Category Archives: social media

On authenticity as a teacher, a parent and elsewhere



Authenticity and teaching

As a teacher, I had ideas about what a good teacher-student relationship should be. I was lucky that my teacher training course included masses of time and discussion on the philosophical and deeply personal questions of what education is, why we ourselves want to be teachers and what models there were in the world. We read about and visited all sorts of schools – those working to a democratic model, or to an experimental choice-based one, to systems with rigid rote learning.

I had some woeful examples of teachers as a student myself and the thing that fired my enthusiasm for being a teacher in the first place was a need to ensure that I could reach into hearts and minds and touch them positively, no matter how much other adults may have let them down. I wanted to be someone who would be respected because I had earned it by being respectful myself, and that could inspire young people because I was constantly learning and discovering things myself. I had to prove to myself as much as anyone else that I could be authentic, and that I could keep clear and healthy boundaries while inspiring, instructing and sometimes compelling students to learn and grow. I learned so much about being a good leader as a teacher, and of course I made some awful, embarrassing mistakes finding my way. The mistakes most often happened when I was trying to hide who I was in that moment – that I was confused or simply unprepared, that I was trying to grab control and respect rather than doing what I needed to do to be in control and to gain respect.

But the thing I learned the most was that authenticity isn’t even a choice. A teacher is absolutely transparent to their class from the moment they set foot in the classroom and any attempt to be something you are not, will backfire on you. This self-awareness can be your biggest impediment and greatest source of empowerment.

Authenticity and parenting

It’s kind of obvious but so easy to try to avoid facing up to, that parenting is leadership. Although you spend much of your waking life under the watchful eye of your offspring or the children you have decided to bring into your life through adoption, fostering or caring for, you can easily kid yourself (pardon the pun) that you can hide who you really are.

Before my children were born I had all sorts of ideas about how I would parent them. Again, my own parents were not good role models. In fact they were appalling. As a result, becoming a parent myself was not a simple or obvious choice. I came at it with an attitude that it would probably stir up all sorts of pain and challenge for me and that I would need to work hard to separate my own childhood from that of my children. I couldn’t fix my childhood through my own children’s lives but I would do my best to make sure that I was as truthful about this as possible with myself and with my partner.

When children are little, we can believe the illusion that we are omnipotent leaders by adopting the “do as I say” rule. Later, as the babies and toddlers become children and young adults, for some parents it expands to “do as I say, don’t do as I do”. The Modern Brits are world famous for their systems and processes for everything. I became keenly aware of these bureaucratic techniques when I moved back to England 9 years ago – the naughty step, time out, five minute warnings, rigid bath and bedtime routines, reward and punishment charts and more.  The beautiful thing I am learning now, being the parent of a teenager and a pre-teen is that authenticity can have its  very own calming effect and can diffuse potentially explosive situations better than any of these techniques. Authenticity can also teach compassion, empathy, and that to err and to fail is painful but part of learning and growing.

This all makes me sound either holier than thou or like I am a bumbling idiot over-sharing my vulnerability with all and sundry. Actually, as a teacher, I earned the title of “firm but fair” from my students and my kids often refer to me the same way. I do believe we should try to model self-discipline, diligence, reliability, hard work, courage, empathy, generosity and all of the good stuff. But over time, I have learnt humility in the form of being able to apologise (agonising as it feels before you do it), reconsidering my position because I have listened and really heard what my child is saying to me, and other useful lessons of authenticity. I have learned to say that the way that I spoke or acted was absolutely unacceptable and that I am really sorry and ashamed. And I have learnt to say that I am struggling and need some space to try and work through the inner conflict that is making me want to lash out or close down inwards.

Authenticity in the workplace

I’m getting used to my new place of work and the people that I work with. I’ve only been there for six months. It’s quite an extraordinary workplace culture and I have written a little about this in a previous post. One thing that it demands is great authenticity. Like teaching and parenting, working in an open-plan office and alongside a small team of bright people doing great things means you are constantly visible to each other.

I have thought a lot about how you can be a leader in an organisation which is quite flat in its hierarchy. Unsurprisingly, the conclusion I have reached is that authenticity is essential. Part of this authenticity I realise, especially as a woman prone to at times doubting her abilities,  means being really clear on where you absolutely do have the skills, experience and confidence to lead your colleagues no matter their status.  Alongside this it’s important to not lose sight of where you will need challenge, support, affirmation or understanding from colleagues and where you must give these things unconditionally in order to encourage authenticity from others. It also means you need to be clear that at any point, and from any colleague no matter their age, experience or standing, you are going to learn and grow.

