Tag Archives: Employment

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!

Treading the line between compliance and creativity

alma

Last week I went to a screening of ‘Most Likely to Succeed’, the Sundance nominated film about what education could be. The star of the film is High Tech High in San Diego (featured here), a place where teachers have the freedom to shape projects that culminate in public exhibitions. The film itself was interesting although sitting next to my anthropologist/social work lecturer/documentary film maker/husband, was a little distracting as he texted me his critique of the film and how it was made.

I was also doing a pretty good job of distracting myself with the plethora of emotional reactions I seemed to be going through watching the film. You can’t do anything much in life without recognising who you are and how this affects your experience. I am a mother of a 14 year old and an 11 year old, was educated in the 1970s and 1980s in London at a hippy primary school and then a girls grammar school that took me on despite my failing the entrance exam. I did an anthropology degree, have a PGCE that specialised in alternative education and a Masters degree in Education. I taught English for over ten years in Jerusalem in the 1990s and early 2000s in democratic and alternative schools. I helped set up, and worked at, The Key for 8 years, supporting school leaders and governors to run their schools. Now I work for the school-led charity, Challenge Partners. I am a long-suffering school governor too. It would be safe to say I live and breathe education. So clearly, my viewing experience was coloured by my life so far and as I watched, I also listened to my own thoughts and reactions.

As a teacher

I taught in three schools that were really like the one in the film and as part of my teacher training, visited several others across Israel. It made me nostalgic and excited to see it again on screen in Hi Tech High, and to remember that wonderful time. We had complete freedom to decide what we taught and how. The curriculum was designed by each teacher, there was no monitoring of their classroom, homework or lesson plans. We wrote our own tests and decided when, what and how frequently to test the children. There were national GCSE equivalent tests at the end of year 12. The kids usually did well. It was the most incredible experience. It made me a passionate, hard working, dedicated, curious and committed teacher. I wanted each child to thrive and shine, I loved my subject and my classes were vibrant, varied and the children were, on the whole, enthusiastic learners. It wasn’t without its challenges and difficulties but we worked these through, the general tone was one of exploration, dialogue, understanding and practical solutions. The school was a happy and purposeful place.

On the other hand, I sometimes look back at my teaching experience as I do on my neglectful parents during my 1970s childhood entirely devoid of any health and safety awareness. The amount of times we could have died as we lolled about in the back of my mum’s Morris Traveller without seatbelts, or ran about the streets playing unattended sometimes laughing off the passing paedophile’s pathetic attempts to lure us into his car, or hopping over the tube rails for a dare. If I hadn’t been streetwise and vigilant, it could have been tragic indeed. And if I hadn’t been the massively enthusiastic and reflective practitioner I was, I could have just done not very much with my students and coasted my way through the years. I found that some of the children at the schools where I taught really suffered from the amount of freedom they had. It was their parents who had wanted this for themselves as children, and were living vicariously through their children by giving them relief from the oppressive discipline they hated in their own childhood. With such permissive parents, lacking in clear boundaries, some children were really ill equipped to deal with freedom of this kind and it was exhausting trying to meet their needs.

As a mother

I felt remorse, guilt and anxiety – why don’t my children have this kind of education? Why have I been so passive about sending them along with the herd to normal schools? Have they missed out and been compromised by restrictive educational experience that has increasingly been narrowed by the obsessive managerialist measurement culture? Or have they been strengthened by having to eke out creative, autonomous, and alternative educational experiences despite being on the factory line of bog standard English education?

I felt defensiveness and derision – I didn’t have to decide whether to send my own children to the schools where I taught in the end, although I agonized over it, because we moved to England when the oldest reached reception age. There seemed no choice except to go to the local primary school and hope for the best. What is shown in the film is all very well but if this school happened in this country, it would be only a very certain kind of parent that sent their kid there. It would be swamped by anxious yummy mummies and would fall foul to the fate of many of the free schools of its ilk. It was my experience of my hippy local primary school in the 1970s where we learnt Beatles songs, carpet weaving and were left to self-directed learning from laminated cards in Learning Lab boxes that led to my failing the 11+ and spending my entire secondary education gasping to barely keep up.

