Category Archives: Unconscious bias

The WomenEd Bookclub, non-binary bias and the affair Penelope didn’t have

Miss Triggs
From https://punch.photoshelter.com/image/I0000BaPhg4sVCD4

It’s not by chance that I got the name Penelope, I am convinced of it. The more I learn about her and the more I live my life, the more I see the resonance. This weekend I took part in @WomenEdBookclub’s slow chat, hosted by Mary Beard and inspired by her book, Women and Power: a manifesto. In her book, she refers to Penelope, wife of Odysseus, who is silenced by her own son, Telemachus. She refers to this snippet from Penelope’s story as a “nice demonstration that right where written evidence for Western culture starts, women’s voices are not being heard in the public sphere” and how “growing up, as a man, is learning to take control of public utterance and to silence the female of the species”.

Mary Beard goes on to explain how this plays out in the modern world too, and uses the thirty year old cartoon by Riana Duncan, also shown above. “That’s an excellent suggestion, Miss Triggs. Perhaps one of the men here would like to make it.” It resonates, because it is my lived experience. And it should have all of us scrolling back through a mental catalogue of similar meetings where this may have happened before our very eyes – eyes and ears that weren’t trained to spot it perhaps, and a mouth that wasn’t able or willing to call it out.

One of the things that troubles me, is how we manage to tackle these issues without polarising into men and women, good and bad, feminist and sexist, and without alienating people. I think that the starting point has to be from a place of trying to understand socialisation, conditioning – the deep process we go through in our lifetimes and that builds on centuries of accepted wisdom, the process of being taught explicitly and implicitly what the world means. You have to accept that this happens, and you can’t believe that you were somehow brought up to be beyond the influence of wider society, no matter how “woke” your upbringing was.

Categorising, characterising, conditioning

By example, from the moment my children were born, I did as all good mothers of all animal species do. I drilled them on simple categorisations: day and night (if anyone knows my story of sleepless babies, you’ll know that one took forever!), good and bad, hot and cold, edible and not edible, acceptable and not acceptable. The categorisation process gets really sophisticated early on and we learn to group things into concepts like seats and not seats – you can sit on a low, square stool but you shouldn’t sit on a coffee table that looks to all intents and purposes to the untrained eye like a low, square stool. There is a catalogue of animals that make you go “awwwww” and those that make you go “ewwww” and so on.

We also categorise people by gender, race, age, weight, how they move, talk, and more. This is the way we learn what is safe and unsafe, what is socially acceptable and not. How many times have you told your children not to speak with strangers and then later berated them when they don’t greet a stranger politely that you have deemed to be worthy of their respect? You should have seen the uproar in my house when I invited my Twitter friend to stay the night before our BAMEed conference when I don’t really know who she is and I have never met her face to face before, having drilled my children on internet safety and who they can legitimately call their friends!

It should be noted that this is also the way that we subtly start to embed the concepts of who has the right to power over things like speech and more. Mary Beard uses the Penelope example to start the discussion about men’s historically accepted rightful place as orators and women’s seeming deficiency in this arena. I strongly believe that no-one, no matter their declarations of gender or race blindness, is exempt from being the product of their socialisation and conditioning. And even if they deem themselves to be absolutely pure from any contaminating effects of this societal conditioning, no-one can be accepted as truly equal just by virtue of the fact that they deem themselves to be worthy of being treated equally. Finally, unequal treatment, bias, whether it be sexist or racist in its form, is not something that is always clearly defined, binary and explicit. I don’t agree that people can be categorised into racist and not racist, sexist and not sexist like some kind of Harry Potter sorting hat defines your house.

I have to clarify here, that of course, there are some people and their actions that put them squarely and without dispute into the racist and/or sexist category. But what I like about Mary Beard’s book is that it explains how the subtle and not so subtle power struggles between men and women are perpetuated in ways that are so deeply entrenched, that it is not a switch we can flick, a decision we can make or a quick change we can implement. We need to question ourselves and those around us to see where this is playing out in our own lives. One last thing to point out, at the risk of being really obvious: just because you are a woman, doesn’t mean you are pro-women, feminist or not prone to perpetuating gender stereotypes just as being a man, doesn’t make you automatically pro-men, sexist and ignorant about power imbalance.

I got the power!

All discourse about women, about race and so on is about power. It is about the balance of power and why it sits where it does. Mary Beard gives us a Western historical whistle-stop tour of why power lies squarely with men and how this plays out in her own lived experience as a woman, albeit a woman with much power compared with others, both male and female.

Here’s a story from my lived experience which might illustrate some of the power imbalances mentioned above. I’d be fascinated to hear what you think:

One of my previous male bosses back in the day, commented quite vociferously and negatively on my choice of footwear. I was wearing admittedly clompy, comfortable shoes on a freezing cold, wet day where we were attending a meeting with external stakeholders. He was wearing brown, lace up, brogues, not too dissimilar. It knocked the wind out of my sails and made me self-conscious throughout the day that we spent together travelling to and from the meeting. Ironically, a female stakeholder spontaneously commented on how much she loved my shoes the same day.

