don’t have all of the symptoms, but the ones I do have can severely affect my life.

Symptoms tend to lessen with age and I am no exception. My late teens and early twenties were chaotic and self-destructive. Training as a teacher was singularly the best thing I did to gain control over my illness. 

Teaching gave me purpose, distraction and structure, and I found rapport with teenagers came easily. My impulsive tendencies can be a real asset in the classroom when I need to be flexible with my approach, and my sensitivity to others makes me extremely perceptive to the needs of young people. It also means I am able to negotiate sensitive conversations well due to my high levels of empathy and hyper-awareness of non-verbal cues. My tendency towards black and white thinking means students know my boundaries are consistent, and the very nature of BPD means that my practice is automatically trauma-informed. The idea that people with BPD are a threat to children is totally unfounded. 

I decided to ‘out’ myself during a staff CPD session on mental health. So much of the mental health discussion is centred around anxiety and depression due to the stigma and misinformation around more serious conditions. I felt people needed to realise there are many people who have no voice in the discussion about mental illness. 

Colleagues were shocked at my disclosure- I am very high functioning and there is little to give away that I live with one of the most serious and stigmatised mental illnesses there is.  After I spoke out about my diagnosis, I was surprised to find I wasn’t the only teacher in my school with BPD. For some reason, people in general seem to think mentally ill people are all rounded up and hidden away on reserves somewhere. They find it quite shocking that we’re living in the community with largely normal lives.

Alongside BPD I also experience psychotic symptoms such as hallucinations (mostly olfactory, tactile and gustatory, but also occasionally auditory and visual) delusions and paranoia. It’s unknown whether my psychosis is a part of the BPD or if it’s a hangover from my family history of schizophrenia. 

Over the years I’ve learned to use my environment and context to help me work out what is and isn’t real, but it can make life difficult and it isn’t always 100% foolproof. I have been signed off work for brief periods of time, I do struggle with suicidal ideation, I take mood stabilisers and antipsychotics, I have to engage in therapy and I can be difficult to work with when I’m not on form. But I am determined to be the best teacher I can be. 

It’s important to give our young people diverse role models. But whereas LGBTQ+ and BAME teachers can speak freely about their experiences, if I were to do the same it would likely end my career. My school are supportive, but insist that any media work I undertake has to be anonymous. I cannot show my face and my true identity must be kept secret.  Society isn’t ready for people like me just yet. The stigma of a personality disorder is simply too large. 

The greatest irony is that I am fairly confident that few- if any- of my students would care that I have a personality disorder. Their parents? That’s likely a different story. But I’ve found young people are surprisingly tolerant. They value openness. And in all honesty they have already worked out I don’t conform to the stereotype of a teacher. The green hair, nose ring, loud 80s jumpsuits and tattoos gave that away early on. 

I’ve found schools generally want to be supportive. There are still some things they aren’t getting quite right. I was somewhat bemused at one school that, upon disclosing my diagnosis, immediately began discussing reduced timetables and responsibilities. For some people with mental illnesses, myself included, this isn’t always the right approach. At the time of writing I am teaching full time, studying for a Master’s and also a school leadership qualification. If ever there was a mental illness that the phrase ‘the devil makes work for idle hands’ could be applied to, BPD is probably it. Staying busy is key to keeping me on track. 

If you work with someone with a personality disorder, it’s also important to think about how you frame their behaviour. Borderlines are known for having problems with managing their emotions and it’s something we have to work really, really hard to stay functional and maintain relationships. It’s probably the biggest battle we have. 

So when we give an opinion, stand up for ourselves or raise an issue, don’t roll your eyes and dismiss/trivialise it as ‘over-exaggeration’ or ‘over-dramatic’ and chalk it up to us having BPD. We are people with thoughts, feelings and personalities outside of BPD, and this kind of attitude is invalidating and belittling. Sometimes our label is a convenient excuse to sideline us, especially in a professional context, and we are very aware of it. The same goes for difficult conversations and confrontation with colleagues. If these situations are mismanaged, they can be catastrophic.