As a working person

Throughout my career at management and director level, when I interview people for roles in my team, I sometimes find the more impressive the grades on their CVs are, the more lacking in creativity and unable to cope with autonomy they are. The Hi Tech High model of team work gives importance to going through a process and not just to the output, respect is given to exploration, for taking the time, and this really appeals to me. We seem to be racing people through life, meting out the stages of development they need to reach from birth to graduation and ticking them off to satisfy our own need for measurement, league tables, evidence of productivity and the like. We have a generation of young people in their early careers that are restlessly running on underdeveloped tip toes before they have developed the stability needed when they hastily learned to walk.

My conclusion will always be the same. I am ever the relativist in my outlook. There’s room for everything and a one-size-fits-all approach never works. I would love there to be room for such freedom and depth of thought and experience for all children. I believe that some schools do manage to build in some pockets of exploration and autonomy while marching along to the exhausting demands of the system as a whole.

By way of example, while we were watching this film, my youngest was away for the week at a wonderful life-changing experience through her school. Fifteen Yr 7 to Yr 9 children were sent away to a writers’ retreat of incredible calibre in Shropshire. It’s especially amazing that she was chosen as the school has recognised that she is an articulate and enthusiastic writer and that her SATS scores and dyslexia shouldn’t be allowed to be an impediment to this. “I wish my school was always like that”, she repeated over and over for the coming weeks. What she loved was the freedom and structure that interplayed so well. The autonomy mixed with clear guidance from professional writers. They cooked their own meals and went for country walks. They were able to steep themselves in a project day after day, after day, were encouraged to focus on depth, to make mistakes, and to be treated as writers by writers. It’s not the first experience of this kind they have had at the school, and it won’t be the last. So instead of beating myself up for not banding together with fellow parents and creating a free school that provides the North London version of Hi Tech High for my children, I think I will continue to support my local comp that treads a confident line between compliance and creativity.

 

 

Educolour: change begins with you

stereotypes

 

There seem to be several ways that people tackle the issue of diversity in the workplace as far as I have experienced it. Having occupied various positions in white, middle-class dominated work environments, the issue of diversity has exercised me for a long time.  I have been regarded as “the ethnic minority” in some places by virtue of the fact that I am of Jewish heritage, am married to an Iraqi-Israeli and my kids were born abroad. I have seen the almost visible domino effect of assumptions that click into place when people find out these facts about me. But, better out than in I say. If people can tell me what they assume about me, at least then I can work through the stereotypes with them and isolate what is right and what is not. One of the most destructive things is to ignore altogether race, identity, culture, colour, whatever it is that makes for difference between people.

Whether or not I can lay claim to be classed as an ethnic minority is immaterial. I am wholly and passionately committed to doing what I can to break down barriers that exist for people based on the sex, gender, sexuality, race, ethnicity, whatever the multifarious categorisation that exists that causes these barriers. This is why I am shoving my white-privileged nose into the group of people now committed to forming the #Educolour movement in this country. And I trust each and every one of them to speak truth to me at any point.

One of Stonewall’s diversity champions once told me, when I was concerned whether I could effectively look out for the rights of others, that there is no better advocate for diversity in a workplace than someone who might outwardly represent the accepted norm. “People might listen to a black guy talking about racial equality in the workplace, but if a white person is a passionate advocate, that will get people’s attention for sure”.

The biggest problem I have encountered is that people don’t want to talk about it. This is probably mainly because they are worried about saying something wrong and causing offense, But many don’t want to accept even the basic fact that subconscious bias and racism is rife within our society. Or worse still, people pretend to be “colour-blind”. Unless each one of us is willing to admit it is our problem, nothing at all will change. Unless each and every one of us just connects with the places where we do assume, discriminate, overcompensate, skirt around, feel uncomfortable, behave differently to people, then we will just perpetuate the problem.

Here are some uncomfortable moments I have had while on recruitment panels that might make your jaw drop:

Situation 1: 

Panel of two white women, one white man. White, male, middle-aged, middle-class interviewer goes off script and asks young, Asian woman: “Are you spoilt?”

She, unfazed, quick as anything says: “No, but my brother is! Have you met an Indian mother who doesn’t spoil her son?! He is her sunshine. I don’t get to be spoilt!”

We all laughed and moved on to the next question. I died inside. When we got out of the room, I challenged my senior colleague. “What was that all about? Why on earth did you ask that?”