Said male boss also liked to hold up one of our female colleagues as an example, often commenting on how she is “always so well turned out”. He correlated her consistently “smart” appearance to the quality of her work. My experience of her was indeed as someone who always wore a full palette of make-up, straightened her hair, changed into impossible-looking heels from her walking-to-work trainers every morning, and was very vocal about her need to restrict herself from enjoyment of food in order to maintain her very thin figure. My male boss saw this as a commitment to discipline, rigour and a visual sign that the quality of her work was also of this same calibre.

My experience of myself and from feedback I have consistently had, is as someone who is also very committed to my work, to quality, rigour, creativity and a certain flexibility and resilience. This could be reflected in my sensible shoes, my all-weather cyclist mind-set, and the fact that make-up and hairdos are just prone to becoming a mess anyway so why bother? I wash my face and brush my hair and also change from my cycling gear into my office get-up to indicate my readiness for serious work. Mentioned once, this comparison might have passed me by, but mentioned regularly, it began to bother me and I spoke out on more than one occasion to see if my boss understood that his bias was potentially shaping the way our work and worth would be regarded. Blank looks. Suggestions of being over-sensitive. Hints that I was dissing my female colleague for her sartorial choices and that because we are all feminists, we can all wear what we like. “I wear these clothes/heels/make-up for me” is what is often said. But can we divorce our choices from conditioning and accepted beliefs regarding acceptable female attire? Is there really freedom of choice when all choices seem to come with a raft of associations?

This clothing preference boss thing has become linked in my experience to another incident with my most-feminist-friend at work. It should stand to illustrate that even as a self-declared feminist and ‘bloody difficult woman’, this colleague could also be prone to bias resulting from deep and subtle conditioning. We all are, that’s my point.

This is how it happened. During a period, when perhaps subconsciously I must have felt it might be interesting to test out whether a leaning towards the more ‘power dressing’ end of the spectrum might serve my interests and have my voice heard a little more seriously, I started wearing smart black, navy blue or grey, tailored dresses and heels around the office. After all, the boss had made it clear time and again that a woman who is well turned out is a woman who means business and demands respect for the quality of her work. My most-feminist-friend noted my changed wardrobe choices, sidled up to me at the sinks in the ladies loo and uttered between hushed lips: “are you having an affair, Penny?” Remember the story of Penelope and the affair she also didn’t have?

How would you interpret this? The way I saw it was this: she had hit on something I was perhaps not fully aware of at the time. I was indeed trying to please a man – my boss. The attempt at pleasing a man by a heterosexual woman, must have been interpreted by my colleague as connected to a woman’s sexuality, hence the conclusion of an affair and my newly heightened well-turned out/sexually attractive state. I wasn’t trying to hit on my boss but I was trying out what it felt like to be wearing the uniform of accepted feminine work wear and must have been keeping an eye to see if it altered attitudes to my work.

The missing piece for me was having the opportunity to sit down with all the players in this great story and to spend some time working together to deconstruct and analyse what was going on here. Wouldn’t it be wonderful to get together as a group of people, all of whom I know would say they believed in equality of the sexes, and read up on, analyse and discuss this very dynamic that played out in our working relationship all that time ago. Now that would be a satisfying experience I’m sure.

Postscript: My dear partner has pointed out that all of this is an example of white-woman, privileged, feminist discourse and that it doesn’t cover anything meaningful around race, inter-sectionality and other important issues. I hold my hand up and once I have spent some time educating myself further on this, I will get back to you. I’m reading is “Why I’m No Longer Talking to White People About Race by Reni Eddo-Lodge to keep me moving on my journey. You can read this excellent Guardian Long Read by her here. All suggestions to help me learn are gratefully accepted.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Why be a governor?

BEST SCHOOL

This Saturday, the inimitable Raj Unsworth and I ran a session on thinking like a governor at the BAMEed Network conference in London. The session was aimed at anyone thinking about school governance, but in addition, was aimed at anyone thinking about BAME representation on school governing boards.

It is true of many governing bodies that they are made up of the usual ‘pale, male and stale’ volunteers. We shouldn’t overlook the great contribution governing bodies can make, whatever their make-up. However, to better reflect diversity in general or the school community and/or that of our country as a whole, if you are from a black, Asian or minority ethnic (BAME) background, this is your chance to help change this just by taking your rightful place around the table. Of course, you should not be expected to represent and speak for all BAME people, so watch out for this. If you aren’t BAME and have an awareness of and a commitment to addressing any of the issues that affect BAME students, staff and community members, I can’t urge you enough to be vocal, challenging and insistent about this as a governor. This is an excellent way to recognise and unabashedly use your white privilege for the common good. If you feel you don’t know much about the issues, but would like to know more, just do some Googling and start getting yourself educated! Following the @BAMEedNetwork might be a good place to start.

Raj, with her rich experience of over 20 years can give the low-down on the intricacies of being a governor at an academy or a multi-academy trust and this is probably worth setting out in a separate piece rather than trying to cram it all in here. This piece will cover school governance in general and what you might like to consider if you are exploring whether you should become a governor.

Why be a governor?

If you already work in education, you might think that volunteering as a school governor might be counter-intuitive and that if you are going to volunteer it should be time spent elsewhere. However, there are many benefits to you becoming a governor.

Firstly, for your own professional development, school governance, in any phase or type of school or academy is a fascinating opportunity to come out of your comfort zone, up your game as a professional and to see things from a different angle.  You will see that there is more than one way to skin a cat, whether you choose to volunteer in a school like your own, or one that is wildly different.

