Why I am talking to white people about race

The more open your mind
Source: Instagram Notes to Strangers 

In honour of the brilliant article and subsequent book by Reni Eddo-Lodge, Why I’m No Longer Talking to White People About Race, I wanted to explore why, as a white person myself, I am talking to white people about race.

It is not the responsibility of people of colour to educate white people about race. It is not the job of people of colour to fix racism. It is especially exhausting when people of colour are faced with resistance to the idea that racism exists, and to the wide range of denial, fragility and distancing that often happens when many white people encounter discussion of racism. Through my work with the BAMEed Network, I often find myself being challenged by white people about racism or in more amenable situations, asked by white people to help them understand why they find engaging with the concept of racism so difficult. I am on my own journey of understanding, regrettably probably often being clumsy and crass myself, through my own ignorance and learned bias. I will continue on that learning journey forever, of course. Interestingly, much of it involves unlearning. I feel that as a white person, I can work with other white people, where they are open to discussion, in ways that a person of colour might not find appropriate or worthwhile to engage.

The following are some examples of the terms and concepts that many white people find difficult when talking about race and which I have often found myself engaged in discussion about.

The idea of race itself is seen by some as racist

For many white people, the mere mention of the concept of race incites the he-who-must-not-be-named kind of terror you might see at Hogwarts when Harry Potter says ‘Voldemort’ out loud for the first time. There’s a kind of superstition that just saying it out loud is going to result in letting an evil spirit escape from a jar.

Many people believe that talking about race is in itself racist. I believe this may be because the idea of race is perceived as separating people into crude groups based on colour and broadly-defined physical and/or ‘cultural’ characteristics and that this is somehow disrespectful and better ignored in the way a baby ‘hides’ by putting her hands over her eyes. It may also be linked to the idea that grouping people in this way is somehow tantamount to ignoring the personal experience, the individual and the uniqueness of the person. In a way, this is exactly why it is important to acknowledge race and racism, as although there are no clear biological grounds for race, it is absolutely the case that there has been a centuries-long effort to promote the idea of superiority of some so-called races over others. Throughout recent human history, there has been a huge effort to try to ‘prove’ that whiteness is the embodiment of superiority genetically, in terms of intelligence, and in terms of rights to power. This is not just relegated to the past, there are some quite prominent self-appointed education experts whose books, blogs and news items you probably have read, and whose talks you have been to, that are fans of eugenics. I kid you not.

Have you ever asked a white person what their race is? Ironically, most white people don’t acknowledge themselves as belonging to a race. Somehow, white is not a race, it just ‘is’. Angela Saini explores this and more in her fantastically detailed, descriptive and compelling book, Superior. Through these efforts to convince us of the purity of whiteness and the inferiority of Blackness, white people have been able to accept the horrific mass incarceration and genocide that was enacted through colonialism and slavery. 

What is important therefore, is that race exists insofar as it is a social construct through which people are discriminated against both explicitly and implicitly, through blatant acts of racist abuse, but also through systemic, institutional, and inherent structures which act to exclude, oppress and limit people of colour. It is important to get to grips with this and accept this as fact to get anywhere when engaging with race and racism. 

Saying ‘I don’t see race’

One way to try to distance ourselves as white people from appearing racist, is to say that we don’t see race and that we are ‘colourblind’. Even if the intention is considered to be good by the person uttering this phrase, this actually serves to ignore the very real ways that racism has existed throughout history and how it continues to exist today – both systemically and for individuals in daily interactions. By saying you don’t see race, you are part of the problem rather than being part of a solution. By saying you don’t see colour or race, you are also acting to erase a person of colour’s lived experience and identity. Racism, both the interpersonal kind and the systemic kind, isn’t triggered by the visual cue of someone’s skin colour. Racism is about the social value we assign to people and their actions based on their physical attributes that have over time been ascribed with a number of assumptions. Studies have shown that even actually physically blind people can be racist, drawing on other cues to create an understanding of someone’s racial identity. 

Not all white people…

Anyone who has tried to engage with discussion about feminist issues will have probably heard the rebuttal “not all men…” Similarly, white people will often say that other people might do or think these things, but not all white people i.e. not this white person…This is not helpful, but instead comes from a need to distance ourselves from blame or being implicated. A fragile white view of racism is that it is associated with bad people committing racist acts, rather than the tapestry of complex power relations woven over time that it is. As a white person, I am learning to recognise and acknowledge both my own inherent bias and the systemic and institutional racism which surrounds me. Once you start to see it, you can’t unsee it, believe me. And when you truly accept racism as real, you can see it in yourself without needing to be defensive or feel blame. It is learned in subtle and not-so-subtle ways. It can be unlearned, but first it has to be acknowledged. Again, if the feminism analogy is helpful, as a woman I have to acknowledge my own learned confusion of standards to which I hold myself which are entirely rooted in patriarchal and sexist expectations of me as a woman, a mother, a professional person and so on. 

White privilege

At the last BAMEed conference, one of our speakers said in his opening few sentences,  “I don’t like the term white privilege, but I know I have it”. The concept of privilege can trigger such discomfort and gets people tying themselves in knots as it often forces us to acknowledge race, class and gender all at once. White people who might have grown up in underprivileged working class families can become outraged trying to deny that they have enjoyed greater access and privilege than a person of colour, as if it’s some neat spectrum or Top Trumps points system. If you can learn about and accept the roots and pervasive narrative of systemic and institutional racism, you will understand what the concept of white privilege is all about. Of course there is an interplay of gender, sexuality, class, race, disability, and so on, but it can be helpful to think about privilege in terms of a place in a queue. There are many circumstances in life where you as a white person will get a place nearer the front of the queue simply because your whiteness affords you the status of seeming more credible, appearing more ‘fitting’, considered better educated or better spoken to those that grant access to the particular destination you are queuing for.  Privilege is about gaining access to things that you may not have earned and that are granted to you based on a series of assumptions. Of course you earned your degree, and you have worked hard, but there are others in the queue that worked just as hard, got a better grade even, and yet you are further up towards the front. 

Power to the people

Racism, whiteness and privilege are all about power and who holds this power. There are power relations in all aspects of human interaction and relationships – if you look carefully and honestly you will see that this includes power relations between you and your employers, that exist between you and your students, it’s even there in the relationship you have with your life partner. You can’t solve power imbalance or the anxiety you might feel when power is unfairly wielded over you, by pretending it isn’t there. Nor can you shift that power imbalance with your partner or your employer or the state by just saying you will be nice to each other. It needs to be examined, understood historically and contextually – and acknowledged. It also needs to be addressed head on. This can be through dialogue, it can be through practical measures like policies or laws, but it must be done for the power imbalance to be dismantled and one day for power to be fairly re-distributed.

If you’re interested in joining the BAMEed Network and working with some fantastic colleagues towards a more equitable education sector, you will be warmly welcomed, whatever your background and experience. If you’re interested in reading more about race and racism you might find the ideas below useful. And if you want to talk some more, you know where to find me.

 

Useful resources

DiAngelo, R (2018) ‘Why “I’m not racist” is only half the story’, (You Tube)

DiAngelo, R (2018), ‘Deconstructing white fragility’ (You Tube)

Eddo-Lodge, R (2017) Why I’m no longer talking to white people about race (Guardian article) 

Eddo-Lodge, R (2018) Why I’m No Longer Talking to White People About Race (book)

Hirsch, A (2019) ‘Expecting me to explain racism is exploitative – that’s not my job’, (Guardian article)

Saini, A (2019) Superior : The Return of Race Science  (book)

The BAMEed Network resources page 

The Royal Society (2015) ‘Understanding Unconscious Bias’ (You Tube)

McIntosh, P (1988) White Privilege: unpacking the invisible knapsack

https://www.racialequitytools.org/resourcefiles/mcintosh.pdf

Cultural capital: an exploration

cultural capital an exploration pic

The following post is a summary of a keynote presentation I gave to open a wider INSET day on closing the gaps at a secondary school in the south west of England. The stated aims of the session was to unpack what cultural capital means and to challenge some of the assumptions about cultural capital  as it is often being deployed in schools.

How do I come to stand before you?

I am not an expert in cultural capital. I do see myself as someone who can challenge and support effectively, and this is my aim with this piece. Many of my experiences, from being the only free school meals child in my class at grammar school, teaching in primary and secondary schools in Jerusalem, returning to work in a start up environment in the UK after 12 years away, I have experienced the dissonance of feeling that my set of cultural norms and values, base knowledge and experiences, even my language and gestures are at odds with the norm. I have also been able to see the patchwork of cultural references and knowledge as useful in my survival toolkit in many situations.

My activism work with The BAMEed Network and lately the Haringey BAME Achievement Group, being Chair of governors at a Tottenham primary school and on a multi-academy trust board in Greenwich has also informed and fed my fascination with this notion of cultural capital.

Who are you?

Mona Chalabi
Picture by Mona Chalabi

Ask yourself: who am I? What do I bring to the table? Why? Where do I get it? What parts am I proud of? What parts are seen as valuable to others and why? Does this change depending on what context you are in at the time? Would you give a different set of responses to colleagues around the table at an INSET day compared with the one you might give to friends over a meal out or at a job interview?

What is cultural capital to you?

In schools we use this term freely, but do we know what it means and where it comes from? What do you think you bring in terms of your cultural capital to the students you teach? Have you built in anything around what they bring to you as a teacher?

What is cultural capital, actually?

Cultural capital definition

In his “Cultural Reproduction and Social Reproduction” (1977), Pierre Bourdieu coined the term Cultural Capital. He was interested in French education system in the 1960s, which saw itself as purely meritocratic – the belief that offering the same opportunities to all students was the same as creating equal opportunities for all students. Bourdieu wanted to explore why, despite this, working class students consistently had worse outcomes than their more privileged peers. This led to his understanding that some students come with a set of culturally valued experiences and prior knowledge which give them access to the curriculum more readily.

The phrase cultural capital refers to the tastes, manners, skills and credentials that are sometimes earned, but more often received from your family environment, are particular to your social class and social interactions with others in daily life. If we accept the notion of cultural capital uncritically, we will be unable to see how inequality is created from the get-go. The cycle is such that if you have the ‘accepted’ cultural capital, you are more likely to have wealth, and if you are wealthy, you are more likely to have greater cultural capital.

According to Bourdieu, cultural capital manifests itself in a number of ways:

The Embodied State – this is the knowledge that is acquired consciously and inherited passively through socialisation, through our culture and tradition. It is not something that can be inherited like physical assets but it is certainly impressed on our character and way of thinking, which in turn leads us to seek out and become more open to similar cultural influences.