“Oh” He said, completely nonplussed by my obvious disdain. “I once knew an Indian woman who was really spoilt. I didn’t want you to have to deal with that on your team”

I liked her, I wanted her on my team. She is personable, she has already proved herself to be quick-witted and feisty. She has got through to a face-to-face interview based on passing several stages of the recruitment process including three written tasks. The standard of her writing is excellent and she has displayed a creativity of thought in her responses. The second woman on the panel is worried about her ability to represent the organisation because she has a lilting, Delhi accent. I remind her that according to the job we have advertised, she needs to be able to write quickly and accurately, using a high standard of English. She has proved to be able to do this and moreover, seems like she could fit in really well with the rest of the team, our values and so on. “Some aspects of writing are just there, they can’t be taught” I was told by my colleague by way of explanation of her doubts about this candidate.

I can feel myself fighting for this person and fighting through assumptions, prejudice, all dressed up as genuine concerns but moreover, all based on subtle discrimination and not on the facts before us. She turned out to be one of the best members of my team.

My colleagues weren’t bad people. They saw themselves as very open-minded and committed to diversity. But there are boundaries to all of our ability to really challenge ourselves and ask honestly what subconscious bias could be playing out here.

Situation 2:

A white, male colleague and I are waiting for two candidates to show up for an interview. One has what could be described as a non-English, Arabic name, the other has a very “English” standard male first name and surname. The first to arrive is a black man, and we both assume this is the one with the Arabic name. It is only when the second candidate shows up for the interview that we realise that we are wrong. She is a woman and cannot possibly be the one with the standard English male name.

After the interviewees have left and knew nothing of our silent confusion, I can’t contain my embarrassment and say to my colleague: “Woah, massive racist assumptions there from both of us!” He claps his hand on his forehead and said “How many discriminatory stereotypes went into that little misunderstanding?!” Awful, but at least we were aware that this actually happened and at least we could openly talk about it and think what we would do next time to ensure this doesn’t happen again.

Situation 3:

Some years ago, I keep hearing some of my colleagues declare proudly, openly and frequently that we have a team that is predominantly made up of young, Russell Group university-educated men and women. It takes me a while to understand why this makes me angry. I challenge them on this and ask why this makes us a good place to work. I am not young, nor Russell Group educated, and I am the only person to have recruited not one, but two people onto my team who don’t have a university degree at all. The first hire sparked consternation when my boss realised that they didn’t fit the ideal standard, but once they had proved themselves to be superb at their job and display a lot more intelligence and resilience than some of our more “thoroughbred” members of the stable, it was easier to get the second one through. They both had a maturity and solid work ethic that ensured that we got things done and to a high standard.

My challenge to my previous workplace was a challenge to this idea that having people who have made their way through a path of privilege means that they are necessarily better at their jobs than others. In my experience, some of the best-educated and holders of the highest accolades from Oxbridge were the weakest staff members in terms of their teamwork, resilience, creativity and initiative-taking. I was told time and again, “we need the best candidate for the job, and the easiest way to see that is through their qualifications and work experience”. What is not clear here is that there are so many barriers to people who don’t have access to the level of privilege needed, that they may not be getting a shot at the places of education and work that others may be able to just glide in to.

We really have to create a recruitment process that both sorts people’s ability to do the job advertised but that also can sort between things that are trainable skills and things that are essential to have inbuilt. This is where we have an opportunity to halt the assumptive wheels of institutional prejudice and actually create a step for people to take.What I mean is this. Faced with two potential candidates, I must look to see where I can challenge myself and my own assumptions. I must also look to see if with a small amount of effort on my part, I might be able to provide an opportunity for someone who has proved that they can do the job well but may not have the standard set of traits of privilege that we lazily may assume make them the “best candidate” for the job. If I can take someone on and invest an extra few hours of training in them to fill any gaps, which may cost the organisation slightly more, I will. I know that through doing this, I have diversified the workplace, shifted the accepted norms about what pathways people need to have followed to land here, and have broadened my own and my colleagues’ horizons about where good people can come from, I must do this. And if I need to fight a bit to do it, I will.