You can see what your own school looks like from a strategic perspective, or see another school that is similar, or indeed completely different from your own place of work. Whether you are a governor in your place of work or in a different school, you can gain the opportunity to set the strategic direction of the school, shape the school development plan and see how these play out in practice.

You can get a chance to take on leadership roles in manageable chunks, for example by chairing one of the committees and practising ensuring that the aims, progress and outcomes of the committee are addressed well.

Let’s look more closely about the pros and cons of being a governor at your own school or in another school.

Being a staff governor at your own school: pros and cons

Being a staff governor at your own school is one of two particularly challenging roles on the governing body. The other is that of parent governor and I will cover that later on. It is a challenge because you have to keep front of mind at all times that you are a representative from the staff but you are not a representative of the staff. You are not a union rep, you are not there to champion the grumbles and needs of the staff body, and nor are you there to report back to the rest of the staff about what came to pass in the meetings. All minutes are freely available, so any staff member that is interested, can read these after each meeting.

Many staff members may feel quite intimidated by being a staff governor at their own school for the simple reason that you are exposed to situations where you may disagree with your boss, the headteacher, and you will need to speak out if you do. A huge part of effective governance is knowing how to challenge and question things with the aim of ensuring real rigour in decision-making, and to support the school to do the right things for the right reasons.

Finally, being a staff governor means you have a strange insider-outsider status which means that at some points during meetings, committees and decision-making, you might actually be asked to leave the room as there will be a conflict of interest or a certain level of confidentiality that needs protecting. If your school’s governing body is not very effective, you may also find it demoralising to see in more detail some of the school’s weaknesses and struggles to address these well at a strategic level beyond the day to day operational activities you know more closely.

One of the pros is simply the flipside of the issue raised above: a different relationship with the headteacher. If you are looking for an opportunity to show your leadership skills and demonstrate your disciplined integrity in this tricky role, this is your chance. If you have respect for your headteacher and they are able to model how the relationship with the governing body works, this can be really good training for a time when you might be a headteacher yourself.  And if you wanted to see how a school development plan is put together and monitored throughout the year, you will have a unique perspective of both the strategic and the operational machinations that go into setting and executing the school development plan’s aims.

Being a parent governor at your child’s school: pros and cons

If you don’t have children, skip on to the next section! As mentioned above, this is a difficult one to pull off without either using your child’s experience as your only frame of reference, or being so hell bent on not doing that, that you end up not being able to find a way to address issues your child is facing at school for fear of being seen as pulling rank as a governor. Being a parent governor means trying to hold in mind all children at the school, and trying to banish from your mind your own child, their friends and specific little faces that are familiar to you. Being a representative from the parent body, but not a representative of the parents is one that the whole school community invariably struggles with. Your child’s friends’ parents will say things to you as a governor, expecting you to “sort it out”. Teachers who don’t understand the nuanced position of a parent governor can be just downright weird with you. There can even be repercussions on your children if you are seen to be too challenging or your children can be favoured if you do a good job for the school in your parent governor role. I found being a parent governor excruciatingly difficult myself and am in a much happier place being a governor at a school with which I have no personal history or affiliation.

The big advantage of being a parent governor is that you are already embedded in the school culture and it is easy to see how the values, the aims of the school development plan, policies and decisions play out in practice. You are immersed in information that helps you, such as letters home, parents evenings, how the school feels and responds to key events, behaviour issues, even snow days. You know the teachers, the parents on the school gates, and the way the school works. This is all something that is really hard to get a feel for if you don’t make time to explore all of this.

One double-edge sword of being a governor at your child’s school is related to The Guilt. You know The Guilt. It’s that feeling we all have as working parents, especially as teachers who are parents, that we are not there enough for our children, and often spend more time celebrating other people’s children’s magical moments and milestones more than we do with our own. Well, being a parent governor can either exacerbate this feeling or can in fact alleviate it. Ideally, your workplace will give you time and flexibility to be a governor because it is such great CPD. Where better to spend that time than at the school where your child learns? You can get even more of a feel for it, you can feel you are helping to make it even better for your own and all the children there, and you can get another perspective on what is behind some of the rhythms, routines and culture of the school.

Being a local authority or community governor: pros and cons

Whether a school is a local authority school or an academy, it needs to be the focal point of the community. Being a governor from the local community is a way to support this, and also a way to declare your commitment to your own community.

A lot of multi academy trusts will have some success at attracting ‘career governors’, local business people keen to bolster their CVs, and cash in their Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) hours by supporting a school. Their skills and experience are useful indeed to schools, but someone with up-to-date education experience can be much appreciated as well.  Being a trustee of an academy can give you valuable exposure to the charity sector and it operates differently to a maintained school governing body. It’s worth reading up on the roles and responsibilities of being a trustee or governor at an academy or a multi academy trust as these are different from those of maintained schools, which people often don’t realise until things get difficult.

As mentioned above, having no link to your own workplace or children’s school can be a very positive thing. And if you are thinking about being altruistic and not being suspected of having any ulterior motives or interests, this is one way to make that really clear!