One of the main areas that schools need to work on is the language used around mental health. Too many times in schools I hear students using mental health as an insult: “Psycho”, “Schizo”, “She’s mental,” “He’s crazy,”, “You’re triggering me so bad right now.” I’ve also heard, “He’s such a narc,” (short for someone with Narcissistic Personality Disorder) and there was a trend a few months back for students declaring any drama to be “so borderline.” I always challenge this, but I suspect I’m in the minority. 

The simple fact is that mental health doesn’t have the same status as race and gender when it comes to tackling stigmatising language. This extends to HR too. Nothing is more frustrating than the fact I’ve spent time delivering training on BPD in schools only to repeatedly see my condition referred to as ‘Bipolar Personality Disorder’ in emails (it doesn’t exist) and Occupational Health forms. It’s not hard to use the correct terminology and avoid mis-labelling.

This isn’t the only area where some schools are lacking. Whilst jobhunting last year, I decided to declare my BPD as a disability on application forms. The reason for this was twofold- I need reasonable adjustments in place to enable me to do my job properly, and also many schools subscribe to the government’s Disability Confident scheme which guarantees interviews to disabled candidates who meet the minimum criteria. 

I applied for dozens of jobs where I met all of the job requirements and  wasn’t offered a single interview, even for schools that boasted they were part of the Disability Confident programme. I emailed two schools asking for feedback on my application in an effort to find out why I wasn’t getting interviews. Neither responded directly to my questions. Many schools boasted on their websites about their commitment to diversity and equality. Apparently this didn’t extend to disability equality. 

I was curious as to whether my decision to declare BPD had played a part in my rejections and so removed it from job applications. In the following weeks, I was shortlisted for interview six times. Of course I can’t prove this to be discrimination in any concrete way. Fortunately, as the saying goes, one person’s trash is another’s treasure, and I am due to take up a post in the senior leadership team of an alternative provision school where my lived experience of mental health is considered a strength rather than a failing. 

As a result of my experiences, I decided to set up a mental health project called Sorry My Mental Illness Isn’t Sexy Enough For you, which focuses open sharing the lived experiences of those with mental health conditions, especially the ones that aren’t ‘sexy’ such as personality disorders, dissociative conditions and psychosis. 

There is a separate section on the website for teachers to share their stories of mental health and many of these show how little progress has been made in schools. For this reason I set up a campaign for all schools to become Disability Confident in an effort to remove barriers for teachers with mental illnesses. I have also written in the media and spoken on podcasts.

This has attracted opposition and negativity. I have received messages telling me I am a terrible role model, that I am damaging children, I bring the reputation of the profession into disrepute and that I shouldn’t be a teacher. They don’t affect me. When you have a mental illness, you develop the skin of a rhino. For every person sending abuse, there are twenty more telling you how speaking out has helped them.

My hope in writing this is that it helps leaders realise that teachers with mental illnesses are a valuable resource and we quite often can make our conditions work in our favour to enable us to be good, or even outstanding, teachers. Yes we may need support, to varying degrees, but we aren’t the burden that we’re made out to be if you handle us properly. I also hope that it encourages teachers to be open about their own mental health and possibly, one day, could even mean that we don’t have to hide who we are from our students. 

Links:

Sorry My Mental Illness Isn’t Sexy Enough For You website:  www.livesnotlabels.co.uk

Sorry My Mental Illness Isn’t Sexy Enough For You Instagram:  @livesnotlabels

Disability Confident Campaign: https://bit.ly/3JSVRZE

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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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How East Stanley Primary School used Rainbow Laces to build a more inclusive environment for its pupils

Adam Walker portrait

Written by Adam Walker

Adam is a Primary Teacher at East Stanley Primary School in Durham and is a member and advocate of the LGBTQ+ community.

‘The number one thing is the inclusivity benefits of the resources. Not having pupils question who is playing football and building a much deeper level of respect for each other.’

Creating an inclusive environment for pupils is a top priority for many teachers and their schools. As we celebrate LGBTQ+ History Month, Adam Walker, a teacher from East Stanley Primary school tells us about how using the Rainbow Laces resources, from Premier League Primary Stars, helped create a more inclusive environment for his pupils – increasing their understanding of gender stereotypes and the LGBTQ+ community. 