Authenticity online

Authenticity online has got to be the most complicated feat of all. It’s the place where you can have a massive impact and yet can be completely unaware of how your words are being read and what meaning, right or wrong, is being read into them. It is also a place where what you say can be misinterpreted or can ruffle feathers even if you don’t intend it to.

I use several platforms on social media. I use Facebook for friends and family although I find it is most useful as a repository for photos and a place to go when I can’t sleep. I like Twitter as a way to stay up to date with education sector developments and discussions. I am starting to develop my voice as a blogger and without the constraints of 140 characters, it’s probably the place I can be most authentically me. Part of my need for authenticity is accepting the dangers inherent in social media. I know that every so often, something will misfire, be misread, be badly worded by me, will strike a disharmonious chord to someone else’s ears. But like teaching, aiming to connect, share, resonate, inspire, enthuse and be authentic can be so rewarding for those touched by it, yourself included.

I bumped into an old work colleague on the Underground recently. I haven’t seen him for probably 4 years but we are Facebook friends, watching each other’s children growing up and hitting ‘like’ on each other’s posts occasionally. I was so stunned when, after we chatted a bit, he said that he wanted to thank me for my authenticity and openness on Facebook. I had posted quite a bit about my journey as a carer for my mother through the decline of her mental and physical health which culminated in her having a massive stroke and becoming completely dependent day and night for all her physical needs. In writing about it, I felt it was important for those close to me to know what I was experiencing and it was therapeutic for me to write even a few sentences about it. But I also felt that it was important to others who might have been through something similar or might go through it sometime in the future to know that it is okay to speak about it with authenticity and to reach out for some support.

Authenticity as myself

I think as I become older (and I’m feeling this now especially as I have been through some quite gruelling life experiences yet again in the last couple of years) I have come to realise that I cannot be anyone but myself. Of course, I am committed as ever to lifelong learning, to growing and developing as a person, as a parent, as a professional. But with age, I have realised that this is it. The me that I am is work in progress, nimble and agile, but I am also like a great static cliff hammered by seas and the elements. I have taken a shape that is unique and recognisable and if people want to come closer explore the subtleties, I can do nothing but stand still.


Social media: handle with care

Anyone who knows me knows how much I love my social media. I use Twitter and Linked In professionally and I keep my relatives and friends up to date with my family life through Facebook. And yes, I am starting to explore the wonders of blogging through WordPress. Twitter, in particular, has given me so much. It has opened my eyes, broadened my horizons and provided a reach I never imagined possible. There are times when it’s a bit weird – although still on the spectrum of not unpleasant – like when someone approaches me at a conference and says, “Excuse me but are you @Penny_Ten? Amazing to meet you, I’ve been following you for ages!”

But there have been times when it has got messy. Two examples stay with me and make me feel extremely uncomfortable. The first is what I can now jokingly refer to as my ‘claim to fame’ of having been hounded 24 solid hours by one of our finest and most prolific Twitter edu-trolls. Among other things he called me a liar and anti-Semitic. I feel proud that I didn’t buckle under his attempts to humiliate me until he finally skulked away and blocked me. But it was traumatic and degrading. While it was happening, several of my Twitter allies were direct messaging me, encouraging me to keep to my cordial, outwardly calm stance. But my boss was far from happy the following Monday and I really wondered if the whole very public episode might somehow undermine me professionally. Teacher Toolkit writes about his own similar experience and captures well that awful sense of being emotionally violated by his attacker.

The second occasion was when a long-time LinkedIn professional contact of mine suddenly went creepy on me and started propositioning me in the most unwholesome and inappropriate of ways. I told him in no uncertain terms that he was completely out of order and disconnected from him on LinkedIn immediately. I admit that I had stereotypical assumptions about him as he was married, a practising Christian and much older than me. It took me by surprise and made me realise that you never really can tell.

So you see while it would be hypocritical of me to ban my children from enjoying the modern privileges of online life, I am keenly aware that it has real dangers for all of us. Some of these dangers are concerned with other people’s malicious intent to harm us and others are more connected with the relentless nature of being constantly available and always in communication with the outside world. It is my job to make sure that my children know how to be safe. As parents and as teachers we can’t keep children safe all the time and in every situation. What we can do is set boundaries that are age-appropriate, equip them with sound and constantly evolving understanding and hope for the best. Grim and extreme as their example is, Breck Bednar’s parents explain this all too well in the article in the Guardian this weekend. Breck was a 14 year old boy who loved gaming and who was groomed online and murdered in 2014.