The Objectified State – this is how cultural capital manifests itself into material, physical objects such as property that are indicators of social class – for example the clothes you wear, the food you eat, your car, and which can also extend into the way you walk, stand, talk and so on.

The Institutionalised State – this is the way in which society measures social capital – for example doctoral degree has more perceived capital than a expertise in a handicraft or being streetwise. I can’t help wondering which one has more actual worth in time of need – being able to stay alive, or having a high degree of philosophical knowledge.

We know what is valued, but why?

Sorting hat
Picture: the sorting hat from Harry Potter movies

This picture is a great example of differing cultural capital. To me, it is the sorting hat from the Harry Potter movies. To my partner, who although he has a PhD, is an associate professor at a London university,  came to the UK in 2007 and therefore on sighting this in my presentation slides said “oh my, is that a pile of poo?” Our cultural capital differs on the matter of the sorting hat.

If I ask you to do a quick sorting activity, how would you rank the following?

Supermarkets: Lidl, Waitrose, Aldi, Sainsbury’s, Tesco, Morrisons

Universities: The Hebrew University of Jerusalem, Berlin University, Harvard, Exeter University, Oxford, Brighton University, Durham University

You can play this game and find out so much about how our minds work, what we are socialised to believe and how assumptions around cultural capital come into play.  Trying this out on a room of over 100 teachers, I saw that they had no problem setting to work on the task. A few asked for more criteria but on the whole we generally agreed that the supermarkets could be ranked on a scale with Lidl and Aldi at one end of the scale and Waitrose at the other. Interestingly, if you compare the same basket of items from Lidl and Waitrose, the costs will be wildly different, but the actual quality and even source of many of the products will be identical or equal in comparison. Go figure.

The same with the university exercise. For many employers, overseas university equals assumed lower quality, unknown, impossible to perceive as valuable to the same degree as a UK one. Many people immigrating to this country with degrees in medicine, teaching, and so on, are told they need to re-qualify without any exploration of what they actually learned on their courses and whether this maps onto the requirements for the job. This can be further divided into racial assumptions – we are happy with teachers from Canada, Australia and New Zealand taking up teaching posts, but if your teaching degree is from Delhi, Cameroon or Nigeria, objections being raised are far more likely.

The Ofsted framework

The Ofsted framework states that no institution can be rated good unless its curriculum gives “all pupils, particularly disadvantaged pupils…the knowledge and cultural capital they need to succeed in life.”

The schools inspection handbook has linked cultural capital to the national curriculum, introduced by Michael Gove, in setting out “the essential knowledge pupils need to be educated citizens, introducing them to the best that has been thought and said”.

The best that has been thought and said. We are judged as schools on this. But do we really understand what it is, and what is the best that has been thought and said? This is a place to pause and think again about the uncritical engagement with the term and concept of cultural capital. This is especially vital as the new framework has such a clear focus on curriculum. We are going to have to make decisive value judgements about what is the best that has been thought and said.  We are going to have to decide what the things are that every child should learn in our school, in each discipline, across the curriculum as a whole.  We are going to have to decide what counts as ‘knowledge’. (If there was ever a time to start understanding the importance of decolonising the curriculum, it is now – more on this later).

What are the things that every child should know?

According to the Civitas thinktank’s English version of ED Hirsch’s work, every child should know the following:

Year 1 Acorns; Brer Rabbit tales; continents; English civil war; jungles; Machu Picchu; Mexico; AA Milne; musical pitch; Henry Moore

Year 2 Tap dancing; Louis Pasteur; rabies; mosques; Hansel and Gretel; Atlantic Ocean; extinct animals and fish; Great Wall of China; dinosaur bones; Roald Amundsen

I have so many questions. How do you define what is essential knowledge? Should you define and dictate what knowledge is before you start? What is culture and what is the cultural capital that is valuable to children in your school? Is your school’s culture different to another school’s culture? How do you define that? What is included and what is excluded? Who decides?

Things that personally slowly dawned on me as someone of Jewish heritage growing up in the UK were things like, ‘how come the only thing we learn about Jews is the Holocaust and Shakespeare’s Shylock?’ Later in life, my own cultural experience of this when compared with Israeli Jewish cultural representation was fascinating. The experience you have of your self-worth as a Jew in Israel is radically different to that of a child growing up Jewish in the UK secular school system. Many of my esteemed colleagues, my own partner and children, all of whom have immigrated to this country often share similar experiences of the dissonance between their learned self-worth and what self-worth they are now afforded by those around them.

Bourdieu’s work should help us to see that compulsory education was created as one big sorting hat, designed to divide along clear lines – sorting the workers from the owners of the means of production and those that are used as the means of production.

What do you notice from just these few topics listed as essential knowledge for children in the early years of their education? There are no women (unless you count Hansel’s sister Gretel of course). To me it seems like the memories of a very specific, white, middle class experience of a 1970s childhood. And who was a child in the 1970s? Well I was, and despite the free school meals status and Jewish heritage, much of this is deliciously familiar and often subtly useful. But more significant is that the people in power and determining education policy now are largely from white, middle class backgrounds firmly rooted in that era either as 1970s parents, 1970s children or the children of those that had 1970s middle class, white, childhoods.

Back to the sorting hat

Let’s relate this concept of cultural capital back to our education system as a whole. What has changed since the industrial revolution?

Let’s acknowledge again that our compulsory education system was designed to be a sorting hat channeling children to be either the owners of the means of production, or the workers earning the wealth for the ruling classes. Therefore, there had to be a dividing line. Not much has changed today. The British education system is the most divisive in the world. Thanks to the education reforms of the last decade, it is now the most fragmented in the world.

Cultural capital and wealth go hand in hand now as much as they did during the industrial revolution. The harsh truth is that 7% of children are privately educated and they hold 94% of all elite jobs (judges, CEOs of FTSE 100 companies, the cabinet). A person from an underprivileged background with a 1st from Oxbridge is not as likely to hold one of these elite jobs as someone who has any class of degree from any university and who is from a privileged background.

Even if we have thought through carefully what is the ‘right’ cultural capital to give our children so they have a fighting chance of the achieving the goals that we see as important to ‘success’, the part of cultural capital which we cannot give young people are networks, the sense of entitlement and the wealth that gives privileged young people a place at the front of the queue. More than this, without a critical examination of cultural capital, and the curriculum, we are constantly communicating to groups of young people that they are not entitled, that their cultural capital is neither culture nor capital. We do this through a myriad of ways.

Loaded terminology

With this in mind, let’s consider what we are portraying to students with some of favourite edu-lingo terminology. We often talk about these buzz words, alongside discussions about gaps for certain groups, cultural capital and curriculum, as if we know what they mean.

Aspiration – is this about financial wealth or is it about aspiring to have the embodied, objectified and institutional states that are deemed worthy?

Mini case- study: a headteacher at a school in coastal Essex told me it took him years to realise that they were labelling students as lacking in aspiration because they preferred to take on apprenticeships with their family members and stay in the same postcode than leave family, guaranteed work, property ownership, good quality of life and education for their children in exchange for a university degree, at a time of the highest post-graduate unemployment rates, £50k debt and isolation from support networks and family. There is no logic to selling this to young people, unless you absolutely believe that gaining the ruling classes’ cultural capital is worth such a huge gamble not only financially but also at the expense of your own cultural,  social and societal values.

Social mobility – this goes hand in hand with aspiration and seems to mean moving away from and turning your back on where you’re from. You can see more about my thoughts on this in one of my first blog posts way back when here

Disengaged – what does this mean? Have you asked students themselves what they need? Do they feel valued as the people who are going to be running the show one day?

Mini case study one: People often get irritated with examples from Finland, so I will temper this with a UK one too! Young people I have heard speaking about their education in Finland see education as a great privilege and see their teachers as preparing them to be the rightful future leaders and shapers of tomorrow. The only time we seem to hear about young people in our country are the jumping-for-joy photographs on results day, derisory articles about them skipping school to moan about the environment, and polar opposite tropes of evil-gang-youth and a snowflake generation. Disengagement might just be a function of self-preservation with messages like these.

Mini case study two: Inspire Partnership MAT is a group of primary schools in areas of high deprivation in SE London and Kent. The Junior Leadership Team is a group of children of all ages that takes an active part in all aspects of school life.  When I met them recently at one school in Medway, we heard about their work looking at feedback and marking across the school. They were able to identify a gap in consistency in one year group’s books and when investigated more closely, it transpired that this was a year group with newly qualified teachers – they realised that these teachers needed a bit more support from the senior leadership team to ensure that the children had more effective feedback and marking. How great is that for showing the children their worth, engaging them and ensuring that they not only are heard, but also understand the intricacies of learning and teaching in its wider context.

Context – No education takes place without context. We desperately need to decolonise our curriculum. We need to question Black History Month vs history which includes Black history in this country every day.  I would also add that while it is of course important for children from diverse backgrounds to see themselves in the curriculum and in the teaching staff, it is vital for white children to see people of colour as holders of power and influence lest we believe the pervading post-colonialist narrative of  what is commonly accepted as “the essential knowledge pupils need to be educated citizens, introducing them to the best that has been thought and said”.

The value of education – That Essex case study says it all. We do need more critical thinking skills from an early age though,  rather than leaping straight to more vocational education as the answer to the students who we see as not understanding “the value of education” as it is first served up to them. We can revisit the streetwise vs. PhD question here again too – which one is more likely to keep you alive? Teenagers always ask how will what I’m learning help me in life? Do we ever discuss with children why they are learning what they learn?

Parental engagement – this is another favourite term when we are thinking about cultural capital and “closing gaps”.  There are some really crude assumptions made around how parents engage in and therefore we assume, value, their children’s education.

Mini case study:  A headteacher of school with 98% Bengali parents once gave a fascinating case study at a NCSL conference that I will never forget. He explained that he and staff were tearing their hair out trying to get parents into the school. It was only when he actually spoke to students about their families, that he understood that their parents would never speak directly to a teacher as this was seen as disrespectful and interfering. They trusted the teachers to educate their children. The bridging from assumptions and cultural bias took a long time, involved careful dialogue, and ensuring that a more suitable method of interaction and involvement was pursued. The headteacher set up an internet cafe at the weekends, where parents could come in and see what their children had been up to via a parent-school communication platform that many schools use to engage parents that are working or otherwise unable to come into school frequently.

Role models – Again, schools often only start thinking about this when we have “students from visibly diverse backgrounds”. But have you considered carefully who are the role models among your staff, the texts you use, your library books, the pictures on the walls. To put it blandly, does your science lab feature all white men on posters? Are all your senior leaders and decision makers from the same kind of background?