As a teacher, you can think about what you want to gain from your governor experience and direct your choice of school accordingly. You might want to choose a school that is similar to the one you work in, so you can get a different view on some of the challenges and how they are addressed. You might want to broaden your frame of reference and deliberately choose a school which is a different phase, intake, demographic, size. If you work in a secondary school, being a governor at a primary feeder school can be really informative and worthwhile. If you care about SEND children, you might want to choose to work in a special school to understand some of the issues and successes there. Or perhaps a Pupil Referral Unit or Alternative Provision setting could be stimulating and useful. You might want to choose a school that is in difficulty rather than an outstanding school, so you can really commit yourself to making an impact. You will certainly get feedback on this if the school undergoes any kind of Ofsted monitoring or inspection. Similarly, if your school is struggling, it could be useful to see what it looks like from a different viewpoint (although there’s no guarantee that the governance is outstanding, especially if the school hasn’t been inspected for a while)

Wherever you land, as a governor at a school where you have no prior connection, you can happily get stuck into seeing the world from the other side of the table. You will be exposed to HR, finance, strategic planning and examples of practice – good and bad – that are great for you to learn from and for your professional development. You might even find yourself chairing a committee that hones your skills in a particular area of the school’s development. You could even find yourself part of the recruitment panel for a new headteacher or, less uplifting but equally eye opening, a serious HR issue. You could be there when an Ofsted inspection happens. If you ever want to step up to headship, what a great experience to see these processes from the other side of the table first. You will also be exposed to governor colleagues from the world of business, local councillors, and more, who could be handy to know and could differ from your usual social and professional group. All good social capital to help you on your way professionally.

How do you build your confidence when you are starting out?

Don’t assume that because you work in education and perhaps ‘know how to do meetings’, you know it all. I would recommend that you go to your local authority governor induction, specific training sessions and any termly governors briefings meetings. They are usually very good – and even if they are awful, they are so eye opening and anthropologically enlightening! I have been to some briefings that felt like I was in a Mike Leigh film just by virtue of the range of people there and their behaviour. Others have left me so impressed with how the local authority is addressing issues that affect the local community and doing heroic efforts to do what is best for those in their care.

Make sure the school gives you a thorough induction too. Again, even if you are a staff governor or a parent governor, a good school induction will give you the information you need and will set the scene for the modus operandi you need to adhere to. A good Chair of Governors will do this themselves and might also match you with a more experienced governor as a buddy for a time.

Join Twitter or Facebook school governor groups.  Read online, especially when you get the papers for the upcoming meeting. Go through the agenda and papers carefully and note any questions or thoughts you have. Have a look online at the National Governance Association resources or on The Key for School Governors or The School Bus website. Ask your school if they have a subscription to any of these, and if they don’t, do a free trial in the first instance.  Don’t be afraid to ask the school to invest in subscription if you think it is worthwhile. I am of course biased, but I can’t really imagine not having access to The Key.

How do you become a governor?

There are several ways to become a governor. If you want to be parent governor, this needs to be by election. Ask the headteacher or Chair of Governors when the next vacancy is coming up and express your interest in standing for election. If you are not choosing the parent or staff governor route, I would recommend doing some research into your local schools and doing your own process of exploring the pros and cons to help you decide whether you become a staff, parent or community governor. My favoured method, once you have decided, is to send an email to the school you would like to volunteer at, with your CV and a cover letter of why you are interested in becoming a governor at the school. Follow up with a call if they don’t come back to you.  A good governing body will interview you and will want to find out more, although many have a ‘bums on seats’ approach and will be so flattered and amazed that they will snap you up, no questions asked! Once you are a governor and have found your confidence, if that was the case when you started, you can always take it on to sort out how governors are recruited, the type of skills auditing that happens and ensure that the selection and training of governors is tip top.

There are also organisations that have a specific mission to recruit and sometimes train governors. The School Governors One-Stop Shop (SGOSS) and Inspiring Governance both have match-making services. You can also contact your local authority Governor Services department and offer yourself up there.

I’d be delighted to hear any further comments you might have that might be useful to others, or if you spot things that I might have missed or misrepresented here. Just add them into the comments section, or drop me a line and I will incorporate them if I can. If you do decide to become a governor, let me know. And if you need any support and I can help at all, similarly, get in touch!

Good luck!

Say what you mean and mean what you say: jargonising the education system

roadman
SMS exchange with the teen 2017

The year ahead needs a jargon buster

I attended a Year 10 “Year Ahead” meeting this week. The thing that struck me most strongly was the extent to which we have systematised, bureaucratised and jargonised the education of our children. I sat through a well-meaning PowerPoint presentation intended to demystify the new system of GCSEs for parents. I work in the education sector and felt like I was having to apply my learned edu-speak skills as they reeled off jargon to the group of parents hunkered down in their seats in the dark auditorium: SLT, Key Stage 4, A*-C, expected grade, 1-9, pastoral, learning objectives, Progress 8, Attainment 8, APS, EBACC, minus scores, buckets, and target achievement ratio…god help us…The school might have supplied us with a jargon buster, like this one put together by Lord Grey School in Milton Keynes or this one put together by the Dudley Governors Association.

When lingo is laminated

I also attended a training session for school leaders this week, which was fascinating and uplifting in equal measures. It was so good to see the passion, commitment, drive and enthusiasm of a group of senior leaders dedicated to their own professional development as well as to playing their part in the collaborative challenge and support of others around the country.