When one thing leads to another

I have two daughters aged 13 and 10. Like most young people of their age group, they are pretty active online. My youngest is an avid Minecrafter often joining shared servers to play and chat with a combination of school chums – and people she has no idea who they are. She also uses WhatsApp to communicate with her friends and family. The oldest, like many 14-17 year old girls has two popular Instagram accounts. One has over 2k followers and contains pretty good street photography, the other account seems to be mainly selfies and other such stuff. She invests much time in maintaining them both. She also has Snapchat, WhatsApp and Skype. They both know the rules and understand why we have them – no pictures of you in your school uniform, no sharing your full name, details about where you live, go to school, where you hang out with people with those you don’t know personally. We found watching this short film on was really useful in helping all of us to get gain a basic understanding of how quickly and simply things can get complicated.

I was quite impressed with my oldest’s use of Skype. Especially since our own family experience of it was excruciating weekly meet ups with the grandparents abroad which mainly consists of various combinations of each side saying “I can’t see/hear you, can you see/hear us?” and then it usually ends up with one of us on the phone directing granny and grandpa on how to switch on the mic or the webcam. We would watch their pixelated looming faces peering into the screen or hear someone bump their head on the desk and swear as they returned from wiggling some cable or other to solve the issue. The kids would invariably slip away unimpressed using the commotion for cover. But no, my oldest daughter uses Skype to do her homework with a friend and for general chit chats.

I did become alarmed recently though when I heard her laughing and chatting away with someone new in her room late one night. When I enquired casually who it was, and she said a name I didn’t know, I asked her where she knew them from. I wasn’t expecting her to say they ‘met’ on Instagram and then one thing led to another. I felt my stomach lurch when she said that. And I saw the look of panic and then defensive defiance on her face when she realised that this was not cool. You see it’s one thing to like each other’s pictures and quite another to start messaging each other when you don’t know each other. But to give out your Skype details and to start actually talking intimately is quite another ball game. The one advantage with seeing someone on Skype though is that you can fairly accurately gauge whether they are who they say they are. Unless they are posing and grooming you to meet their older friends. It has been known. My take on it was to explain that we are all feeling our way on this, and it is better to keep the communication channels open rather than force my daughter underground and into deception and concealing her activity. We talked for a long time about why there may be dangers and how to be careful about these. But I am still jittery and know that we all need to stay alert.

Social media or anti-social media?

Earlier this week the NSPCC chief executive, Peter Wanless, warned of a nation of deeply unhappy children, due to “the pressure to keep up with friends and have the perfect life online … adding to the sadness that many young people feel on a daily basis”. And this is something that has also had mixed impact on us as a family. My youngest was a little isolated socially until we managed to get her a smart phone on Freecycle and suddenly she was meeting up with her classmates at weekends and chatting with them after school during the week. It was as if the floodgates were opened and her social life took off. My oldest also has a varied social life but actually getting up and going out gradually became less of a priority. Until we had a very dramatic incident which shook her out of it.

I am not sure I will be able to convey the force of the drama clearly here but it went like this: over a period of weeks, she had been on her phone what seemed like constantly. She was putting herself under pressure to build up her Instagram following, and she was chatting to school friends as well as some of her friends from our previous life abroad. Evenings and weekends would be spent getting homework quickly out of the way and then endless screen time. TV on so she could keep up with Dr Who discussions later, WhatsApp pinging, thumbs scrolling and pumping ‘like’ on photos so others would ‘like’ hers. It was relentless. And we regularly intervened, nagged and set boundaries. We gently placed her phone in a drawer overnight and switched off the Wifi at 7.30pm.

One Friday we could see yet again she had no plans to meet anyone real face to face or do anything meaningful over the weekend. The next day we tried to help her find someone to meet with, offered to spend the day out together and eventually in desperation, established a no-screens-until-evening rule – and it was hell. Our mature, reasonable, sensible girl was simply like a raging addict. By the Sunday, she wouldn’t even get up, wash, eat, establish eye contact. We did everything we could to get her to move on to something else. By Sunday night she was like an empty shell. On Monday morning she announced she was ill. I was outraged and quite alarmed and felt I had to put my foot down. I insisted she get out of bed, wash and go to school. She was morose, floppy, glazed. But I was determined that she would go and get off the blinking screens. Off she went, still protesting, but she went. Dad and the youngest left for work and school. She must have been waiting and watching nearby and saw her chance. She didn’t know that I was planning to work from home that morning before I had to go to a meeting and so when she crept back in, she nearly jumped out of her skin when she saw me there glaring at her. She turned and fled and for a while we had no idea where she was.