It ain’t what you do, it’s the way that you do it

Policies aren’t just pieces of paper – What is valued as cultural capital is communicated beyond the curriculum and it’s important to consider what your policies actually communicate. For example, “extreme hair” policies often class Black children’s hair as extreme for just the way it grows out of their heads. Think carefully about blanket bans on certain styles and cuts or more subtle expectations about what ‘professional’ looks like for staff.

If you have considered what your staff team looks like and discovered that all the powerful positions taken up by white middle class men, do you need to revisit your recruitment policies?

Decolonise the curriculum – We need to go beyond the ‘dead white men’ curriculum choices but also be wary of falling into the trap of thinking you have diversity nailed without seeing that all the diverse texts you have chosen feature people of colour as oppressed, weak, underdogs, deviants or exotic for example.

When and how do you engage with parents? Look carefully at the assumptions you make about so called disengaged parents. Please assume this: ALL parents want the BEST for their children. No-one wants their child to fail or have a bad time at school.

Do you ask parents (and students) what they want, when and how? I have sat through so many parents evenings that are full of acronyms and edu-speak that even to me as an educationalist are impenetrable and serve to distance me from feeling included. For most of us parents, we are happy to trust you with the education of our children if you can respond positively and honestly to the question, “Do you like my child? Do you see their potential?”

Supplementary schools – You can’t do everything, especially in our over-scheduled school day, but one clear way to value cultural capital that is broader than the scope of what school can offer, is to give space, time and honour to typically marginalised experiences by inviting supplementary schools to operate on your premises after hours as part of the educational offer. The knock-on effect can be incredible for your students’ feeling of self-worth, engagement and celebration of cultural capital.

What’s your strategy?  You have to be strategic. Do you have an achievement strategy that is about what YOU are going to change and not about interventions that extend the child’s already extended day? You can see a good example in the Haringey BAME achievement strategy

Over to you

Cultural capital is “the cultural knowledge that serves as currency that helps us navigate culture and alters our experiences and the opportunities available to us”.

What can you take away from this? What will you do next?

 

 

 

Leadership: doing it differently

Picture 1 C&H

The following post is a summary of a keynote presentation I gave to close the WomenEd Bexley event in July 2019. The theme of the event was Leadership: doing it differently. For my slides, I used a series of Calvin and Hobbes cartoons for illustration.

Leadership: doing it differently

Leadership doing it differently
Credit: Calvin & Hobbes

I was a playworker for 8 consecutive summers from the age of 16, and found myself leading a team of 15 people over four sites by the time I was 18. My first taste of leadership – until I left to go travelling at 24 and didn’t return until I was 37. During that time away, I was a qualified teacher for over ten years. Following my move back to the UK with my family, I took up a role at The Key for School leaders and went on an incredible journey with the then government-funded pilot to the Fast Track 100 company it became, serving nearly half the schools in the country.  I spent 7 happy years on the leadership team as Director of Business Development.

Following that, I have been in various leadership roles including at a small social enterprise and at the national charity, Challenge Partners. After a year working with a number of organisations in the education sector on their journey from start up to grown up, I am now Director of Engagement at the Finnish organisation, Lyfta Education.

In my spare time, I am on the steering group for the BAMEed Network, Chair of governors at a Tottenham primary school and on the Inspire Partnership Trust board. I will set out some of the learning and the developing thoughts I have on leadership and the concept of doing it differently, based on several years of leadership in both paid and unpaid work, and many years of feeling “different and differentiated”.

Doing it differently isn’t a choice

Picture 2
Credit: Calvin & Hobbes

Doing things differently isn’t often a choice we make. Quite often, it is a gradual realisation or a sudden change of circumstances that makes us feel we are different and therefore going to have to do things differently. Our personal narrative is important and can help shift the feeling of difference from a deficit model to something that includes our own values, needs, and moral purpose.

It’s also important that this narrative includes a contextual social, historical and political understanding so you can zoom in and zoom out of your personal experience within the context of the world we live in, and within the context of where you are now on a continuum of where you have come from and where you are going.

Know your narrative in context

Picture 3
Credit: Calvin & Hobbes

It’s really important to engage with and understand the societal and structural factors that impact on our being successful leaders and that includes factors that impact on the people that we lead. WomenEd has been set up to address some of the structural challenges that hold women back. The notion of ‘10% braver’ could be problematic if it assumes that what is missing is women’s bravery and that it is all about us lacking in confidence. But perhaps its saying that despite all we know about how the odds are stacked against women, in a world that is conditioned to see leaders as white, middle class and male, we need to gird our loins and go forth anyway.

Angela Browne’s Chapter 6 in the 10% Braver book sets out how bias and discrimination hold women back. The BAMEed Network is about addressing the issues around race, structural racism and the bias that holds back men and women of colour from progressing within the profession. Being a Black woman for example means an intersectional double-whammy of disadvantage and an exhausting struggle in a predominantly white, male system. If you need to be 10% braver as a woman, how much braver do you need to be as a woman or man from a Black, Asian or minority ethnic background? We mustn’t lose sight of this in WomenEd, lest we become a ‘white feminists first movement’

As a woman racialised as white, I know that I have enormous privilege and that I have a responsibility to ensure that I can act as a reliable ally. This means recognising my own privilege and taking the time to listen to my colleagues from BAME backgrounds, to do the work MYSELF to learn about structural racism and to do everything I can to be actively resisting this. I need to understand that I have been socialised into a society which sees women and sees people from non-white backgrounds as inferior. No amount of pure thinking and pretending I don’t see difference is going to change this.

As a leader, your personal narrative is important but you need to know your context beyond your own personal story and you need to know how your own personal story fits into the societal and political context of our times. And you need to contextualise your and other people’s narratives within this. That’s difficult, but vital to do if you want to lead differently.

What would Beyonce do?

Picture 5
Credit: Calvin & Hobbes

Understanding others’ narrative is essential to leadership. We all too often try to lead people, especially if we are doing it differently, knowing they aren’t going to like what we have to say, or worse, being surprised when they raise objections. Too many people try to ram through decisions anyway, or blame those above them, or the system, when delivering messages that others might find difficult to hear.

People who have worked with me will know that I absolutely believe in objection-handling as an essential component to the leadership toolkit. I’ll explain what I mean. You know those people in the leadership team who say “ just playing Devil’s advocate here…” or worse, fixate on a particular issue, making your strategy, idea or suggestion seem unworkable. And how many times did you see that coming and just hope they would be ill or inexplicably mute on the day?

It’s foolish not to do the work ahead of time and do some objection handling. Imagine that person who likes to put a stick in your spokes and think, what would X say at this point. Force yourself to think about the questions you least want to be asked and have answers for them. Address them head on, name them and pick them off one by one in your initial presentation of the proposal. Use research, clear rationale, previous experience to back up your handling of the possible objections that you think will be on people’s minds.

This is not a tool to help you get YOUR way more often, it helps you to see, hear and appreciate the diversity of thought and opinion within your team and to take a small piece of this into your own practice rather than resenting people who have different opinions and world views to you. It makes decision-making faster and easier as you have done the work ahead of time to think up all of the reasons why your plan may be less easily accepted by others. It helps your colleagues trust you and know they are heard, seen and felt. It actively promotes including diversity of thought into your own leadership practice rather than simply making sure you have a top trumps team of diverse people sitting in front of you not actually being included at all.

And as a school leader, don’t forget to extend this to beyond the leadership team. Do you know what your teachers, teaching assistants and catering staff think? Students? Their families? Local businesses and the wider community?

Understanding strengths

Picture 4
Credit: Calvin & Hobbes

To succeed as a leader, you need to know what your strengths are and you need to see the strengths of those around you as complementary and not threats to your authority.

Good leaders have the confidence and wisdom to surround themselves with people that are far better than them at a myriad of things. They build the right team and draw on others’ expertise without feeling this threatens their ability to lead. Quite the opposite. If you have the right people rowing your boat, you can concentrate on navigating the choppy waters using your skills and expertise properly deployed.

Strengths Finder is an excellent tool to do this. Use it across the organisation and it shows a commitment to find the leading strengths in each person and gives you an opportunity for dialogue around and deployment of these strengths. Things you thought were quirky personality traits might be revealed to you and others as your unique and essential leadership qualities. E.g. I’m a person collector and a people connector. This has been integral to my leadership since Strengths Finder made me realise that this is a hugely valued and massively enjoyable strength I have.

When you are under threat or being made to feel inadequate, revisiting your Strengths Finder profile can be very affirming. It’s something that should be revisited regularly as you will see that you tend to take things for granted and even leave some strengths behind rather than developing them.

Identified Strengths should be developed. We spend too much time trying to get better at things we hate and are crap at in the name of being leaders. Much of what we do with performance management is ridiculously wed to this. This is nonsense. As long as you know where there are gaps and where you have the support, you will be fine. You need basic competencies at a range of things and you shouldn’t be building dependencies that are irreplaceable – I’ll say more about institutional knowledge in this context next.

Knowledge is power and institutional knowledge is powerful

Picture 6
Credit: Calvin & Hobbes

When building your dream team of people cleverer than you at myriad things be careful to not build a wobbly Jenga tower. They say the mark of a good leader is when everything runs smoothly when they are there and when they are not. However, it is easy to rely on capable people too much and you can come unstuck:

  • When you take your eye off the ball and lose any link with the detail
  • When they leave and take valuable institutional knowledge with them

In organisations I have led in, it has been really important to ensure that knowledge, where possible, is institutional knowledge and that our systems and processes capture essential information. This means that if the worst happens, and someone leaves, they aren’t going to leave you high and dry, unable to function.

This can be as simple as knowing the code to the science cupboard so that when the science teacher is suddenly taken ill, you can get in and support the practicals that students need to do that day. But it also means capturing the “way we do things here” so that they can be used effectively to empower new starters in their induction period, and that they can be co-created, reviewed and embedded into everyone’s practice so that you feel certain that everyone is rowing in the same direction, understand the values and moral compass that steers your ship and keeps a happy crew. Values are much, much more than a poster on the wall.

Working in a role which requires much relationship management, I am not losing ANYTHING if I leave clear and useful records of contacts, interactions and next steps for the organisation. I can also take away with me my professional relationships without taking anything away from the organisation and clear in the knowledge that I am doing both parties a favour by ensuring the good work they do doesn’t collapse because I am leaving. They will both remember me kindly for this.

Be outward facing

Picture 7
Credit: Calvin & Hobbes

Part of the call to action around engaging with the social, political and cultural experiences of yourself and others, can also be answered by being outward facing. Schools are insular places. Many teachers don’t engage with what is going outside their own classroom, let alone collaborate across departments, local schools, nationally or internationally.