One of the exercises of the day had us working in groups, using laminated lingo cards, to build a learning model. This is where the cogs started whirring for me as an insider-outsider. This is where I rekindled my anthropologist and researcher training to be the participant observer and to examine what appeared to be unfolding. The group leaned in, silently considered the words written on the cards and started to work together to build a ‘learning model’. I’m thinking to myself, what the heck is a learning model anyway? They discussed, arranged the cards on the table, discussed again and slid certain ones from here to there. Learning, reflection, modelling, pace, behaviour, assessment, marking, ethos, culture, transition, key stages, critical thinking…

With each pause for discussion and each slide around of the cards on the table, I could feel my discomfort as I thought I might be slipping in and out of the ‘inner circle’ of pedagogical language.  So much terminology, but what does it all mean? The training facilitator moved from table to table, and eventually came round to ours and said, “So, taking pace for example, what is your definition of this? Have you come to an agreed definition?” We all hesitated for a moment, realising that we had not had any discussion of the meaning of any of these words at all. “The word pace, what do we mean by this? In what context? Pace of a lesson? Pace of the curriculum across the year? Pace of transition? Transition, what does that mean to you? Transition between key stages? Transition between activities within the lesson? Transition between lessons?”

One of the things I wondered out loud was, if we as educators, haven’t discussed and defined among ourselves what the language means, what the learning model is and what the purpose and intention of what we are doing might be, isn’t it about time this happened? And if we have discussed it in our schools in the staff room, have we ever done this exercise with the children in the classroom? Shouldn’t we be starting from common agreed language and principles?

Jargon is everywhere

It is of course useful to capture concepts into phrases, words and ideas that are commonly understood. This is how we make sense of the world and this is how language develops and becomes useful, and at times entertaining. I love some of the teen-lingo I learn from my kids. It is most certainly ‘fit for purpose’. In answer to “can you pick up some milk on your way home?” gets the response, “no, that is loooonnnnng”. Or “He looks nice” gets, “eww, he’s moist/crusty/clapped”

The world of work is full of the most ridiculous lingo you ever heard. Here are some favourites I have really and truly heard used:

“What does good look like in this space?”

“We should roadmap that issue”

“In the technology space, that’s really not my sandpit to play in”

“Yes but do we have the bandwidth to take this on?”

“Let’s kick that into the long grass”


Workplace woes

Without getting all existential and “emo” about it, the linear and limited experience of education and its bureaucratised jargonisation of language is just a continuation of the central problem we have with education in general. There is no agreement on what schooling is actually for in the first place. And I don’t mean the level of discussion we see on Twitter with false dichotomies between ‘Trad’ and ‘Prog’ approaches to learning. We have a model that was put in place to serve the need for a skilled and compliant workforce but we aren’t actually serving the workforce very well, it turns out. My overwhelming sense from the Year Ahead meeting and even from my day with inspiring senior leaders from schools across the country, is that the purpose of education is ultimately to get students to pass exams so they can move on to the next stage, pass more exams and then move into the workplace and ‘succeed’.

Now, I work in ‘the workplace’ and after the educators are done with them, I receive what are described as ‘bright graduates’ into roles that on paper they are qualified to take on. What I see as the most important thing needed to make these young people fit for the workplace is to unlearn the culture of schooling, to let go of punitive and hierarchical structures, and of linear progression. Success in the workplace involves the ability to think critically, to problem solve, to tie together previous knowledge and experiences with research into possible knowledge and understanding – and to push this through a critical lens again to shake out any bias, habit, laziness, fear or clinging to get to the right way forward. You need skills to influence, bring on side, provide evidence and build trust with your colleagues. And most of all, you need to build a shared language with those you are working with, which should be revisited and revised so you don’t fall into assumptions and jargon that become meaningless. I am a great believer in stopping once in a while and going round the table to see what each person believes just happened in any given meeting, for example. But more than this, we need to stop and ask ourselves what just happened to our education system and are we all speaking the same language that can get us where we need to go?

I have had children moving through schools in this country since 2007 and there have been so many changes, initiatives, systems, methods, acronyms in the last decade. I think that something went off in my brain in that darkened room this week and I reached saturation point at that very moment. I clapped my hands over my mouth just to stop myself screaming. I just don’t believe anyone knows what is really going on any more and I certainly am struggling to believe in the education system as it is now. From now on, I am encouraging my children to see their school experience as a social experiment. There is as much to learn from good practice as there is from bad, and there is so much to learn about the way our society is structured through the micro-climate of a school and the office. There is much to be learned from the language we use and the meaning we attribute to it. It’s not all doom and gloom. Language is fun and in the meantime, we can always amuse ourselves and play bullshit bingo.

When is a teacher a salesperson?

self-help graphic
From the Ten Commandments for the ethical salesperson

 

Teaching is selling

I was chatting to a headteacher at an event I had organised recently and I can’t even remember what we were talking about exactly, but he said to me: “So basically you are a saleswoman”. I backtracked and said, “Well, in a way I am, but not that kind of saleswoman, not the slimy car salesman type. I see myself as just spreading the gospel of a good thing”.

Salesperson isn’t usually used as a compliment. I felt slightly shamed by what he had insinuated but our conversation took an unexpected turn for the better. He nudged me jovially, leaned in, and confessed, “before I got myself into all this” he said, gesticulating to the room heaving with long-serving, high achieving headteachers from across the country, “I was what you might call a travelling salesman – and I loved it”.