The long and the short of it is that it all came to a head, and we ended up that evening having a three hour, very intense and deep discussion about what it is to be a teenager nowadays. She was distraught, bursting forth hearty wails and gasping tears. She had reached an extremely dark and painful place. It was frightening for me to see her like that but it was important to unpack, together, how the intensity of feeling had been fuelled by this relentless online interaction and screen time. I could see how it had become mesmerizing, sucking up her energy and how she just couldn’t get herself to disconnect and to meet with some of her offline real-people friends, face to face. She challenged me about my use of social media and whether I needed to rein myself in a little too and then she came up with the idea of writing down and committing to everything we had discussed. So was born the “A Healthy Use of the Phone” contract we have hanging on our pinboard and that we are all bound to as a family.


As parents, as teachers, as people who live in a digital age, we need to help each other to honour healthy use of the Internet and social media. We need to stay alert to the wonders and the potentially addictive nature of this tool. We need to do this regularly and especially when things are going well. In honour of the memory of Breck Bednar, next week I plan to sit down with my children and watch the harrowing documentary about him on BBC3 called Murder Games. I’m not looking forward to it but I feel we must.

Think You Know is an excellent resource on safe use of the Internet for young people, parents and teachers

Bad Blogging by Teacher Toolkit

Guardian newspaper article on Breck Bednar

Murder Games: The Life and Death of Breck Bednar

Daze Digital short piece on girl Instagrammers

Guardian article about the online pressures of social media making children unhappy


If you are serious you have to go hunting


The Festival of Education list of speakers is out

The  initial list of speakers proposed for the Festival of Education 2016 is out. There are some great names there and I’m really excited to be going again this year, as I have every year since it started. As I scrolled down the faces, it really stood out how many of them were white and male (not to mention that five of them are called Andrew/Andy!) I pointed out this white and male bias on Twitter and was met with the inevitable flurry of likes and retweets and a couple of push backs.

The main thrust of the small amount of resistance I received to my pointing out that there is an imbalance seemed to be that this was a self-selecting group. To become a speaker there relied in part on people putting themselves forward. 300 people did, and none of them were turned away. I think I understood my Twitter colleagues as saying that if people don’t put themselves forward that aren’t predominantly white and male, then they are just making the balance the way it is. It was hard to explain myself in little 140 character snippets so I want to set out what I feel needs to be said here.

Who should speak?

As a teacher in the classroom and later in my professional life as a leader running meetings, I was always aware that everyone in a group should have a voice. It’s easy to get this wrong and through good intentions to crush those that are naturally outspoken and enthusiastic and swoop down and ask someone what they think while they quietly die inside from having all eyes on them. But we do have a responsibility to make sure every voice is heard and to find a way that works for everyone to have those voices included in the debate.

These days I often take part in meetings and discussions in my day to day life. I know that I have no problem speaking up most of the time. In fact, I know that I have a duty to be very attentive to how much of the group’s time is taken up by my own voice. It was a breath of fresh air to be in a management meeting recently where we discussed exactly this and decided how we would ensure that everyone has space, time and the awareness of their colleagues to help get this balance right so we can make good decisions together. It can make people who are outspoken feel just as anxious as those who are not, if the balance isn’t right. No-one wants to feel they are contributing too much or too little. The best environments are where everyone takes equal responsibility to get the balance right and it is recognised that there are certain inbuilt imbalances that need to be watched for carefully and which can change depending on the issue at hand. If we want to get this right, we have to hunt out these imbalances and actively address them. If you are serious, you will whether that’s in a small meeting or you are scanning the proposed list of speakers for a major event.

The problem with self-selection

Self-selection on the face of it seems like a wonderfully fair and open way to organise an event. It clearly invites people who think they have something of worth to say, to have a platform to say it. You might ask what the problem is. You are guaranteed to get some really enthusiastic, responsible people coming forward who will consider carefully what they are going to say, how and why – lest they make fools of themselves in front of everyone who is anyone in education – because everyone who is anyone tends to rock up to the Festival of Education. (If you haven’t been, imagine an extremely civilised education equivalent of the Glastonbury Festival – without the mud, the terrifying toilets, the noise, the drugs etc).

