Over the past few weeks, I have been talking to schools about mental health and wellbeing. It is fantastic to hear that teachers and leaders are taking mental health and wellbeing of children seriously and are putting things in place to ensure that it is integrated into the curriculum, behaviour management and relationships across the school.
What I have felt through talking with schools is that nurturing good mental health and wellbeing of staff doesn’t come naturally to many. While they understand that no amount of cakes, recognition walls and coffee vans are going to cut workload and the stresses of the job, leaders seem inexperienced around what does matter to human wellbeing in the world of work more generally, and which are in their power to change.
My experience of the world of work tells me these things matter when they are done well, and can break people when they are not. You could file all these things under building good organisational culture, which I believe is as grounded in the niceties of daily interaction as they are in solid, routine and dependable processes and practice working in synchronicity.
Feeling valued professionally
Most people don’t stay in a job for the cake trolley on a Friday or the Christmas party. What really matters is feeling valued professionally. When this is done badly, you might get a hint of your value through the thrill of being new, being one of the old timers whose place seems secure, or be flavour of the month for a fleeting period. But what really matters for our health and wellbeing at work is similar to what we want in place for the children in our school – does everyone have at least one trusted adult who consistently has their best interests at heart, who can coach them through difficult times, set clear boundaries and support them to reach their full potential?
Professional value can be communicated through the following ways:
Does my line manager schedule regular 1:1s with me?
Do they show up to them without fail and hold a conversation with me around a simple agenda:
What’s going well?
What could be better for you?
What’s stopping you?
What will you do next?
Do I have regular opportunities to look at my performance targets and see how I am doing on reaching them? Did I have a hand in crafting them so they are realistic, achievable, measurable and motivating? Does my line manager walk with me on the journey to achieving them? Or are these written for me, filed and then looked at again at the end of the year?
Knowing you have someone who takes an interest in your professional journey, who helps you trouble shoot, identify issues yourself and supports you to find answers, celebrate successes, and pushes you to reach your potential makes coming to work feel safe, challenging and motivating. Don’t underestimate the power of investing 45 minutes a week in someone else. And as a line manager, you also will benefit as your own professional knowledge will be enhanced, and you can keep your finger on the pulse around what happens in different classrooms and through the eyes of different professionals.
Does my line manager and the rest of the team know what my strengths are?
Are these being used frequently or am I being forced to get better at things I hate and am bad at? Do I know other people’s strengths and am able to draw on them and collaborate?
See my previous post on Strengths Based Leadership here
Do I have opportunities to lead, learn and develop?
Even if there isn’t a clear formal TLR or ladder rung to climb, do I have clarity on where I can take on projects that make me visible across the school as a competent leader? Can I work shadow, be seconded somewhere, lead on a project, collaborate with a more senior colleague? Can I have coaching and mentoring for my professional development?
Do I have opportunities to develop my leadership and knowledge?
Is reading, doing action research, online learning and other CPD valued by the school or is it all channelled into INSET days and twilight sessions?
Does my school engage with and understand some of the structural barriers?
Is there a commitment by your school to understand and lean in to some of the structural barriers that people from typically marginalised groups can face? Remember that these can be intersectional as well, but women, people of colour, people with disabilities, people who are LGBT+ will face daily micro-aggressions, outright discrimination and structural inequities which will impact on their professional journey, day to day wellbeing and general outlook. Schools should be absolutely clear on what they have in place to ensure that the workplace is equitable, and should be putting extra support and nurture in place where appropriate. The BAMEed Network provides coaching for staff from Black, Asian and racially minoritised backgrounds, as well as support to schools with their diversity and inclusion work.
Feeling heard, held and seen through seminal moments
For me, these seminal moments have been make or break situations. The way that an organisation treats staff in its day to day operations is embedded in the culture and can be supported by having policies in place. However, these policies aren’t worth the paper they are written on if as an organisation you don’t have a robust plan in place to support people through seminal moments. Fudging it, getting it wrong, being clumsy, ill-informed or insensitive can be make-it-or-break-it moments for many people at work.
What do we mean by seminal moments?
Marriage, birthdays, births – does everyone get the same attention & gifts or is dependent on how popular you are?
Attending your own children’s first day at school/nativity/doctor’s appointments – can you do this guilt-free – or at all?
Parental leave – do you have Keep in Touch days and are these used well? What happens when people come back to school after parental leave? Is there provision for breast-feeding mothers to pump somewhere private and store milk somewhere appropriate?
Fertility – can a staff member have treatment and are they supported appropriately? Does the school know what it means to go through fertility treatment both physically, emotionally and financially? Would it be worth knowing about it now, even if you have never encountered it in reality and no staff member needs support with this yet?