To pare down the conversation and cut to the point, we found ourselves discussing with great interest and agreement that teaching is basically selling. Here are some thoughts on the basics of really sound sales skills based on my decade as an English teacher and a decade in consultative sales in the education sector, in my roles as Director of Business Development at The Key for School Leaders, as a consultant helping two small education businesses grow and develop, and as Head of Membership at Challenge Partners.

Believe in your product

One of the key ingredients for failure in any profession is being half-hearted or lacking in belief in yourself and in what you are doing. The best teachers are really convinced that what they have to offer is really worth knowing. Those that have great passion and enthusiasm for what they teach, and genuinely want others to share in their joy, are the ones that usually at least get the attention, respect, and often loyal commitment of their students.

Likewise, I only became interested in business development out of necessity. I started at The Key as Research Team Leader, working with a team of researchers tasked with swiftly, accurately and succinctly answering questions from school leaders on anything that concerned their school. The service was a hit, schools were feeding back that this was a game changer, freeing up their time, reducing their anxiety and ensuring that they were doing what they needed to be doing. And then the financial crash happened and the DfE decided they couldn’t roll out nationally as planned. We had two choices: fold or find a way.

My absolute conviction that what we were doing could change the way school leaders worked led me to take on the role of business development and start to spread the gospel. My enthusiasm was boundless. We went from a few hundred schools that received the service for free to 60,000 school leaders with paid membership across the country over the course of the next 5 years.

Know your market and be an expert

Belief isn’t enough of course. You have to know who you are dealing with. You have to be an expert in your subject. You have to keep refreshing your knowledge. And you have to find a way to make sure that you can communicate to your market, based on your intimate knowledge of what their needs are, where their heads are at, and how you can reach them.

I care passionately about education. I steep myself in reading, thinking, listening, connecting, and getting involved in the sector as a school governor, through events and TeachMeets and the like. I can be passionate and well-informed about a number of key issues. I am seen as someone who understands and empathises with the frontline sector folk.

A teacher who is clued up about how their subject connects with their students’ worlds and can articulate that, is onto a winner. And I’m not talking about convincing students that they really will need to use Pythagoras’ Theorum in their daily lives one day, especially if they ever have to move a sofa up a narrow staircase.  Being able to play back your peripheral knowledge to your students and being able to pitch at the right level, is essential for teachers.

In my roles to date, being clear about what schools will prioritise based on ever-changing Ofsted criteria, funding streams, times of year, demographics, local politics, or any number of factors is paramount. Working that into my discussions with my clients can help them trust me and know that I understand where they are coming from.

 Know your client group and listen carefully

Basic knowledge about your students’ lives, the things that might be pulling them this way or that, being savvy about forces such as poverty, pressures on gender expectations and your own unconscious bias can be a massive advantage when thinking about your target audience.

As teachers and as salespeople, we have a natural tendency to want to launch in with our message of enthusiastic good news. Worse still, salespeople and teachers alike often find themselves in the oppressive world of targets, box ticking and trying to get to the end point from the minute they start their day. Lest these things start to dictate unsavoury behaviours, asking questions and listening carefully is time worth taking. Greeting each child as they enter the classroom is a great way to show you are human, but actually listening to them when you ask how they are, is even better. Making connections, following up, replaying and reaching out is hard to find time for, but can actually get you further along towards your end goal than you would imagine.


Know your competitors and treat them with respect

Something I really believe in is knowing your competitors inside out. I also believe that you shouldn’t politely avoid them but should rather make efforts to connect, be in the same space and interact comfortably. Moreover, I believe that you can never get anywhere or earn the respect of others through dissing your opposition or competition.

If you know your competitors, what they do well, where you are similar and where you differ, it is possible to articulate this in a respectful and engaging way.

Kids always try it on and will compare you with other teachers. How many times have you heard them say words to the effect of “Miss never gives us homework like you do! They are much nicer than you”? Or perhaps they complain about another teacher saying you are much nicer because of x, y or z reason. What do you say in response? Can you say something that shows that you actually know what your colleague is trying achieve and what is important to them rather than skirting around the issues or god forbid agreeing that they are a moron compared with you?

Or what about those students that are more interested in other things rather than in what you think is important? How can you be inquisitive, give respect to things that matter to your students rather than defaulting to the generation-gap trap of poo-pooing their passions?

When I worked at The Key, we didn’t really have any genuine competitors until one set themselves up to aggressively mimic what we did and deliberately target our members by offering to undercut us by 50%. Legend goes that their CEO was so determined to bring us down that he used to spit on the floor every time he had to mention our name. I made it my business to always go over and say a friendly hello to their sales team at their conference stands and congratulate them on their latest small landgrab. If asked about them, it was easy for me to set out the differences around quality, methodology, capacity and so on without ever saying a disrespectful word about them.

Recently as part of my work with Challenge Partners, I was invited to a seminar of organisations that offer peer review. Instead of the usual circus of pitches behind closed doors, each organisation was asked to speak about their model in a roomful of heads and in front of their perceived ‘competitors’ for business. What was delightful was the chance to hear more about these different models and to see the virtues and differences between them. Everyone was so passionate about their belief in peer review as a way to create meaningful and impactful collaboration, it was fascinating!