To my mind, while this self-selection is a good way to get some initial ideas for willing presenters, if it was the only way of selecting speakers, it would be lazy and the same as standing in front of a class and saying, “if you know the answer, shout now”. I must point out that because this shout out for speakers by the Festival of Education was done on Twitter, it is like standing in the furthest corner of the classroom whispering or texting a couple of people saying, “if you know the answer, shout now”. Most educationalists are not on Twitter. Hard as it is to comprehend this fact, I have to keep reminding myself of this daily. And many educationalists that are on Twitter and who blog have ample platform to say what they think.

I know this isn’t the only way that the Festival of Education organisers are looking for speakers, so this is not an attack or an accusation. So again, if you are serious, you need to go hunting using a wider method than shouting out on social media.

Event organisation and programme management is a serious business

I have quite a bit of experience of event organisation. This is from all angles as a delegate, an exhibitor/sponsor and as an organiser thinking through balanced programmes for events. It’s not easy. You need to do a lot of research and talking to people to find the right speakers and to get the right balance that reflects the sector you are operating in and the issues you know for a fact need to be covered. You need to include known names and people that will pull in an audience in the first place or no one will come, but you also have a unique opportunity to bring in some people that are perhaps lesser-known and have much to say that could be of benefit to the community you know will be present at your event. And you will need to work hard to find these people, to describe what they are going to say and why others need to hear it.

It can be even more difficult to get speakers that are actually good at speaking publicly. Some people have great experience and probably much to say, but they aren’t great at speaking. And others can be very entertaining or very well known, but don’t really have anything new, interesting or relevant to say any more. There were some grumbles last year at the Festival of Education that one extremely well-known education speaker was flown in at vast expense and was frankly a bit ‘meh’.

I went to two events on social mobility recently – one had a panel of young white, entrepreneurial, middle class, mainly men who spoke of their experience of trying to create a more socially mobile environment for students through the various charities and social enterprises they had set up. They were really enthusiastic, obviously wanted to make a change for the better and were consciously able to use their place of privilege in society to do so. But I felt a bit like they had a very them-and-us view of the world and that they ticked off a great list of boxes, almost saying, “it’s okay guys, we’ve got this”. I wanted more enquiry, more challenge. The other event I attended had a panel that was well-balanced with regards age, social class, race, experience, and included people from education, business, social care and other sectors. It also included people young and older people who felt they had been able to be socially mobile and those that felt they had not. I felt truly stimulated and that I had learned a lot from the second panel. My eyes were opened and I was left feeling uplifted but also thinking about some really uncomfortable truths about my own society and my place in it in relation to others. That, for me, is a good balanced panel and a good experience.

After finding this balance, a good event organiser must almost choreograph the dance of themes, issues, ideas, take-aways and calls for action that will take place on the stage in front of participants. Furthermore, a good event often needs to be both accessible to anyone with a passing interest and simultaneously stimulating to people who have been living and breathing the issues for years. If you are serious, you need then to both go hunting and to choreograph what you bring into the mix.

Social responsibility and amazing opportunity

There are so many situations where we have a social responsibility to be self-aware and aware of the context within which we are operating. I mentioned it earlier, in some situations I speak loudly and often. Therefore, I need to be aware of those that don’t and listen out for them. I need to know when I can speak up for others and I need to know when to shut up. As a parent governor for example, I had to perform the excruciatingly difficult balancing act of being a representative from the parent body but not a representative of the parent body. I had to look out for the interests of all children and that included my children but my frame of reference should never be through my children but rather all children belonging to the school community.

I often tie myself in knots with these kinds of levels of awareness. I feel the same awareness about my class, gender, ethnicity, sexual orientation, my age and more. I don’t always get it right. In fact, a lot of the time, I feel that we are all trampling about stepping on each other just by virtue of our attempts to not do precisely that. And so I feel that the organisers of the Festival of Education are going to face the same difficult task of making way for the many voices, issues, interests and debates that need to be heard. And they have a social responsibility and an amazing opportunity to make this as balanced, fair, interesting, challenging and inclusive as possible. To the organisers I say, you made a good start with the initial self-selection but I know you are serious, so happy hunting!