Menopause – do MEN and women know what to do/expect? What are the physical, emotional and professional impacts for women going through menopause? What can the school do to support with this in small yet meaningful ways?
Moving house, death & divorce – They say these three seminal moments are of equal impact on our psyches. Does the school have a clear leave policy or is it all a bit ad hoc? What is our agreed shared language we use with each other to acknowledge and show compassion?
These are just a few examples of how you can make sure people feel valued professionally and personally at work and which will impact positively on mental health and wellbeing more than a thousand cakes and coffee vans. With these in place the other things won’t feel tokenistic.
I remember several years ago now, I went to hear Reni Eddo Lodge speak at a podcast event in a London branch of Waterstones. This was just around the time of her blog post that led to her long read in The Guardian and later to her book ‘Why I am no longer talking to white people about race’. I cringe when I think back to it, as I think it was me that was that white woman who put up her hand, eager to signal my virtue and readiness to help, and asked a question: “Thank you, I really enjoyed your talk, and can you tell me, what can I do, as a white woman, that would be useful?” To which Reni responded something along the lines of, “Herein lies the problem, if you are asking me what you can do”. I now understand what that was about, but at the time, I felt shame and an intense need to understand why what I had said was so unhelpful.
Just recently, in the space of the same week, I was asked to join two separate organisations’ inner circles to discuss the concept of the white ally in anti-racist work. One was a union Black, Asian and minority ethnic leaders network grappling with some questions about their next steps in their strategy, and the other was a lunch and learn session for a large education organisation which, in their own words, is not very diverse but committed to changing that. Although I went willingly, I didn’t go comfortably with the notion of the white ally or as someone who would be somehow held up as an example of success in this area.
I have been on a journey since my question about what I can do, and if there is one thing I think that I can do it is to put learning, listening and unlearning before rushing in with ‘doing’. One organisation which has influenced me in exploring this idea of being a white person developing their understanding and committing action to anti-racist work is WhiteAccomplices.org who have developed a website to support white people wanting to act for racial justice. I find their explanation of the difference between the actor, ally and accomplice really helpful. I will summarise my understanding of their ideas, but do spend some time reading for yourself on their website.
Why should white people care in the first place?
I get asked this question a lot. Many people find it hard to understand why someone who doesn’t experience racial discrimination would be fighting for change. I think that this has become increasingly legitimised in my lifetime, that one only needs to care about things that we perceive to have a direct and immediate effect on us – I hear this a lot when people consider their voting preferences for example, selecting the party which has policies that benefit them directly the most, rather than thinking about protecting the interests of those most affected by inequity.
The truth is, that while any of us are oppressed, none of us are free. But more than this, if you understand how structural inequality works, as a white person, to not act to dismantle racism we are in fact complicit with upholding the status quo. WhiteAccomplices.org explains that there are three states of being:
Actor – An actor doesn’t challenge the status quo, and is more like a spectator in a game. The actions of an actor do not explicitly name or challenge racism, which is essential for meaningful progress towards racial justice to happen. While there is oppression, we all stand to lose. WhiteAccomplices.org cite an excellent quote by Lilla Watson (the indiginous Australian artist, activist and academic) on the need for actors to shift to accomplices: “If you have come here to help me, you’re wasting your time. If you have come because your liberation is bound up with mine, then let us work together.”
An actor might go to demonstrations, change their profile picture to a black square on social media, release a statement on their website about Black Lives Matter, or do other performative acts of beings seen to be ‘with’ Black people. Actors might even join their workplace diversity discussion group, attend an event or read a book on the issues.
Ally – Being an ally is a verb, it is active. Most importantly, ally is not a title you can give to yourself, you may be regarded as an ally by others through your actions at times.
Your actions as an ally are more likely to challenge institutionalised racism and you will have a good understanding of terms like white supremacy and whiteness. An ally is a disrupter and an educator in white spaces – unlike the actor, the ally sees something inappropriate and interrupts, explains and tries to educate those present. WhiteAccomplices.org is careful to point out that being an ally is not an invitation to do this in Black and brown spaces to be seen to be performatively “good” or “on side”. You would not tell someone else’s story of experiencing racism from your perspective of how you helped them tackle it. But you would disrupt a conversation taking place in a predominantly white space that is inappropriate and take the opportunity to educate those present. Allies need to constantly educate themselves and do not take breaks from this work.
Accomplice – The actions of an accomplice are meant to directly challenge institutionalised or structural racism, colonisation, and white supremacy by blocking or impeding racist people, policies, and structures. This is where you can absolutely use your proximity to power and your white privilege in your workplace and spaces that you occupy.