Solve problems, remove barriers

Consultative sales is really all about this. Putting together the points I made earlier, the ‘sales pitch’ really isn’t one at all. It is a discussion, which starts with you listening, and genuinely trying to see if what you have to offer will work for the other person. You can only know this by listening, knowing the market, understanding needs and so on. What are the simple things you can do to remove barriers? Can you move on the price, or perhaps add value without shifting on price? Are there economies of scale or a trial before there’s a commitment in full?

Students also need this level of barrier removal. You can’t know what these barriers are without listening, understanding, thinking creatively.


Have clear expectations for timelines and next steps

Some of the best teachers fall down on not being clear on what they want, when they want it by, in what format, how often, and for what purpose. It doesn’t take much to set these out and clarity can make for much better engagement and achievement in the long run. It’s not enough to just say it once either. It needs to be communicated in several ways at different intervals.

Same goes for sales. It’s easy to get carried away with the excitement of a prospective new member of your organisation without having properly set out the timelines and next steps of your discussion or negotiation.  If you get this wrong, excitement can lead swiftly to disappointment on all sides.


Be trustworthy

This is a big one for me. Having been brought up by basically unreliable and unpredictable adults, I have a special wariness of people who are flaky, who over-promise and under-deliver. I especially can’t abide by professionals or personal acquaintances who say they were swamped and that’s why they didn’t do what they said they were going to do. It seems to be a big feature of the education sector that people will just not be there when they have asked to schedule a call with you, or are half an hour late when they have asked you to come and meet them. As well as setting out next steps clearly, I always make sure I am true to my word. If I say I can move on price, I will. If I say I will call you at 2pm on Tuesday, I will.
Children need to be able to trust adults. They need to know that you will do what you said you would do. They need to know that if you set them homework, you can be trusted to take it in and mark it. They need to know that you will behave in a way that earns their trust and they also need to know you will be trusting of them.


Be warm and friendly but keep clear boundaries and don’t be a walkover

When I started teaching, I was told that I should start like a closed fist and only unfurl gradually and on my own terms. “Don’t smile ‘til Christmas” is what is said in this country, I believe. We often mistake being warm and friendly with a lack of boundaries. It is possible, desirable, essential even, to be warm and friendly to the people that we want to trust us, respect us and learn from us.

The same goes with sales. Warmth that is genuine and being friendly even if your service is ultimately rejected as not appropriate, is really important. If you have followed the steps of true consultative sales as set out here, there will be no change in your warmth and ability to be friendly, whether what you are offering is taken up or not. On the other hand, people can take the mickey and ask for a level of flexibility that just isn’t realistic. Don’t be afraid to say no because you worry you might lose the sale. Just explain why in a friendly way. You might be surprised that you don’t lose the sale after all.

While being friendly, one has to keep those clear boundaries.


Love what you do and do what you love

I have always had one rule about work. I love what I do and do what I love. If I find things to be otherwise, it’s time to move on.  I am genuinely passionate about the organisations I have worked with and feel completely at home sharing my passion, engaging others in dialogue and seeing if they might benefit from them too. There will always be targets, ideals, peaks in workload and even days that are simply crappy. But it’s important to me to work with my colleagues to build the right culture so that these things don’t become central drivers.

As a teacher, you can find that your initial passion can become swallowed up by the demands of the job. Where you can, join together with colleagues in your school to make sure the culture is one you believe in and that makes you feel happy and alive at least most of the time. Make sure that you aspire to being surrounded by staff and students that love what they do and do what they love.

Colour-blindness, cats and cucumbers, and cycling

Image result for Unconscious bias
From Margie Warell

Why is my curriculum white vs. why, is my curriculum white?

I was telling a friend of mine about the BAMEed Network and was surprised by her reaction when we started talking about a podcast I had listened to called ‘Why is my curriculum white?’ She suddenly sounded really annoyed as she said, “you know, we don’t need this pitying, dumbing down of the world on our behalf, thank you. Of course the curriculum is white, this is England. I don’t mind adding a black or Asian philosopher into the mix but it’s not representative and it is artificial if there’s more than one or two isn’t it?”

I wasn’t sure how to react. She said, “All you are doing with this BAME thing is segregating and categorising people – I don’t want to be seen as a brown woman when I walk into a room or representing brown people or women when I am on the school governing body. I just want to be me”. I love my friend, we often holiday together as families, we feel so at home together but we are completely opposed in terms of politics and many aspects of our world views. But we can talk about things and trust each other completely. We also don’t try and change each other’s minds about things. We find the middle ground. Still, I said to her, “colour-blindness, that’s not actually real you know?” She was resolute. It would be for her.

Test yourself if you dare

It gave me pause for thought though. I am not trying to segregate the world, I am trying hard to be aware of my unconscious bias. I start from the standpoint that we are so culturally socialised by certain viewpoints that it is unrealistic to pretend to be colour-blind or neutral. I have been challenging myself recently by trying out some of the Harvard University unconscious bias tests available online. If you are brave you will give them a go too. It makes me squirm but it reminds me that this difficulty exists and the key is to be aware and to not deny or enact the consequence of your initial unconscious bias.