There are simple things that we can all do, and that we all must do. We must embrace our own prejudice and never avoid an opportunity to delve deeper into it to understand it better. We must call out prejudice when we see it (including our own!) but not in a confrontational and aggressive way, we need to champion growth-inducing challenge and whenever possible model a better way through as many channels as possible – such as recruitment processes as I have tried to illustrate here. This is what I mean when I say, change begins with you.

On authenticity as a teacher, a parent and elsewhere

authenticity

 

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.

On empathy and viewing education through a lens of childhood

heart and brain

Image source: https://atmanco.com/blog/working-environment/importance-of-empathy-in-your-organization/

I read an article this weekend about Why You Should Have More Empathy and it got me thinking about our society and how managerialist culture, the obsession with productivity and outputs, measurement and data can really mean empathy and a place for human beings’ emotional investment takes a huge hit. It was later in the weekend that Alison Peacock tweeted “Leadership that views primary education through the lens of childhood is essential if we are to provide optimum learning for all” and I realised that this is completely connected to my earlier thoughts about empathy.

Somehow, we have created an education system where the child, at every stage in their childhood development, seems to be invisible in the setting of education policy. We are hell bent on trying to define where they should end up, what level they are at as compared with where they should be, what part of productivity in the capitalist machine they should take. And we are using our children’s learning as a way to measure their teachers’ success in instilling in their students the latest fad of what a good curriculum should look like. Through a lack of empathy we are dehumanising our children, their parents and their teachers in favour of an apparently more superior, logical and linear thinking, data and measurement.

To illustrate my point, I was flicking through my Year 8 daughter’s English workbook after she had shown me some really interesting homework she was doing on comparing two poems that show panic and confusion in very different ways. “I need to write more” she said, looking glum. “Looks good to me, you have argued your points well and there seems to be every inch of each poem covered” I responded – I try not to get involved, but I was an English teacher for a decade, I think I recognise good work when I see it. As I was turning the pages of her workbook, my eye rested on one of those little “Oral feedback given” stamps and then on the next page in red pen: “You need to write another paragraph – how can you maintain a level 7 if you don’t write more?!” Argh. There it is again.

It made me think about how an injection of empathy could impact on situations I have experienced lately connected with education. One example is around SATs again. My youngest is in year 6 and I have written recently about her experience as I see it. I watched the “Kids Strike” with interest last week. The parents’ slogan of “Let Kids be Kids” is catchy but not very clear. What I would hope they are trying to say is that kids generally love to learn, and if done well, they can even quite enjoy the challenge of a test or two along the way so long as they understand that this is a good way to see whether what they have learnt has stuck. If it hasn’t, their teachers can then ask, is that across the whole class? This might indicate that there might be a problem with the teaching, the curriculum, the planning over time for the whole class and it could help the teachers to think again. Or there might be a problem for individual children within the class, indicating the same issues may have affected a handful of children alongside other factors that might be getting in the way of their learning. Again, so useful to know to make sure the right things happen next.

But how did these parents of Year 2 children get to such a place that they felt they had to take this radical action and stage a strike? How did the conflict of empathy vs. rigid policy play out such that they had to make a stand based on their own empathic understanding of what is right for their children over and above what government thinks is right for children. I think in part it might be because at no point was there any thought put in, when orders were passed top-down regarding the Year 2 SATs test, into the feelings that would be stirred up in the headteachers, teachers, children and their parents. Perhaps a little step by step, empathetic, easing in would have gone a long way. It’s so telling that almost as an afterthought a template letter has been adopted and circulated this Friday by some headteachers nationwide, telling kids that they are awesome whatever the outcome and to relax and take it easy, ahead of the Year 6 SATs next week. Empathy yes, but so late in the process it’s almost ridiculous.

Another example this week was that I had my first experience of feeling so exercised by a situation unfolding in my older daughter’s secondary school that I felt I had to go and speak with the headteacher. For context, it takes a lot for me to go into school and say what I think is not going well and I make sure I write an email at least twice a year to the school thanking them and outlining what I think has gone well. I asked a couple of headteacher acquaintances for their advice on how to go about this and the answers were pretty much the same: go immediately and speak to the school. A couple mentioned following the school’s complaints procedure so I thought I would check this out online and try to be a good citizen. It irked me to think about this as a complaint though. I am not a consumer, receiving bad service here. I am a parent, who through listening to their child and discussing this situation, has realised that for the school to grow and learn, I really must feed this back. My daughter, who is so empathetic it is sometimes paralysing for her, was worried about the teacher getting told off, and of making her feel bad. She could see why this teacher had behaved the way she did and that the teacher obviously had a difficult conflict of interests that she was wrestling with.