Social media platforms like Linked In and Twitter are an excellent way to broaden your personal learning network. They can highlight things you need to read, think about and do differently as leaders. But I challenge you to engage with people who don’t look, sound or express views that are like your own, as well as with the usual mirror-tocracy of connections. It’s important. It could be the start of a way to change your world and change the world in general. Do an audit if your twitter connections, your professional connections, Linked In. Does everyone look like you or could belong to your family?

Every leader, whether you are a classroom teacher leading learning for 5 year olds or a MAT CEO, should have a mentor or coach that puts them through their paces. This should be someone neutral and you should consider paying for them, as you would a therapist or someone who does your eyebrows.

Every leader should be sending the elevator back down and lifting others in their networks. You learn as much through supporting someone else as you do through gaining support from others. Make time for it.

Go to events. Get business cards made and set yourself goals for events you attend. Scour the list of event speakers before you attend and hang about at the end of their talk to give them feedback and exchange contact details. Reach out to attendees ahead of time to arrange to meet for a chat in one of the breaks. Be proactive, people are friendly and want to connect. Twitter celebrities are a figment of everyone’s imagination. Be clear on what you have to give and what you would like to gain from connections. Follow up after you have met with a clear action if you can genuinely think of one.

Know your shelf life

Picture 8
Credit: Calvin & Hobbes

It took me a long time and several jobs to realise this. I have never been the one to leave a lover or a job. I have resilience, developed from childhood, which is actually like Teflon to abuse and neglect. That’s not the type of resilience that does anyone any good. This means it never occurred to me that if things weren’t working out, I should actually get up and go. It felt like failure to me. If I just tried harder, worked smarter, was good and likeable, it would all pan out. And gosh, when things were good, why would you EVER consider leaving?

Well, this is what I have learned and it is incredibly empowering. I now know that my work with any organisation has a shelf life. I know that I can lead well for a specific leg of the journey we need to go on. I work with organisations on their journey from start up to grown up and I now know exactly the point where I can enter to add value, where I need to bring on team members and work with them to build capacity, co-create institutional knowledge, expertise and sustainability, and where I need to get the hell out of the way.

Rather than living in fear of being found out, or worse being driven out, or getting bored, I can have a frank conversation with any organisation I work with about my shelf life, what they would like to get from me and how and when we speak about the journey towards exit. Working with younger people, it is really obvious to them that two to three years is ample time in one role and they will be looking for a change of role or change of scene within that time period. As a leader, you need to know your shelf life and those of the people you lead and prepare for it accordingly. Too many leaders hang on forever, long past anything that is dignified. Too many leaders are offended when people move on to pastures new.

A good leader leaves at the right time with a bounce in their step and leaving empowered team members ready to keep pushing forwards. A happy employee leaves feeling empowered for the next step in their journey and taking a small piece of the great culture, values, systems and processes you established, into their next role. Like a small piece of your leadership DNA ‘infecting’ for good and making a dent on the universe by proxy.

What’s your shelf life?

Picture 1 C&H

Maths anxiety and me: breaking the family curse over a generation #positiveaboutnumbers

The more open your mind
Source: Notes to Strangers on Instagram

 

In light of Oxford University Press’ #positiveaboutnumbers campaign, I have been inspired to share my own journey about maths anxiety and the impact it had on me growing up. As a child, I struggled with maths, as did everyone in my family it seemed. There was no-one to turn to at home – it was clear from the way my mum counted on her fingers, and whenever maths was mentioned shuddered audibly “urgh, not maths, I can’t do maths”, that she would be no help at all.

As I progressed through nursery and infant school, I wanted to like maths and remember feeling the incredible awe and excitement of being able to count to higher and higher numbers. The feeling was similar to taking off the stabilisers on a bike when I could count up in 2s and then in 5s at faster and faster speeds. But in primary school, when it came to subtraction and the dreaded division, I was lost again. My maths teacher once wrote in my report that I was the only child he knew who was so bad at anything mathematical that I couldn’t even draw a straight line with a ruler, let alone plot a line on a chart. The humiliation started to set in for real with times tables. I could get some of them – the 2s, 5s, 10s and some of the 3s, 4s and 11 times tables were just about in my control but to this day I still don’t have adequate command of all of them. I felt crushed as little gold and silver stars appeared on the reward charts in class next to everyone except me. It was only in my 40s when my own children started learning them, that they showed me the finger technique for learning the 9 times table and was delighted!

Playing the shame game

The growing feeling of shame and anxiety only increased as I progressed through to secondary school. In my first year at my new secondary school, the huge gap in my knowledge and mastery already firmly in place, I was naively determined to have a fresh start. But this soon unravelled. Our teacher liked to play a game with the whole class, it was meant to be a fun challenge. She would invite us to jump up onto our feet, take our places behind our desks and off she would go with some mental arithmetic for us. When we lost count, she instructed us, we should sit down. The last one standing was the winner. My heart was beating hard when she started with, “2 times 3, plus 3 take away 1”. My fists were screwed up by my sides, I am keeping up, I can do it….divided by 4 times 9, plus 17…” I sit down. There’s a snicker from the other children in the class as they carry on standing. What seems like hours pass until another girl sits down, then a span of time when a cluster more sit. And it continues until there are three, then two standing. The teacher stops. “What did you get?” she asks one of the two last students standing. “142” the penultimate one says. “And you?” she turns to the last one. “168”. Well done both of you. It was “142”. You win.

The next week, we did it again. I sat down after the first two questions “9 times 8, plus two..”, the class snickered. The teacher shot me a disapproving look. I am the class clown, fidgety and disruptive in her lessons.  I don’t know my 9 times tables or my 8 times tables, what can I do? I think to myself. That afternoon, I go home determined to learn them but they just won’t stick.

After a few weeks of this maths game, I had noticed that while it was going on, the clever, confident ones were whispering to themselves, looking up at the ceiling or off to one side as they calculated. The next lesson, I stood up with everyone else as usual and decided to save face by play acting. I stood tapping out imaginary sums with my fingers on my thigh, eyes upward, mouth muttering quietly pretending to be concentrating, in command, keeping up. The plan was to sit down later on in the rank and file and avoid being seen as stupid yet again. But getting carried away with my oscar-winning performance meant it was too late when I realised I was one of the two still standing at the end. The teacher narrows her eyes at me suspiciously and asks, “Well, Penny, what did you get?” My heart sinks, the tears welling in my eyes…”Um….” The teacher insists, “Yes? We’re waiting…” I panic, “I forgot!” The teacher pushes me again, “You must know around about, was it above 100?  Closer to 10? Well?” I look at my feet and the class erupts with laughter. The tears are cold on my hot cheeks. I am sent out and reprimanded for being disruptive and disrespectful.

The next week, we stand. The teacher starts, “ 7 times 12…” I sit down immediately, glaring at the teacher, angrily. They snicker. Every week for the rest of the year, we stand, she starts, I sit. Some days she sends me out to stand in the corridor in disgrace.

Making the grade

And so continued my soul crushing relationship with maths. Everyone in my family was struggling. My brother did his O’ levels, and got a U in maths. Three years later my sister got 10 O’levels all As and Bs – and a U in maths. The following year, I took my O’levels and got a U in maths. But something in me was determined to break the family curse. I went on to college for my A’ levels and decided to do maths again while I was there. I was at a Further Education college and in my class were people my age and also adults, trying to return to the education they weren’t able to complete when they were my age. I found this inspiring but also it made me ever more determined. Imagine if I’m still here in my 20s, 30s 50s trying to get this cursed maths pass! My teacher was kind and empathetic to us all. I felt a glimmer of hope at last. August came round, the brown envelope arrived. Again, a U. My heart felt crushed when I opened it with the results in. My teacher said, “not to worry, one more shot next year and you’re there”

The following year was the first year of the new GCSE exams that replaced O level, I was studying for the final year of my A levels, and had a weekend and holiday job that earned me enough money to get a private tutor for maths. I was entered into a GCSE paper for which the highest grade I could score was a C. My new private tutor was a taxi driver by day, but loved maths and had been tutoring a friend of mine for his A level, so he came recommended. I went to his house every week and he would puff away on his filterless cigarettes and walk me through the things I found impossible with such patience and in such a matter of fact way. The exam came and I felt I had at least some control, that I knew what to do, even if I wasn’t sure if my calculations were correct. I still had to count out numbers on my fingers and use techniques to add and subtract, and work around the dreaded times tables and division with methods that were long-winded and time-consuming. But I finished the paper, and I felt less out of control than usual. The long wait ensued and when the date came around, and the brown envelope arrived, I was amazed and delighted to have scored my C! I am the only one in my family with a maths GCSE. My parents were teachers, my brother is a composer for films and my sister works in documentary film. They have all had to duck and dive around the question of the missing maths qualification, but they are hugely successful in their own ways.

If you can’t do it, teach it…

Fast forward nearly a decade and I was now training to be a primary school teacher. The programme I did was focussed heavily on our own development as people as well as on the craft of teaching itself. In the second term, as we started to teach in the classroom for 2 days a week, we were asked to confront something in childhood that we felt had held us back and that perhaps could have been supported better by our teachers. I decided that it was time to tackle my maths problem. With coaching from one of my tutors, I was encouraged to teach maths to year 3 for a term. I was terrified that they would find out that I don’t know my times tables, and that I can barely add and subtract. But I did it, and I actually enjoyed it! I created resources and curriculum ideas that worked and that had enough in them to stretch the maths wizards and engaged those less confident.

Later in my teaching career, I moved to work in a secondary school and specialised in teaching English instead. As part of my training, we did a course on learning difficulties including dyslexia and dyscalculia. The consultant leading the course had expertise in diagnosing and supporting pupils with a range of difficulties and disabilities. She got us all to do part of a test for dyscalculia and dyslexia so we would know how the children are diagnosed. And the end of the session, she approached me and asked me how I was feeling. She asked about my sense of direction, my knowledge of times tables and other key mathematical functions and techniques. She told me that it was pretty clear that I am dyscalculic and that this is why I couldn’t retain my times tables. This was also why while I wanted to like maths, and indeed some parts of more abstract maths I could really run with, like algebra for example, there were parts that would always confuse and baffle me.

It was quite affirming to get this actual diagnosis. I was able to understand which parts of mathematical thinking I struggle with, and this facilitated me to develop techniques to deploy mathematical reasoning in my daily life, rather than avoiding it altogether. I will never be confident that I have the right answers when I have to use maths, but I know which parts I will need to double check and get another pair of eyes on and I feel confident to ask for this as an adult in the workplace without feeling childish and ashamed.