This is the stage where you fully understand that our freedoms are intertwined, dwell not only in what people say but are enmeshed in structures and institutions, the way we recruit, develop and retain people, the way people are treated at work, in public spaces, by healthcare providers, and so on. This is where you know that retreat in the face of oppressive structures is not an option.
Accomplices actions are informed by, coordinated with, and sometimes even directed by, leaders who are Black, brown, minoritised, or who identify as people of colour.
An accomplice listens with respect and understands that oppressed people are not all the same in their needs, tactics or beliefs.
Accomplices are not emotionally fragile or motivated by guilt or shame. They recover fast and reflect, aware that they have been socialised into structural racism and the unlearning process is iterative, constant and consistent. They need to be accountable, will build trust through consent and act collaboratively for that accountability.
An accomplice might do much of their work without fanfare or seeking public recognition. They will be looking for opportunities to amplify and elevate their Black and brown comrades’ good works and to challenge and dismantle structures and systems that uphold inequity. There is a personal cost to this. Some spaces will no longer be open to the accomplice because of their perceived disruptive nature. Similar to, but not at all the same as, the fact that some spaces are not open to people from Black, Asian, and minoritised backgrounds because of the colour of their skin. Once you see, you cannot unsee. It’s not about being ‘comfortable with the uncomfortable’, or about “diversity” as a broad catch-all term – it’s about being absolutely unable to accept or condone the status quo and acting to dismantle it.
So how do I move forward?
It should already be clear that there is no formulaic way to ‘get there’ and ‘there’ isn’t a destination but a constant journey. But here are some things you can think about that can take you beyond the actor, towards something that is meaningful for your own awareness and action:
Educate yourself – Read, listen, watch, develop a critical mind and commit to change your habits so that you are not consuming things that uphold racist stereotypes, or that exclude voices from a range of backgrounds. This might involve giving up on a lot of things that you consume on screen! Join a reading group, or set one up.
Change your view – Do an audit of your LinkedIn, Twitter, social platforms, actual friends and acquaintances and you will probably find you live in an echo chamber of people who look, sound and have had much the same experiences as you. Seek out and follow people that perhaps work in the same field as you, share the same interests as you and that don’t share the same worldview or background as you. Listen to what they have to say.
Change your spending – Raise money and donate to causes that benefit people of colour. Seek out and use your economic capital to support businesses owned and run by people of colour. Use your privilege and access to capital to channel that towards people of colour and grassroots organisations that benefit people of colour.
White communities – Start the conversation with white family members, colleagues and friends about racism and whiteness. Encourage others to engage with the issues. Encourage your workplace to engage in training and anti-racist action. Disrupt white spaces and create discomfort where white people and whiteness would otherwise remain a pillar of white supremacy.
Advocacy – Make calls, send emails and sign petitions advocating on behalf of policies being advanced by racial justice campaigners. Amplify voices of colour. Attend meetings, hearings, public events and add your voice in solidarity. Bring other white people with you.
Your work – Make sure your job involves organising internally or externally to fight against institutional racism. Use your job position to actively seek out people of colour to interview for a job, for development opportunities and promotion within the organisation. When seeking external people, employ people of colour to provide services, training, as speakers.
Volunteering – Consider volunteering as a mentor, a tutor, at a food bank, for a local racial justice focused organisation, join an organisation with the explicit aim of naming and disrupting racial injustice.
Confronting injustice – If you see violence, intimidation or harassment, stand close and watch, interrupt and film confrontation, engage white people in conversation about their actions when you see or hear racism or microaggressions (focus on the intent vs the impact), call for help where necessary.
Vote – Use your voting powers for the benefit of anti-racism and policies that will make a difference. Support candidates of colour, donate to campaigns, actively fundraise and canvass, use your energies to mobilise white communities to get behind candidates and policies that will make a difference to people of colour.
Your children – Educate your children about power, privilege, race, intersectionality. Send your children to state schools where they are in the racial minority if they are white. White children need to see people of colour in positions of power and leadership as much as children of colour need to “see themselves”. Take your children and their friends to events where people of colour are speaking about racism, their lived experience and things of cultural importance to them. Talk to your children explicitly about the issues and what they can do to disrupt and be change makers. Talk to your child’s school and get involved in parent committees or the governing board with a view to disrupting and reframing deficit narratives and moving towards inclusivity.
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
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
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
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?
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?
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
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
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
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.
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 onlybecause 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 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.
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.
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
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
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 firstname.lastname@example.org 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
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