My husband and I keep comparing our results with great curiosity and some mirth. We are such opposites in some ways too. His experience starts as an Israeli-Iraqi Jew brought up in Jerusalem, where he is seen as mixed race and a second class citizen alongside the Ashkenazic, European Jews. He is an immigrant to this country since the early 2000s and that makes him feel an affinity with certain populations more than others. He sees how ethnic minority students, and staff members, are treated differently in his workplace, a university setting, and it makes him incredibly frustrated. Having spent over a decade living in Israel myself, being constantly reminded that I am a foreigner, I know how he feels to some extent. Back in England now, in my relative position of white privilege, but still sometimes finding it hard to assimilate back in, my experience sometimes feels so extreme that it feels disingenuous to do anything but recognise that the way we see the world and are seen by it differs depending on many factors.

Three popular internet things that make you wonder

Every day, things I see online make me think more about this. Three very different ones have made me think. The first is the story of a five year old white American boy who wanted to get his hair shaved short like his black American best friend so that their teacher “wouldn’t be able to tell them apart”. This is a stark reminder of the fact that we don’t seem to be born looking for differences and aware of skin colour that much. It is culturally constructed over time and is a part of our education. You can’t culturally un-construct it just by declaring yourself colour blind. All culturally constructed notions are deeply engrained.

Secondly, the news interview where a white man is speaking to the camera and in marches his small daughter, shortly followed by his other child in a baby walker. They are pursued by a woman who rushes in on all fours grabs them both and hustles them out of the room, returning briefly, still on her knees to shut the door. The assumption online was that this was his wife. Others speculated that it could be the childminder. There was backlash against presumed racially charged assumptions that the woman was a childminder and not the children’s mother and the white man’s wife – she was Korean. She was his wife.

Thirdly, isn’t it human, – and animal – ancient, learned behaviour to break the world up into categories of like me, not like me, threat and non-threat. You only have to see what happens to a cat when someone puts a cucumber behind it. Why would a domestic cat that has never seen a snake, have it so engrained in their ancient cat-bias, so as to be afraid of a vegetable that has only a vaguely snake-like appearance, is completely inanimate but seems to have sneaked up on them? Could this be true also for us human folk? Does it go that far back?

Cycling and gender-biased aggression

On a personal note, as a cyclist in London, I am now clocking up 45 minutes each way on my commute to and from work. I have always been bothered by the amount of abuse I get, although my cycling style is pretty mellow and non-confrontational. I have cycled for years and a while back now, I complained to my husband that as a woman, I get called all sorts of vile names and people can be unduly aggressive towards me. He said he never got any abuse and put it down to the fact that I can be bloody-minded and belligerent with my opinions so I am probably the same on the roads. One evening, we went out together locally and I suggested we cycle there together. On the way, I asked him if he would be willing to do an experiment with me, and to cycle some distance behind me and watch what happened. Sure enough, he was shocked by the different treatment I got compared to what he has been accustomed to. I had the usual array of cars beeping, or deliberately overtaking dangerously close and shouting as they passed, making me jump. There was also unwanted interaction with swearing pedestrians, heads down in their phones while they were weaving between the cars pausing for a moment in traffic, and from other (male) cyclists even.

Due to the air quality of central London, I have taken to wearing a pollution filter mask while cycling in recent months. It has been quite cold so with the mask, gloves, helmet and all my waterproof gear on, you can’t tell if I am a woman or a man or even what colour I am. It’s amazing. It’s as if I have been granted a completely new status. No-one bothers me at all. Bingo.  I can see why it would be amazing to reach a place where we don’t automatically treat people in certain ways based on deep seated and learned bias.

Dare you consider, how might unconscious bias affect your relationships at school?

Let’s assume then that unconscious bias does exist. How might this affect your relationship with your students and other staff members? Here are some all-you-can-eat, food for thought observations I have heard played back to me by school staff I have spoken to:

Have you noticed that BAME staff members tend to be in charge of certain subjects and the further up the hierarchy you go, the whiter it gets? Any BAME senior leaders that do make it in schools tend to be in charge of discipline or PE. What’s that about?

Why is it, in some schools, that the majority of kids that are in detention at the end of the day are black? Why do teachers of all races treat black children’s misdemeanours differently?

Why is it that schools which serve predominantly BAME areas, in parts of London for example, often deploy a military style discipline regime and refer to this as being appropriate for “these kinds” of students? The claim is that they are entrenching bias towards certain groups being subordinate to the ruling middle classes rather than promoting a socially mobile, lifelong learner expectation for children of ethnic minority backgrounds.

What about the teachers who are surprised when their Chinese heritage students educated in this country are not maths whizzes, when the black kid can’t run and their white working class boys love to read?

What of the Asian British pupil who wrote that he lived in a terrorist (terraced) house, and then ended up facing an investigation by police?

Why is it that more ethnic minority people get university degrees than white people in Britain and yet in the workplace they will be still more likely to be unemployed and paid less?

What about assessment, what elements of that is geared towards certain socio-economic and ethnic biases? What about the recent Year 6 SATs test and the dodo question for example?

Can you join me in learning more?

Please ask yourself these questions, try the Harvard online tests and let’s start to discuss what this makes us feel, what we could do differently and where the issues might lie. We will be holding a BAMEed Network conference on all aspects of unconscious bias on June 3rd. If you have ideas for what other issues should be covered, let us know and make sure you are there on the day!