“We had an incident at a football match a few years ago where a pupil from our school called a player from another team a homophobic slur. It was at this point we realised that we needed a solution that we could use to support our pupils in understanding the importance of being inclusive. After a long search to find the right solution, we came across the Rainbow Laces resources from Premier League Primary Stars. A bank of free resources that could educate our pupils around the importance of inclusivity, challenging stereotypes and being a good ally – it was exactly what we were looking for.

At East Stanley we are seeing more girls wanting to get involved in sport. So it was great to see Premier League Primary Stars use male and female professionals in their resources to show balanced representation of real sport. Activities such as ‘Do it like a…’ and ‘Be an ally’ have been popular with the pupils. It has especially given the girls something to look up to and through challenging stereotypes we have mixed teams playing football with a deep level of respect for each other.”

East Stanley has used the Rainbow Laces resources in PSHE lessons at the school to create a more open environment: “The Rainbow Laces resource pack helped us in our PSHE lessons when talking about what it means to be a part of the LGBTQ+ community or discussing gender stereotypes. Now all the pupils are aware of different types of representation; they know that it doesn’t matter if you are homosexual or heterosexual, a boy or a girl, your ethnic descent, or what your first language may be.”

As a member of the LGBTQ+ community, Adam appreciates the difference that resources like Rainbow Laces make: “Now that I have these resources I reflect and think that if material like this had been available when I was in school, it would have helped me to identify and feel more comfortable as a result of inclusive topics being spoken about openly. The more we use material like this in primary schools, the more we will create a better environment for everybody to live freely. It is only going to have a positive influence.”

Speaking about whether he would recommend the resources to fellow teachers, Adam said: “I would 100% recommend them. Knowing how the PSHE curriculum works, Rainbow Laces has been great for us. For other teachers who are looking to increase inclusivity at their school, we have loved the outcomes the resources have given us. Premier League Primary Stars has a wide variety of resources too and there is also the opportunity to build Rainbow Laces – and others resources – into additional lessons around Maths, English and PE. We have seen a real difference and our pupils are happier as a result.”

At the end of 2021 and during the Premier League’s Rainbow Laces campaign, Premier League Primary Stars launched a new resource pack called ‘Rainbow Laces – This is everyone’s game’. The pack, perfect to build into PSHE lessons this LGTBTQ History Month, includes an educational film, and supporting resources, celebrating LGBTQ+ football fans and showcases the power of football to bring people together. The film tells the story of a young Sheffield United fan and member of the LGBTQ+ community, who talks about what football means to her and how it has played a part in helping her to feel proud of who she is. 

Premier League Primary Stars has a wealth of dedicated LGBTQ+ and Anti-Discrimination resources – all free – for teacher to use in the classroom linked to English, Maths, PE and PSHE here

About Premier League Primary Stars

Premier League Primary Stars is a national primary school programme that uses the appeal of the Premier League and professional football clubs to inspire children to learn, be active and develop important life skills. Clubs provide in-school support to teachers, delivering educational sessions to schools in their communities. Free teaching materials ensure the rounded programme, which covers everything from PE and maths to resilience and teamwork, is available to every primary school in England and Wales. 

The Premier League currently funds 105 Premier League, English Football League and National League clubs in England and Wales to provide in-school support for teachers. 

For more information about Premier League Primary Stars or to register, visit: www.plprimarystars.com

You can also contact Ben Lewis-D’Anna on blewisdanna@everfi.com or 07590465455. 

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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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Anti-bullying beyond Anti-Bullying Week

Hannah Glossop portrait

Written by Hannah Glossop

Head of Safeguarding at Judicium Education. Previously a Designated Safeguarding Lead and Assistant Head, Hannah now leads audits and delivers training to support schools with all aspects of their safeguarding.