Breaking the family curse

My children often describe themselves as hating maths, despite my attempts to lightheartedly engage them in the beauty of maths through things like Numberjacks on YouTube when they were small, and other workbooks and fun games I found. I thought this might mitigate any creeping infection of the family maths issue that had started with my own mum’s lack of confidence and negative attitude to maths. My children are both girls and themselves attribute some of their lack of confidence to the boys in their class that are quick, vocal and withering to others. “I know, I know the answer, it’s eeeeeeeasy! You’re so slow and stupid!” they would shout out as my daughters plodded through. Unlike me, my girls have made their way to the top set in secondary school, but their lack of confidence and general distrust of maths did not diminished even so. This term my youngest, who is in year 9 said “my teacher thinks I might be dyscalculic but I’m still going to stay in the top set and I’m doing statistics GCSE next year. I won’t let it get in my way”. My oldest has just completed her GCSEs and summed up by saying, “I will always be rubbish at maths, but one thing I am really happy about is that I finally started to enjoy it, and I am even a little sad that I won’t ever be doing it again!”

I’m pleased that across a generation, we may still not be a family of maths wizards or super confident, but to know that this generation has managed to overcome the soul-crushing feeling of incompetence and the panic, gives me some comfort. And who knows, maybe the next generation might not even know that it’s possible not to feel positive about numbers. It is also great to see an organisation like Oxford University Press sharing their insights and resources to support those struggling with issues that I experienced. You can find their latest toolkit here

 

Organising an event: a toolkit

Events change things
Source: Notes to Strangers on Instagram

This toolkit is designed to be a starting point for event organisers. Whether you are part of a grassroots organisation putting together an event as a volunteer, or if you work for an organisation where this is part of your paid work, you will want to ensure that your event is high quality, represents the people and the issues that are important to the sector you serve, and that you are not consciously or unconsciously doing things that may perpetuate a narrow view of the world or that may exclude voices from typically marginalised groups being included in the programme. Similarly, if you are asked to speak at a conference or to take part on a panel, there are proactive things you can do to ensure that you are part of the solution and not part of the problem. Intentions are important, but outcomes are what matter most.

The toolkit will comprise of the following parts:

  • Detailed challenge and support around the likely issues you will need to consider and overcome when organising an event
  • A short checklist summarising the actions you might take to support your event and with space for you to set out your next steps
  • Reading and resources to support further thinking and learning
  • A flowchart designed to help map out things you will need to consider (This is still work in progress and will be included here as soon as it is ready)

Challenge and support

This section will feature some of the questions you may ask, may be asked by others, and some possible responses or things to consider. There are also links to further reading and where appropriate, data and evidence to support the responses.

Why is it necessary to be inclusive and have representation?

At a time when the UK ranks 57th in the world in terms of women’s representation, men outnumber women 4 to 1 in parliament, Black, Asian and minority ethnic (BAME) school leadership is at around 3%, and government cuts mean that disabled and marginalised voices are even harder to hear, it’s only right that we celebrate diversity to create a more inclusive, representative and inspiring events programme in the education sector.

We live in a diverse country and we serve increasingly diverse student populations in our schools. We also live in a diverse, global world, and should be integrating a range of voices in our events, regardless of the population we serve locally.

If you are looking for high-quality and stimulating content for your event, you will need a wide range of voices. Research by McKinsey and Company shows that having diverse voices in your organisation is great for productivity, creativity and decision-making. It creates diversity of thought and action, which is a goal any education event should be seeking to work towards in order to cater for a diverse range of attendees working in a variety of contexts.

What does diversity of thought and action mean?

This means that although it may feel comfortable working with people who are like you, you will achieve more if you work with a group of people who have had different experiences from each other, especially in terms of their socio-economic background, their race, gender, education and political outlook. If we all look, sound and think the same, and have had broadly similar experiences, we may be operating under the false assumption that this is what reality looks like for everyone. We will also be in danger of recycling the same old ideas and action; perpetuating our existing biases and remaining unaware of the blind spots in our thinking and action. Please watch this animated explanation by the Royal Society.

Thinking the best person for the job happens to be a white man

“If you only play football with the same ten people, your idea about who the good footballers are, will be limited.” Amjad Ali

This is not an easy one to summarise in short, but there is a vicious cycle which can make people think that white men are the best voice of authority on many if not most matters.  We are conditioned to think that white men are the best fit when it comes to speaking authoritatively, because we are accustomed to seeing white men speaking authoritatively. This means that there will also be a larger number of white men who are authorities on a subject and are well-known, as they are the ones that have been given legitimation as voices of authority. We need to break this cycle so we don’t only draw on this narrow pool of people. This means it is crucial to look beyond those that have been used a lot at events and start to promote a more diverse range of voices, that may be unfamiliar to you. You may even need to be brave and choose someone who may be for now less famous, and yet really knows their stuff.

When is it tokenistic?

It would be tokenistic to choose someone only because they are from an ethnic minority group (or global majority, which is more accurate terminology) and/or a woman, for example. It would also be tokenistic to choose someone to talk about a subject they are not an expert on, or who is not a good public speaker, or not qualified for the job because they are Black and you need to fill a quota. This would also be counter-productive, as if they were less than convincing, the vicious cycle is further reinforced by doing this.

What does balance look like?

Balance means intentionally and purposely looking for a range of opinions, as well as a range of routes to getting to a certain opinion. It means thinking creatively about who is speaking and what they are speaking about. Because the accepted norm for authority is typically a white man, you will want to challenge that and think carefully about how to include a range of voices that are not only white men.

Balance also means what is on the programme, not just who

Thinking about balance and diversity means considering the programme contents as well as the people who speak on stage. Therefore, you may need to think carefully, do some research or ask/seekout a critical friend to help you consider how to widen your perspectives when planning the programme. For example, if your event is about curriculum design, have you included something around decolonising the curriculum? Are all your curriculum examples from a traditionally white canon? If your event is about recruitment and retention, have you included something about women, people of colour, disability, parents, flexibility, class, age, and so on?

Ensure people from diverse backgrounds are included as experts

“Diversity is being invited to the party. Inclusion is being asked to dance!” Verna Myers

Balance also means ensuring that you have diverse voices speaking about issues that they have expertise in within the education sector, and not (just) being asked to speak about their identities. This means that you will not want to annexe people into talking only about their race, gender or other marginalised aspects of their person, unless your event directly deals with these issues and/or these are their explicitly stated areas of interest, experience and expertise. A Black man or a visibly orthodox Jewish woman should be able to be seen as an expert in curriculum design or data analysis if that is their field of expertise.

Quota systems to explain why your event is all-white doesn’t work either

Ensuring people from diverse backgrounds are seen doesn’t mean that they should only be seen in areas where schools typically serve diverse student populations.

Saying that your event is taking place in an area of the country which doesn’t serve a diverse population and/or that there are no diverse teachers in that area is not acceptable. People can and do travel if necessary. Representation doesn’t mean an exact science of like for like. It is about a range of voices. It would, in fact, be sensible to be even more committed to diverse representation in an area where this isn’t seen much, as we are prone to the white man bias described above unless we actively disrupt this and provide more variety of voices and views.

How do we reach diverse people if we don’t know any?

You may find that your social, professional and social media circle doesn’t include people that are from diverse backgrounds. Aside from the fact that this should indicate to you that you need to broaden your own echo chamber of professional acquaintance, there are ways that you can get help to find speakers if you are not familiar with anyone outside of your own narrow pool.

Organisations like the teacher unions, universities, local networks of schools, The Equalities Trust, the Runnymede Trust, the BAMEed Network, WomenEd, DisabilityEd, LGBTEd can help.

The BAMEed Network has a page on its website with a list of diverse speakers on a range of topics https://www.bameednetwork.com/speakers/ for example, specifically for the purpose of making it easier for people to find who they need.

The Women’s Room has a directory that can help you find an expert to speak at an event or appear on a panel http://thewomensroom.org.uk/findanexpert

The BAMEed Network, LGBTed, and WomenEd are planning to work together to create a directory of credible leaders, speakers and experts that can be called upon – or at the very least, link to each other’s websites once these directories are up and running on LGBTed and WomenEd websites. It would be good to work with DisabilityEd on this too.

How do we ask people to take part in a way that doesn’t feel awkward?

As mentioned earlier, be clear on what you want people to talk about and make sure you know what their expertise is. If you don’t know, ask them first to tell you what their expertise is, and what they would be best speaking about. Tell them about your event and ask if they see themselves as someone who would be happy to speak at it, should there be an opportunity to do so.

A woman from an ethnic minority background who is an expert on leadership development, being asked to speak about curriculum makes her know that you want her for her colour, not her expertise. This is tokenistic and insulting.

“We’re a grassroots organisation and don’t have time to organise ourselves like this”

There is only one response to this. If you can’t do it well, don’t do it at all.  There are plenty of grassroots organisations that are run by people who work full time in other jobs and have families, studies, and other volunteer roles on top. Their commitment to doing it well is not compromised by this and there are many other grassroots organisations that will be keen to support yours to get it right. In the words of Spiderman, “with power comes great responsibility” and as a conference organiser, whether you recognise it or not, you have great power.

“We ask people to volunteer themselves so we can’t control who comes forward”

Again, taking into account the fact that your own circle of acquaintance might be skewed towards a certain demographic, this is problematic as the only way to recruit speakers. Think of other ways to reach deeper into schools and other institutions – perhaps create a poster or flyer on a document that can be shared, printed and put in staff rooms across the country. Reach out to large organisations to help you circulate these either by email or in their newsletters to their members e.g. the unions, Ambition Institute, Chartered College of Teaching, Teaching School Alliances, WomenEd, BAMEed Network, Challenge Partners, Teach First and so on. For help with this, please get in touch, or contact The BAMEed Network who will be happy to connect you and support you with your strategy on this.

Think also about where you advertise the event. Getting beyond Twitter can be tricky for some, but using Linked In, Facebook and even Instagram can be excellent quick ways to still use social media platforms, but widen the pool of people that will see your call for speakers. If you use a platform like Eventbrite, this will also ensure that people find your event.

Widen your network and start with an ‘over-subscription’ of diverse people

The most commonly-heard excuse for events that have all-male or all-white speakers is “we had a woman/person of colour on one of the panels but s/he dropped out at the last minute”

What would happen if you started building your speaker preference list and started with an ‘over-subscription’ of people from typically underrepresented groups? Try it, and see that this will help you to stay diverse throughout the planning and execution of your event.

Attracting a diverse audience is important

“You can’t be what you can’t see” (Marian Wright Edelman)

Having a diverse range of speakers on the programme may boost the number of people from marginalised groups that attend your event. However, many events in the education sector, especially those aimed at leadership, will see few people from BAME backgrounds in attendance. There can be reasons why this may occur, and there are a few things you can do to ensure that it doesn’t happen at your event.