The school complaints procedure is the most classic example of British, managerialist, bureaucratic and unempathetic prose written. It immediately starts with almost legalistic jargon mentioning statutory duty, with an array of numbered clauses down the margins. It would make even the meekest parent bristle ready for a fight. I would love to see something that starts perhaps like this: “We take care and pride in our school and our relationship with the children and parents in our school community. We recognise that we may not always get this right, and we appreciate your feedback and support to help our school be a place of true learning and growth. Therefore, we have written this guide to help you through what we perceive to be a fair and correct way to register a complaint, suggest a change, give some feedback or request a greater understanding of what we do at the school…..”

I practice what I preach in the workplace. Managerialist culture can fail to recognise the importance of the emotional life of your fellow colleagues and yet this failure is the very thing that can hold back effectiveness and quality of work. I feel it is my duty to act with empathy with the people I work alongside. It is such a strong and relevant ‘tool’ to begin with when setting a vision, working towards targets and goals and when leading and supporting other colleagues. Always the first thing on my mind when setting out the strategy of how we will get from here to there, is who are the people, what do I want them to feel, how will I communicate this to them? And in the current education sector, I do feel that unless we can find a way to disentangle the short-term political gains from the long-term educational aims, we are forever going to be locked into this politicised, marketised, unempathetic and managerialist attitude. The representation of logical thinking, measurement and data as inherently superior to emotional and intuitive reasoning can lead to the more extreme and rigid forms of managerialism we are seeing in the education sector and many other workplaces. We need a more humanised, responsive and relationship-based practice at the heart of what we do in order to succeed.

 

 

The importance of induction and orientation

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In 2007, aged 37, I returned to England, having been living, studying and working abroad since I was 24. I had spent the entirety of my working life abroad pretty much, and knew I would need to rapidly learn what it means to be English again. The country – and my home city – had changed beyond recognition in the time I had been away. I went through a period of re-orientation alongside my husband and children who had never lived in the country before and didn’t speak English fluently. I wish there had been some kind of induction or orientation for us all.

Induction for school governors

When I became a governor for the first time at a primary school in London, it took me a while to work out what I was meant to be doing, what the school was like, what the aims and vision of the governing body and SLT were. It didn’t have to be like that but it was, because there was no induction of any kind offered by the school or the governing body. I realised that there was no induction for probably these three reasons. The first is simply because the governing body was finding its own way under a headteacher who seem to regard them as a group of potentially interfering parents who needed to be kept at arm’s length. The second, more disturbing, was because there seemed to be a massive assumption that everyone knew what needed to be done, what the expectations were and how to behave in meetings. They were all white, middle class, professional people who had clocked up many hours on committees and in meetings of all sorts. This made me question how anyone who wasn’t au fait with all of the associated jargon and mannerisms of this very British system, was supposed to find a way in to this closed club. And the third reason was that no-one wanted to admit to anyone else that they had no real clue how it all worked in the very specific and very complex world of school governance, what we were all apparently buying into and what we were meant to do.

Such was my dismay that I took myself off to a local authority-run induction session. It was very telling. We were asked to bring along the School Development Plan (ours was a bound tome written in comic sans and that had no input at all whatsoever from the governing body) and a group of about 20 of us spent a day being inducted very thoroughly into the role, responsibilities, aims and ethos of good school governance. It may just have been me who saw this, but the socio-economic and ethnic mix of this group of people seemed very different to that of our governing body. Perhaps we all ended up there for the same reasons.

Suffice to say, I never really recovered from this bumpy start to my 4 years as a governor. This coloured my whole view of the gaping chasm between what good governance might look like and what I had experienced and it made me vow to ensure that new governors to our governing body would not feel the same. It took me years to push it through but eventually, as a parting gift at the end of my term, I did leave a thorough induction plan, clear materials, a buddying system and a vision for induction into the school’s governing body. It’s probably an unused file in someone’s inbox.