2021 was yet another year where we saw a raft of deeply worrying examples of bullying. Research from the Anti-Bullying Alliance highlights that bullying continues to play a big part in young people’s lives: “Data we collected from pupil questionnaires completed between September 2020 and March 2021 also showed that one in five (21%) pupils in England report being bullied a lot or always.” High profile cases such as the institutional racism within the cricket world show that bullying in relation to our nine protected characteristics is a problem that goes far beyond schools. 

Anti-Bullying Week 2021 brought with it a range of wonderful resources, tweets and articles in relation to anti-bullying back in November. As we march through the academic year, it is essential that we do not lose momentum and that we pay particular attention to tackling any bullying related to protected characteristics. So how can you do this?

1.Involve your pupils. 

Consider an anonymous survey of your pupils, asking how many have witnessed bullying at school. This will give you a much clearer picture of how much is going on at your school and which groups are particularly targeted. Show students that you are taking bullying seriously and involve them in the policy decisions. Create a version of the bullying policy that is accessible for younger pupils.

2.Embed a culture of vigilance.

Empower both staff and students to act when they see or hear bullying taking place, either in person or online. Review the ways in which bullying is reported at your school-will all staff know how to progress bullying disclosures? Do students recognise that many nasty remarks may violate the Equality Act? Do students have a way to report bullying which avoids them having to speak face-to-face to a member of staff? Promote your anti-bullying work around the school, share it online and tell parents and carers. If pupils know you are taking it seriously, they are more likely to report it.

3.Identify hotspots.

Identify any particular areas in school, times of the day or online platforms where bullying seems to be taking place more frequently. Where possible, increase supervision in worrying areas or at problematic times of the day. If much of your reported bullying is taking place online, use external resources such as your Safer Schools Officer to explain when online abuse crosses a line and becomes illegal activity-for example hate crime and blackmail. 

4.Curriculum. 

Educate young people around the protected characteristics, what the Equality Act means and what impact this Act has on everyday life. Ofsted have recently updated their guidance on ‘Inspecting teaching of the protected characteristics in schools,’  noting that “No matter what type of school they attend, it is important that all children gain an understanding of the world they are growing up in, and learn how to live alongside, and show respect for, a diverse range of people.” In addition, the Proposed changes to Keeping Children Safe in Education 2022 include a new section on schools’ obligations under the Equality Act 2020, adding schools, “should carefully consider how they are supporting their pupils and students with regard to particular protected characteristics – including sex, sexual orientation, gender reassignment and race.”

5.Record and review. 

Paragraph 78 of the Ofsted’s School Inspection Handbook lists the “Information that schools must provide by 8am on the day of inspection” and includes:

  • “Records and analysis of bullying, discriminatory and prejudiced behaviour, either directly or indirectly, including racist, sexist, disability and homophobic/biphobic/transphobic bullying, use of derogatory language and racist incidents.”

Rather than seeing this as a mere Ofsted “tick box” exercise, use these records to fully explore which forms of bullying are happening within and around your school. Ensure that each reported bullying instance is recorded, using your behaviour management or safeguarding reporting mechanisms.  Investigate any trends in these reports, share these with governors and senior leaders and take meaningful action to address these. For example, if disability-related bullying is becoming prevalent, think about what resources are needed to both educate children and show them that this form of abuse will not be tolerated. 

Over the coming months ahead of the next annual Anti-Bullying Week, bear the above in mind and remember that embedding some of these ideas could make many of your students feel much less segregated from school life and much more likely to thrive. 

 

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“You never get a second chance to make a first impression.”

Corinna Richards portrait

Written by Corinna Richards

An avid crocheter, who also happens to teach, train and lead.

“You never get a second chance to make a first impression.”

— Andrew Grant.

Whether Oscar Wilde or Will Rogers said it first, isn’t for this purpose particularly important. What any student or teacher with a facial disfigurement will tell you, is that it’s true. And the experience of that is hugely important. It’s always been true, but in our “beauty bias” society, looking different – whatever that difference may be, is a big deal. Having a facial or ‘visible difference’ can be excruciating. Our physical appearance matters in first impressions. I’m not saying it should, but from my experience it does. 