The cost of tickets and getting away from school can be factors for some people from BAME backgrounds, especially if you consider that these will be the people who are less likely to be progressing into the higher paid and more autonomous roles that allow event attendance. You may wish to offer a travel subsidy or early bird rate for people to take advantage of should they wish to attend but find it financially difficult. There is no shame in offering a bursary for early career teachers or aspiring leaders from BAME backgrounds and/or other marginalised groups alongside your statement around commitment to diversity and inclusion. Some people feel uncomfortable about the prospect of being the only person of colour in a roomful of people that they don’t know, so group discounts or two for one offers are also useful so that a delegate can extend the invitation to a colleague they feel comfortable with.

You have responsibility if you are taking part in a conference as a speaker

If you are asked to speak at an event, to facilitate a workshop or be on a panel, you also have a responsibility to ensure broad and balanced content and representation. I will repeat that, as this may be an alien concept to many people on the speaking circuit: you too are responsible for the diversity of speakers at an event if you are invited to speak at it. Even if it’s not your event, you don’t know the organisers and you were just asked to take part, you can and should take responsibility for the diversity of voices included if you agree for your voice to be one of them.

When you are approached, you can ask “I’m interested to know a little more about your event, who else is speaking, how did you come to ask me?” There is a growing number of white men who do this and will decline to speak as a white man on an agenda full of white men. They will of course do this cordially, and will offer solutions and suggestions of other people. This can be hard to do if you would quite fancy speaking at the particular event, and if you would like to get some exposure for yourself. But this is also an active commitment to anti-sexist and anti-racist activism that is powerful and effective. Chances are also, that you will get to speak after all since your suggestions will have helped the organisers to create a better balance and your presence isn’t going to be part of an identical line up now.

Leading think tanks like IPPR and some universities, like LSE, have committed to no longer holding or supporting events that feature all-white or all-male panels.

What if we can’t afford to pay people?
“I asked a Black woman and they asked for payment, when other speakers are doing it for free” is something we have heard.

There is a complex system of privilege in place in society which means that in some cases, a senior, white, man, may be able to generously give their time to speak at your event for free. Many women and people of colour may find themselves less able to give of their professional expertise free, without personal financial sacrifice, and in some cases, that includes having to pay not only for travel, but also fees to carers for dependants while they travel to and take part in your event. In many cases, a man may not be expected to take on these roles and will be freer to use their time as they wish. They are also more likely to be on a higher pay scale, as white men tend to reach leadership positions with greater ease and more frequently, which affords them the luxury of giving their time for free. You only have to look at the data on gender and race pay gaps to understand why this is fact.

Grassroots conferences and how to pay your speakers’ travel costs

There are ways to ensure that you can at least pay travel costs for your speakers.

  1. The first way is to charge attendees a minimal fee for attendance and explain that this covers speakers and refreshments. There is a direct correlation between attendance numbers and charging, which is good for your event as well. When people pay, they show up. And if they pay and don’t show up, they have at least helped cover the costs of your event and the travel costs of your speakers so it is win-win – see above section ‘Attracting a diverse audience is important’ for suggestions on scaled costs to allow for a diverse range of attendees
  2. Ask for donations from local or national organisations – consider your local university, the TES, or a local business that would like to see their branding on your event page acknowledging their support
  3. Have some professional exhibition stands and ask for a fee from them. If you get 5 stands all paying £300 to have a few minutes with your attendees that visit them, that can cover travel costs for a good number of speakers. This doesn’t have to bring down the tone of your event – quite the opposite, a useful interaction with an organisation that can help your attendees is an added bonus to attending the event. If you need help getting a list of potential exhibitors, please email penny.rabiger@gmail.com or consider using Innovate my School to deliver a speed dating session at your event, that they will usually organise themselves and which will fund your event nicely
  4. Crowd-funding is an option. Explain what you want to achieve and why you want to repay your speakers for their time. You never know, you might get more than you need to put on a fabulous event

Committing beyond cosmetics
Gold standard event management includes the way that you treat your speakers, including how you brief them for their part in the event. How you prepare your speakers, panel members and workshop facilitators so there is a level playing field of experience on the day is extremely important. You should try to let them know what to expect in as much detail as you can, as well as who will be there, with a view to breaking down class and culture barriers. There is nothing worse than showing up, not knowing that there is a dress code, or that lunch is not included and you have no cash with you and so on. You can cover this by issuing a one page outline of what to expect specifically for speakers and panel members.

A word on panels

A good panel session will be dynamic, may have people chosen for their deliberately opposing views, and may have some controversial or even provocative elements. However, be very careful about setting people up for humiliation, or failure, or pitting people against each other in a way that is unfair. Ensure that panel members know what is going to be discussed, who the other panel members are, and who the chair will be. And again, make sure all participants are briefed well, and have an opportunity to accept or decline your invitation in good time.  Although it may lead to lively debate and good entertainment for your audience, you need to avoid a discussion which compounds stereotypes, marginalises already marginalised people and so on. As above, don’t ever invite someone from a marginalised group to represent that group unless that is what they want to do, but do include a diverse range of voices who are experts in their field. You can read more about one panellist’s experience here

Event organisation: self evaluation

EVENT checklist

Further reading & resources

McKinsey & Company: Diversity Matters

The BAMEed Network learning page is here

The BAMEed Network speakers page is here

The Women’s Room directory is here

Harvard Business Review: Putting an End to Conferences Dominated by White Men

The Royal Society: Understanding Unconscious Bias

Robin Diangelo writes and speaks about white fragility and racism:

Understanding the difference between being a racist and taking part in systemic racism here

Deconstructing white fragility here

The power of storytelling and narratives in learning

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This Saturday, I was fortunate enough to attend the Portobello Festival of Learning in Edinburgh. I am writing this while the train home carries me hurtling through green fields and northern cities, with a feeling I haven’t had for quite some time. It’s a mixture of deep pain and uplifting joy, both are the direct result of feeling connected to a shared narrative experience. The golden thread running through the event was around storytelling and narratives as pivotal not only to learning but to the human connection which makes learning sticky, memorable and even a deeply happy experience. Nina Jackson’s incredible hour-long keynote was as harrowing as it was hopeful. Like a phoenix from the flames, she took us deep into the fire of her experience in childhood and early adulthood and right through to the colourful and whole person she is today. The intensity of 300 pairs of eyes tracking her glide around the centre stage was visceral. Her ability to tell her story, to elicit gasps, laughs, to have us leaning in and then recoiling again, was phenomenal. Her pulling together the themes, tying them into clear strands and using minimal visual inputs at carefully timed intervals was clearly craftwork.

When I refer to storytelling and narratives as a tool for learning, it is clear to me that this is not just about teachers telling stories that make learning happen in the classroom, although the inimitable Hywel Roberts’ session definitely reminded me the power of a carefully prepared narrative containing dramatic development, coupled with a deep understanding of sound pedagogy, to activate the senses and make engaging learning take place. As he led us through some of the methodology he uses in the classroom with teachers and children alike, I had a physically and emotionally intense response to the suspense and drama he created. The group was positively bristling with excitement and childlike willingness to enter into an adventure with him. We mustn’t forget as teachers that our ability to facilitate learning in others is most powerful when coupled with our own commitment to lifelong learning as a human being. Part of this learning means seeking out the human stories of those around us, so that we can expand our view of the world, the possibilities and similarities and differences. Prior knowledge means that we have anchors and reference points to draw on, but alongside this is also the fact that what we often class as prior knowledge is often deeply flawed, contextually irrelevant or even just plain learned bias. Lyfta’s workshop took participants on a journey to immersive storyworlds with embedded human documentary stories. Opening the session, Serdar Ferit started with the fascinating contextual framing that led to the Lyfta concept being born. Guiding the group around the storyworlds Lyfta has created, and before playing each human story documentary, he asked, “what can you say about what you can see, and how do you know?” We’re all willingly sharing our assumptions as our eyes scan an Ethiopian village, a Palestinian family living room, a Finnish ballet studio and we hazard a guess, only to be gently redirected as we watch the short film that follows, and as we listen to real human beings telling us their story. By the end of the session, teachers in the room spoke of what sounded to my ears like a renewed commitment to treat what we have learned with the challenge it rightfully deserves. One of the powerful yet simple learnings I have gained from reading about race and class in recent years is the toxic nature of the presumed innocent question we often ask people we meet, which is along the lines of “where are you from?” or “what do you do?” This can be loaded with racially stereotypical and classist connotations and assumptions.  One way around this, which is also faithful to the importance of storytelling and narratives is to ask “what’s your story?” – giving people the opportunity to respond in as narrow, wide, personal or generalised way as is fitting for their own contextualised narrative journey of the current moment.

Paul Dix reminded us of the importance as educators to lead on the co-creation and at times to own the narrative for our young charges. The simple process of reframing the narrative can diffuse potentially disruptive situations in the classroom. He laid out carefully why we as adults need to be clear on our part in the story that is unfolding right there in our own classroom. We may need to retell the story to include perhaps a historical context that allows a potentially volatile young person to rewrite the story in real time. Instead of entering into a battle of wills, trying to get a child back on task, you can say for example, gently but with conviction, “remember last week you helped me clear up when the lesson was finished, and you stayed behind to make sure everything was in place? That’s the person I know, and that’s the person I want to see here now”. This reminds the young person that this positive element is still part of their story, and is included in the whole story. Paul used dramatic demonstration and emotionally engaging dialogue to help us understand that as responsible adults, we can reframe, redirect and take charge of the narrative so that behaviour is guided back on track leaving both your and the student’s dignity and self-respect in tact.

Aside from learning about others through taking an interest in their narrative and on their own terms, is the important work of learning to connect with our own narratives. By this I don’t mean to endlessly hone the story we tell others about ourselves, which we often defensively beaver away at to show ourselves in the best light.  Learning one’s own narrative means being able to zoom in and out, and as we gain greater perspective and distance, weaving in the contextual, socio-historical backdrop to give more rich and layered meaning to our own pinhole camera view. Parts of the day were personally resonant, and therefore profoundly painful for me and I’m sure many people in the room. But I know that I am also increasingly able to understand my own childhood experiences firmly within the political backdrop of Britain at that time. I contextualise my parents’ decisions and behaviours that led to some serious negative outcomes for their children within their class-based economic constraints, educational achievements and resulting restricted opportunity, and the contemporary gender role expectations – as well as the commonly-held beliefs about childhood of the time. This helps to ensure the story I tell is iterative and nuanced, based on my own emotional growth and psychological bandwidth to zoom out from the pure hurt to an external packaging which humanises the chain of events without betraying my own experience.