I blog about this from two perspectives. Firstly, as a person with a congenital facial disfigurement who works in Education and secondly as an EdD student. I’ve just turned 50, and “back in the day” plastic surgery wasn’t as developed as it is now. I had my first plastic, corrective surgery at the age of 11, so I spent my primary school years looking very different. My skull fused together in the womb prematurely which caused my eyes to be extremely wide set and for my nose to be virtually flat with two small nostrils. You can imagine…

However, like everyone, I’ve adapted, over-compensated and fought my way back. I always wanted to teach and that’s what I’ve always done. Apart from three terms in suburbia I’ve always taught in inner city London and only once did I have any issues regarding my face from a pupil. I loved and still do, the diversity of the inner-city, the children were remarkably accepting of my appearance, we were all shapes and sizes together, the issue of ‘normal’ just never seemed too prevalent. The same couldn’t be said for the parents! The suspicion of my appearance was always there, in some heated exchanges a name regarding my appearance would slip out (yawn… I’ve never heard that one before…) and I’ve even had some parents ask my secretary what is wrong with my face!  (One of the many reasons I prefer children to adults!) 

But last year, I had a bit of a shock. 

I am in the third of year of EdD at UEL and I am studying the lived experience of Imposter Phenomenon in Teacher Educators. It’s really interesting, but it wasn’t my first choice. Initially, I wanted to study IP in teachers with visible differences. I couldn’t find any. I didn’t know any. I didn’t know any teachers with facial burns, or severe acne, or disfiguring birthmarks or craniosynostosis… statistically they must exist (I am for one)… but where are they? I then thought about all the pupils I have taught over nearly 30 years… lots of differences, but when did I teach a child who was like me? I don’t think I have. Where are these children and where are the teachers?

Recently, in an updated version of Malory Towers, a young actor, Beth Bradfield, with a visible difference joined the cast, but how often do we see actors with facial burns or scars? Possibly in James Bond, but then of course, only as the villain. I attended my first DEI event last weekend, it was brilliant. Representation matters. Yes, it does. So how do I help other people like me have the courage to stand in front of groups of people and teach. I spent decades of my life trying to hide my face. I was desperate to make my visible difference invisible. It seems like I might not be the only one. 

For more information visit: 

‘Changing Faces’:

www.changingfaces.org.uk 

The Katie Piper Foundation: www.katiepiperfoundation.org.uk

Headlines:

www.headlines.org.uk

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Belonging, safely

Gemma Hargraves portrait

Written by Gemma Hargraves

Assistant Head (Pastoral), Deputy DSL and History Teacher.

Reflecting on several sessions from the recent Diverse Educators virtual conference it struck me that so much of our EDI work is also vital safeguarding work. As a Deputy DSL I spend my days balancing pastoral care, safeguarding, History teaching and various other responsibilities. Until now I actually hadn’t realised how my EDI work is complementary to my safeguarding work. 

All readers will have heard that “you can’t be what you can’t see” and this need for recognition and role models extends to safeguarding too. Pupils need to know they are in an environment where they are valued and celebrated in order to feel truly safe. It strikes me that a pupil may not disclose various issues if they feel they would not be heard, understood or believed. Beit a neurodiverse pupil struggling with issues around consent, an LBGTQ+ young person experiencing unkindness, a disabled child faced with ableism daily or a person of colour dealing with regular microaggressions. Of course having a diverse staff body, including in senior positions, may help ensure all pupils feel safe and a sense of belonging but active allies have a vital role to play here. Pupils in the first presentation said “ignorance breeds intolerance” and I would build on that to say in safeguarding terms ignorance is dangerous. We all need to be professionally curious whilst being respectful. @AspringHeads gave some examples of shocking things Black teachers have been asked, including endless comments about hair, skin colour or names, and comments of this nature to Black pupils would absolutely be considered a safeguarding concern. 