Whatever our narrative, and however we weave storytelling into our professional, pedagogical and personal life, perhaps we all need Nina Jackson’s reminder of the Japanese practice of Kintsugi – repairing broken ceramics with gold. Kintsugi wisdom says rather than disguising the broken pieces, you recognise the story of the object and visibly incorporate the repair into it, while outlining the places which are whole and in tact. By outlining the places that broke us, or where the story changed, we can also remember the beauty of the process of retelling and rebuilding that resulted in who we are now.

Pupil voice in a sit down and shut up culture

I gave a presentation at a session on Pupil Voice alongside Joe Pardoe from School 21, chaired by Ed Finch at the NEU Celebrating Education conference on Saturday 30th March 2019.

I knew that Joe Pardoe would most likely be outlining the fabulous work done at School 21 on pupil voice and so I wanted to take the conversation to a different direction and to try and ask some provocative questions of the attendees. The following is an overview of my presentation.

Who gets to speak.

As educators, we need to ask ourselves some challenging questions about the voices that are heard in our schools.

Challenging questions 1

 

Children and adults need to see a range of people and voices. The curriculum needs to reflect a diverse range of voices, and that includes a diverse range of speaking styles and opportunities. We might need to practise switching from Shakespeare to slangspeak and back again, depending on the situation. (But should we be switching Shakespeare into slangspeak? Probably not.)

Children need to experience a diverse range of speaking styles and opportunities, and they need time for reflection and discussion that is built into the school day. This is exactly the sort of thing that is the golden thread that runs through School 21’s head, heart and hand curriculum for example. 

There’s a lot of emphasis on teaching children vocabulary (or more cynically, teaching year 6 children the vocabulary we think will come up on the SATs paper, or technical terminology we think is needed for GCSE exams). But what about engaging children in etymology, and exploring where words come from, as part of our curriculum, and how they got there in the first place. You’d be surprised how many every day words and phrases have come into our language as a result of our colonial past, for example, let alone the myriad migrations to Great Britain over the centuries. (If you want to know more about this, I highly recommend the Our Migration Story resource put together by the Runnymede Trust here). We desperately need to decolonise the curriculum!

Who speaks at my school

Diversity is good for business
We know from the McKinsey Report that diversity works & is good for business – so ensuring there are diverse voices being heard within the staff team, from our clients, the children, and from the local community, will lead to a more productive and happier school. The McKinsey Report found that diverse teams make better decisions, are more productive and the more diverse the voices included in the decision-making process the better. That includes a range of voices from the shop floor right up to senior management – which is why we need to include children’s voices in schools’ decision-making around policy and practice where appropriate.

Lack of diversity is dangerous – seat belts and space suits
Up until far too recently, women and children were suffering massive injuries or dying in car accidents despite wearing seat belts. This is directly related to the fact that the people designing these seat belts were men, testing them on themselves, and not considering others outside their own assumed “neutral” position, not realising that women and children would also be using these seat belts while not being the same height and weight to benefit from the design.

If you can’t see it, you can’t be it – role models for children and adults
A lot of people like to say that Black children need to see Black role models in schools. I do agree with this adage that if you can’t see it, you can’t be it. But I also strongly believe that white people, those people that are traditionally used to holding positions of power in our society, need to see people of colour in positions of power and authority too. We are socialised to believe that the logical leader is a straight white man. We can’t unlearn this without ensuring that we all have experienced role models that aren’t white and male.

There are ways that you can ensure that you challenge your own biases, and the simple first step would be to join the activity of grassroots organisations like the BAMEed Network, WomenEd and LGBTEd.

incompetent men

We are all so conditioned to accept the white man in charge that we become immune to, or at least tolerant of, incompetence when it is plain to see. How many times have you waited for someone to step up, and then wondered why they are in charge when they are obviously completely under-skilled and overconfident? This short explanation shows just why incompetent men fail their way to the top and what we can do to stop being complicit in this.

Identity

We need to change the narrative about what a leader looks like. We need to change the narrative about what people in power look like. We need to change the narrative around who gets to be heard. We are peddling a narrative that “neutral” is white and male. Have you ever tried to buy a plaster? What colour are they? “Skin” colour? Whose? Back to those seat belts and space suits, the lack of plasters, make up, hair care products, lack of understanding by healthcare professionals and more…

We need to give opportunities for children to identify what they have in common and what is different, to look at different possibilities for identity and to identify with people who are the same and different. One way to do this is through the excellent resource produced by the Finnish organisation, Lyfta. You can see a short clip here that explains how this is used at Aureus School in Didcot, for example.

help use their voice

Politicise them. When do children learn about politics except if they do Politics A level or if we absolutely have to, for example when there’s a general election or we need to explain to them about Brexit (not that any of us know much about that except that it is an absolute ominshambles). Schools like The London Academy of Excellence in Tottenham oblige their students to spend a compulsory half day a week on social activism and community work as part of the curriculum.

Socialisation and stereotyping should be explained and unpacked for students at as early an age as possible, and should be revisited regularly.

Enquiry-led models of learning like the Finnish phenomenon-based learning, or the Canadian Spirals of Inquiry can help students to understand about making choices and taking informed risks.

Implicit

When we speak to our students, what do they hear? When we include or exclude things in the curriculum, what does that communicate? When we talk about pupil voice and we talk about the curriculum, we need to understand how inherent bias works too. Bringing Black role models for Black children is important but it isn’t enough. Teaching all children about stereotyping and prejudice is one step, but it doesn’t take away the damage that is done by implicit bias i.e. what is communicated to people of colour, for example, in explicit and implicit ways throughout their lifetime. The Doll Test is a painful and real expression of how strongly these messages are heard and internalised by children from a very young age. You can watch it here

Do we listen

 

This is one of the many pictures from the newspapers on the children’s climate change march that happened recently. The condescending attitudes to children who went on strike and marched for climate change by the media, by some adults, and among them educators, was mind blowing and yet a true reflection of our disdain of young people and youth in general.

Compare ours with social attitudes to youth and childhood in Finland and you will see a country whose youth are consistently told that they are the next leaders, that the weight of responsibility to learn today what is needed to run the world of tomorrow lies with them.

In our system, education is about numbers and letters, not even whole sentences any more.

What will you do

Try taking the questions I posed at the beginning and conduct a one-day exercise using them as an audit tool at school.

Questions

Check your own bias! Be honest about where your own starting point is and think about how you build your own curriculum of learning to get to a point where you can start to implement some changes, and for the right reasons. You might find the resources on the BAMEed Network website useful.

Think about recruitment practice in your school, especially to senior leadership positions and put in a plan of action to ensure that there is diverse representation at every level in your school.

Sign up to Lyfta and the British Council training for free.  You can find out more about that here

Join BAMEed, WomenEd, LGBTEd and take action. Develop your own voice on this, be heard and amplify the voices of others that need to be heard loud and clear.

Mentoring without courageous conversation about context is like sweeping in a sandstorm

 

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Choosing to be mentored or to mentor someone is a difficult decision. Finding someone to mentor you is no easy task. There are many things to factor in to one’s choice, such as whether you want someone who you feel is similar to you and just further along their professional journey or perhaps someone different who is able to demystify the world of work for you in a particular field, and refresh your own outlook with their new perspective. The gender, race, class, professional background, age and seniority of the person who mentors you should be important factors to you in your mentoring relationship. Whoever you choose, I would assert that mentoring needs both parties to actively engage with the political, social, economic and other contextual factors affecting both the mentor and the mentee.

Identity is for life, not just for childhood
The literature looking through the lens of race and gender in relation to mentoring seems to deal exclusively with youth mentees and attempts to close the gap of disadvantage for certain identified groups progressing through the education system, or entering into the world of work. It seems that the issues of class-based, gendered and/or race-related discrimination and systemic bias are identified as factors we can discuss and redress in youth, but discourse around this may be under-developed or even avoided in later years. Another problematic element to the literature and potential message of this focus on youth is that it hints at a need to ‘treat’ the mentee, rather than to examine the structural and systemic sexist, classist and racist mechanisms that call for additional support in the first place.

Sending the elevator back down
One of the key premises of mentoring is around addressing a deficit in social capital – we usually consider this to be a factor especially when a mentor is older and further along in their career and is able to act as an advocate for a younger, less-connected mentee – or indeed a mentee from a different socio-economic or cultural background to one’s own. In actively engaging in a more politically alert and socially committed attitude to the mentoring relationship, it could be an exciting prospect to see the mentor consciously understanding how they occupy a position of power and influence relative to the dominant societal norms around who holds power and privilege. As a mentor, one may have thought, I am lucky to be in this position of privilege and I benevolently give my time to support others who are still on their way. But what if we could go further than this and go about dismantling the notion of luck, hard work, and meritocracy being the guiding factors before we metaphorically ‘send the elevator back down’ for a mentee? Could we openly examine what the subjective barriers and enablers were in the mentor’s and the mentee’s journey to date, and what may lie ahead on the onwards journey? How exciting it could be if each party also wanted to expend time and energy on understanding and dismantling the systems which create this imbalance of social capital in the first place, and within the bastion of their own institutions and circles of influence. Is it enough to send the elevator back down, when we could even act to re-route it?

Doing the work: powerful professional learning and powerful learning for the profession
I’m on a journey reading and thinking about identity. As a straight, able-bodied, cis-gendered woman, and as someone racialised as white, the issue of mentoring has several layers of complexity for me. I believe that it is our responsibility to have courageous conversations and deliberately acknowledge and investigate the influence of race, gender and class to examine what we truly understand about how these influence mentoring experiences. Mentoring in itself doesn’t change much, unless we agree to move the narrative from a personal treatment of symptoms to a bold commitment to curing the systemic and institutional ills which create them. Moving the focus from individual professional learning towards harnessing this for the purpose of powerful learning for our professions, we could, in fact, start with the reasons for the mentoring relationship to begin with, and how each party comes to be in this relationship. This could then progress to a mutual exercise to examine context in more depth – the structures and restrictions each party may or may not face in their professional journey. Arising from this should result a commitment to work to understand these in context, as well as actively participate in work to call out and treat bias, discrimination and systemic discrimination within our own practice and our own organisational structures and practices.

What about doing a hackathon instead of an INSET?

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I noticed someone on Twitter asking recently for recommendations for speakers for INSET days. There are some great speakers out there and some brilliant examples of good quality and impactful CPD that schools use their INSET days for. However, too often, people feel either drained from passive listening or massively inspired but unable to really do anything life changing or practical with what they have heard.

This made me remember the times I have been involved in hackathons as a brilliant way to energise, harmonise and galvanise a staff team into being trusted to identify, name and sort some innovative solutions that can have an immediate, positive and lasting impact on the school.