A key part of safeguarding is also accurate and timely recording of incidents; this is key to tracking trends and understanding context to actively promote inclusion. If we are to ensure all pupils are safe and can thrive, we need to have a clear picture of incidents or challenges faced. We have a duty to ensure that pupils are not negatively labelled or stereotyped based on any characteristic and teachers have high expectations of all pupils. Safeguarding is also about preventing harm to children’s development and taking action to enable all children and young people to have the best outcomes – here EDI is clearly vital and we can see tangible returns on investment in diversifying the curriculum. Of course, we reinforce this by the displays around school, the books studied, the trips that are offered etc but the culture individual teachers nurture in their classrooms is key to both EDI and safeguarding. 

As was made clear at Diverse Educators recently, good intentions are not enough. We must act. EDI requires resourcing, time and energy. It must not be an afterthought in another year of TAGs marking and administration, staffing issues and COVID challenges ad infinitum. Safeguarding is everyone’s responsibility and so is EDI. We need to recognise and respect cultures, traditions and changes but with clear red lines in terms of safeguarding to ensure everyone can bring their whole self to school and be safe. Sometimes we hear “I don’t see colour” but surely we must see it, value it, celebrate it and protect all children regardless. 

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University And Chronic Illness

Pippa Stacey portrait

Written by Pippa Stacey

Pippa Stacey is a writer and blogger based in Yorkshire. She studied BSc Psychology in Education at the University of York, and acquired her chronic illness during the first year of her studies. As a graduate, Pippa now works in online communications in the charity sector, as well as freelance writing and blogging in a personal capacity at Life Of Pippa.

During my first year of university, I was your typical student: studying hard, partying harder, travelling the country with various sports teams and for dance competitions, volunteering, and working towards an honours degree. By the same time the following year, I was struggling to stand up on my own.

I’d been battling for answers to my mystery symptoms since the age of 15, but it was only when my health significantly relapsed and I was struck down by an onslaught of debilitating pain and fatigue, that I was finally diagnosed with Myalgic Encephalomyelitis (ME/CFS).  Naturally, this all happened during my very first year of university, just as my young adult life was beginning.

With plenty of support and adjustments, I managed to continue my studies and graduated in 2016, but it wasn’t without its challenges. Adapting to life as a newly disabled student, I often felt lonely, isolated, and like nobody else in the world could understand what I was going through. I distinctly remember being shocked at what little support was available and how much I had to advocate for myself, how hard I had to fight for what I was entitled to, and how disheartening it often seemed. Being a student can be a tough time for any young person but dealing with a fluctuating health condition adds a whole new dimension of difficulty. 

Despite this, my time at university formed some of the very best years of my life. I studied a subject I loved and graduated with a 2:1, met a wonderful group of friends who I still see regularly, and got to live in the beautiful city of York… where I’ve remained ever since!

It’s no secret that the world of education and employment have a long way to go before they can be described as truly inclusive. However, I hope that by sharing my story, more people in similar situations to my own will feel better informed not only about the challenges being a student can bring, but also how to tackle these head-on and have the best experience possible.

After I completed my own higher education, I knew I wanted to create a resource that would fill the gap I so painfully felt during my own student years. 

My debut non-fiction book, University and Chronic Illness: A Survival Guide, is a chatty and relaxed, yet balanced and informative, resource: one that’s sincere and realistic about the challenges of studying with a fluctuating health condition, yet one which will hopefully empower future students to make informed decisions and to really get the most out of their time at university. Essentially, this book is made up of all the things I wish I’d had somebody to tell me back then.

The advice in this book comes from somebody who’s experienced the process first-hand: somebody who knows that your reasons for going to university often stretch far beyond only the lectures and studying. My book therefore strives to encompass all aspects of student life: socialising, independent living, managing your money, and what to do when things go wrong. 

As well as this guide hopefully being useful to individual students with long-term conditions, I’m doing everything in my power to make sure it also reaches university, college and school support staff, to help them better understand the unique challenges such students can face. My hope is that it will help to spark some important conversations about how to ensure the education system becomes as inclusive as possible, and perhaps even one day, facilitate social change.

Above all else, however, I hope that any prospective or current chronically ill students reading this now know that they’re not alone. It can sometimes feel as though your hard work is going unnoticed, I know, but I sincerely and wholeheartedly believe in you. Your struggles are valid, and you deserve to celebrate every little victory your journey brings. Never forget that. 

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