So what the heck is a “hackathon”?

You might have heard of these from tales of start-ups and tech companies as time set aside for engineers and innovators to build something new by the end of the day. Legend has it that during a Facebook hackathon, the ‘Like’ button was conceived by a couple of lowly employees. Can you even remember what Facebook was, without being able to ‘Like’ things?

A hackathon is an event usually over two days where different people get together to work collaboratively on a project or an idea. It is creative and experimental. People develop projects without any constraints except time and their collective skill. It’s fun, satisfyingly solutions-oriented and valuable learning rolled into one.

Why should we even care about hackathons?

Most of the answers in organisations like schools, can actually be found within the four walls of the school and the people working there but only if there is enough time and trust given to people. A hackathon is a great way to give a 48 hour push within clear and safe boundaries for some brilliant thinking and a bit of real action.

Hackathons afford your team members time to focus on things they might otherwise never get to. It also gives them license to work on projects or ideas that don’t even seem to need to get done. Think pet projects, pet peeves and issues that would help your organisation move forward, but that there hasn’t been time to develop. Think marginal gains and small blockers, once removed, allowing the good stuff to flow forth. Imagine that small boy with his finger in the dike and what might have happened if he had removed it….

Hackathons are a great opportunity for staff members who don’t usually get to work together to get to know each other’s professional strengths and interests better. People are encouraged to work in pairs or teams if they think multiple skills sets will help their projects along.

Hackathons encourage creative thinking, something that can be considered important for your organisation, but that doesn’t really see the light of day in the usual grind of routine.

How do you run one as an INSET?

It’s pretty easy to run one as long as you are really clear on the aim, framework, expectations and structure of the two days. Make sure that people have understood well in advance and have the time blocked out in their diaries.

It’s good to prompt people with the parameters when you block out the time. In general, projects don’t have to be connected to their subjects, or be necessary for the team’s day-to-day operational activity, but they should probably relate to the school’s ethos, values and mission in some way. Whatever they choose to do, it needs to be feasibly completed in one to two days (however long your hackathon is). It’s best to think about a problem they want to solve or a skill they want to sharpen or develop. It is also good to think about how they might work with others and think creatively about who those others might be. Between the time you have announced that you are going to do a hack day and the start date itself, people should be finding time to discuss ideas and even potentially settle on a project and a group structure for each.

Before you start, each team member could have found themselves a manageable and exciting project and a group of people to work with (or at least one other person). There could be a list up in the staff room of the projects and who is part of each.

To make it easier, you may wish to allocate a theme to the hack day. For example you could be really specific with ‘Using tech for good’ or broader with ‘Connect, Collaborate, Create’.

What sort of things would a staff team do as their projects?

The ideas are many, and can be as simple and seemingly uninspiring as tidying the science cupboard and re-labelling the treasure found there in such a way that it gets used effectively across the school year and against objectives identified in the curriculum. Ideas I have seen have also been connected to curriculum design but have involved a cross curricular team nailing an exciting programme of study that interweaves everyone’s disciplines. More ideas can be around solving irritating and pervasive problems that might manifest themselves in bureaucratic pen-pushing or workload issues. Don’t automatically dismiss what seem like run of the mill tasks as projects – I have seen people roll up their sleeves and reorganise the staff room or an induction schedule for new staff, and in so doing they have set out a new statement of collaboration clearly linked to the organisation’s culture and values through doing so.  Nice ideas have also been about sharing knowledge, such as setting up a study group with a curriculum and menu of guest speakers across the year, and creating a podcast and blogsite to support this.

A common starting place can be “what hacks me off about the way we do things?” and taking a solutions-focussed approach to finding a way forward. I guess they aren’t called hackathons for nothing after all!

Keeping it fun

Sometimes a change of scene, somewhere beautiful, even outdoors in the wild, can be a great way to make sure there is no science cupboard cleaning or hiding in familiar spaces and with the usual clique.

Everyone will be working hard and you might want to incentivise them by making sure there’s music blaring, food organised and plenty of hydration options. One of the ones I did, we also organised a little sub team who was in charge of making sure there was healthy and fun food available for lunch and snacking.

I have been involved in two hackathons when I worked at The Key for School Leaders, and each time we brought a relevant and inspirational speaker to open the day and to set the tone. Someone who spoke for 20 minutes about their organisation and how they draw out creativity and innovation from their people.

Have an itinerary

Hackathons need structure. Things to think about are group dynamics, energy levels, food and travel times. Leave plenty of contingency in the schedule and make sure people are aware that they don’t have to take part in everything if they don’t want to.

You might be able to do an overnight residential, or staff may prefer working across two days with people being local enough to the venue to go home in the middle. Either way, consider building in a social and fun afternoon/evening activity.

The first part of day one should be given to brainstorming ideas and getting to know the people in the team, setting ground rules, expectations and discussing fears, hopes, non-negotiables, favoured ways of working and so on.

Have a clear sense of closure

The hackathon should always end with groups presenting their projects back to the whole team in an upbeat, creative and interactive way. No death by PowerPoint should be going on here! Every project should be completed within the 48 hour period, and should be ideally ready to implement as soon as you get back to school.

In some cases, people present their projects as ideas and the others in the group critique or even do a Dragon’s Den type appraisal on whether they think it is going to work, whether they want to invest time in it and so on. You will need to decide carefully whether these more competitive ideas will make or break the team dynamic, add or detract from the energy that has been built up over the course of the hackathons.

 Okay, but I need some help!

If you are interested in running a hackathon but are unsure where to begin, I am happy to help. Just get in touch, and maybe I can support you to organise your thoughts and move to a place where you feel the right ownership and excitement about it to be able to pull it off in your own school. Just drop me a line.

Why getting diverse bums on seats is not enough

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According to the National Governance Association’s 2017 annual school governance survey, just 4% of school governors and academy board trustees are from a Black, Asian or ethnic minority (BAME) background. The figure was at once at 5%, according to research commissioned by the Department for Education and Employment back in 1999. In almost two decades, no progress has been made and school governance remains steadfastly the domain of white, older people, usually men.

Outside of the field of education, there is solid research to show that diverse teams make better decisions, work more effectively, and run more successful companies. McKinsey and Co looked at 1,000 businesses over 12 countries and concluded that the best performing ones across the board were those where their leadership included not only women, people with disabilities, BAME, LGBTQ, and young people, but more importantly ones which sought diversity of thought and action among its teams. I’ll come back to this in a moment, but considering that we have a significant lack of women, people from BAME backgrounds and young people on school governing boards, it is no wonder that school governance is often seen as in dire need of a reboot. Many heads I have spoken to see their boards as at best something that can be tolerated, and at its worst a huge impediment to the progress of the school.

I would like to assert that there is a clear problem with recent campaigns to ensure that there is more diversity on boards – both in the world of business and on school governing boards.  The first problem is recruiting people from diverse backgrounds in the first place. Where are you going to find these people if you don’t know them? Many governing board members probably don’t know anyone who isn’t like them and if most boards are white and male, we have a first hurdle right there. Secondly, how are you going to feel comfortable accepting someone into the fold that doesn’t look like and probably behave like what you feel is the norm?  Thirdly, if the type of leadership qualities you think you need are generally deemed a domain of the great straight white male, how will you ensure that the people you invite onto your board have had the opportunities to gain the skills and experience you are looking for?

All of this aside, getting diverse faces around the table is a good idea to increase the chances of diversity of thought, it really isn’t enough. There is much work to be done before this happens, and also continuing work to be done after you have redressed any imbalance on your board that might be visibly obvious. I believe that we need to understand and accept an uncomfortable truth. We are all socialised and subtly conditioned to believe in a very specific idea of what a leader looks like and that is usually a white, older man. For centuries, the Western world has operated with the norm  and neutral to be white. It’s so subtle that I bet you haven’t noticed what colour all sticking plasters are, or what colour ‘flesh’ coloured tights or colouring pencils are. Furthermore, we expect our leaders to be white men. Try Googling images for ‘business leader’ and see how many white men in suits come up. The world has been telling us, and continues to tell us a very specific message about who has the right and the authority to be at the top table. Making a decision to say this isn’t the case, that we don’t see difference, or somehow trying to trick our brains isn’t going to cut it.

This is where diversity of thought and action needs to come into play. We need to get people around the table who are not like us. Therefore, we need to actually see and seek out difference, and welcome it. We need to deliberately get people around the table who don’t think and operate like us, and deal with it. We need to get people around the table who haven’t had the same experiences, upbringings as us, that aren’t from the same class, religion or socio-economic background as us, and work with them effectively. And we people there to enrich, challenge, and stretch our horizons by forcing us to think differently. Collaboration is hard enough when everyone thinks they understand each other and has common ground, but how will this work when nobody does? If the McKinsey report is anything to go by, it works stunningly well.

But again, this isn’t enough. Just because I am a woman, doesn’t mean that I know anything about feminism, the subtle and not so subtle undermining and demeaning of women that happens in everyday sexism. Just because I am a woman, doesn’t mean I have given much thought to why I behave the way I do, dress the way I do and speak the way I do at work, for example. And just because I am a woman, doesn’t mean I am automatically in solidarity with other women, see them as comrades or do anything in my daily life to forward the prospects and voices of other women. This is because I have been brought up in a male-dominated society where the norms are demonstrated by that earlier Google images search result, where men might call caring for their own children ‘babysitting’, and where even when a woman does get to the top, her right to being truly a woman is often called into question.

So, it is a logical assumption that just because I come from a Black, Asian or minority ethnic background, this doesn’t mean I am less likely to see white, male leadership as the norm.  Which is why getting diverse bums on seats is not enough. It’s also a massive burden as the only woman around the table or the only Black person around the table, to be charged with the responsibility to always see and protect the interests of ‘my’ marginalised ‘group’. To truly make changes in the composition of our governing boards, and in order to make changes to the way these boards operate, we need to make changes in the inherent bias that is part of each and every one of us, and part of being human. I would suggest that the first step to ensuring that governing boards are diverse is to ensure that we wake up to inherent bias as a concept, that we learn how to ask the right challenging and brave questions of ourselves and others that will ensure we are actively seeking out and tackling racism, sexism, homophobia and anything else that leads us back to the tempting magnetic north of straight, white, male, authoritarian conditioned concept of the norm.

If you’d like a reading list of books to help get you thinking about inherent bias, here are some that have helped me on my learning journey :

Brit(ish) by Afua Hirsch
Natives by Akala
Why I am no longer talking to white people about race by Reni Eddo Lodge
White Privilege by Prof Kalwant Bhopal
Slay in Your Lane by Yomi Adegoke and Elizabeth Uviebinené