Good examples of induction policies for school governors

East Barnet School in London has an induction policy that states clearly that the induction process is seen as an investment, leading to more effective governance and retention of governors. It has a requirement for the following:

  • The Chair of Governors will welcome new governors to the governing body
  • New governors will have the opportunity to tour the school and meet staff and students
  • A mentor will accompany new governors to their first full governing body meeting, as required

The policy also lists the documents that new governors will receive within two weeks of appointment and suggests documents for them to read, such as the school’s latest Ofsted report and the school prospectus.

There is a checklist for new governors to complete. There is space to record the date when each stage of the induction process was carried out, and to confirm receipt of various documents.

St Giles Community School in Warwickshire has an induction policy and induction pack for new governors. It looks at the roles of the headteacher, the governor mentor, and the training link governor.

The document explains that the induction process will be co-ordinated by the Chair of Governors, and that everyone involved must follow the agreed programme. It says:

The governor mentor is available to help and support the new governor, before, during and after his/her first meeting as appropriate.

He/she should have experience as a governor, a good understanding of educational terminology and acronyms and good interpersonal skills.

There is a table listing different stages of the induction process, along with who is responsible for carrying them out and when they will take place

School induction for Year 7s

My oldest daughter started Year 8 this year. When she left her primary school and began secondary school, she was lucky enough to go to a week-long summer-school that the school organised for all Year 7s. It was a great week – not least for us parents as it was free childcare for an entire week. But on many levels it helped this potentially stressful time of new beginnings pass joyfully and without drama. Having Year 7s in school for a week without any other students there gave them space and time to practise the journey in to school, to find their way around the building without fear of being teased for getting lost, and gave them time to bond with each other without having to worry about being quiet and disciplined in lessons yet. They got to know the school rules, the atmosphere, and the expectations which were clearly set out to them and they also got to ask questions and feel confident that they knew more or less what lay before them.

Ernest Bevin College and Sixth Form Centre in Wandsworth has a number of transition strategies to help new Year 7 pupils settle in, including holding a summer school like the one my daughter attended.

The summer school lasts for two weeks and all Year 6 pupils who have accepted a place at the school are invited to attend. In 2014 the activities included:

  • A welcome day for pupils to get to know the school and each other
  • A team building day at an outdoor adventure centre
  • A ‘CSI science day’ for pupils to work in teams to solve a crime
  • A celebration event where pupils show parents and guests what they have been involved in during the camp

You can see a timetable of the summer school activities here. Other transition arrangements include only having Year 7 pupils in school on the first day of term, and holding Year 7 and  Year 8 ‘buddy afternoons’ in the third week of term to help students get to know pupils in other tutor groups and the year above them.

In June 2013, the department published findings from a National Foundation for Educational Research (NFER) survey of 21,000 disadvantaged 11-year-olds’ views on starting secondary school, and whether summer school had changed these. It concluded there was a “small positive effect on transition to secondary schools”, especially for pupils from disadvantaged backgrounds. NFER research from 2006 looks at transition from primary to secondary school in Wales. It includes four case studies of good practice. Strategies identified in the first case study from a primary school include:

  • Designing a bridging project in science for pupils to begin in Year 6 and complete in Year 7
  • Meetings between the secondary school’s special educational needs co-ordinator (SENCO) and the primary school to discuss pupils with SEN, and meet their parents
  • Year 5 pupils visiting the secondary school
  • Year 6 pupils attending the secondary school for a number of PE lessons, and two induction days (in the autumn and summer terms)

The third case study, from a large secondary school, describes the following actions that the school and local schools took to support transition:

  • Headteachers of all schools in the catchment area met on a termly basis
  • Members of the school’s English department met with primary school colleagues to plan a bridging project
  • Primary school teachers observed secondary school lessons in core subjects
  • The head of Year 7 met with Year 6 pupils twice, to deliver information and invite questions from pupils
  • Sixth forms pupils were asked to help Year 7 pupils settle in, and the school held a day where only Year 7 and Year 12 students were present

The school in the fourth case study developed a proforma to gather information from primary schools about pupil’s test results, SEN, strengths and weaknesses, conduct/attitude, and attendance record.

It’s so sad therefore that the government decided to scrap the funding for these summer schools especially since we know that they do seem to impact on students’ integration and attainment having attended them. Many schools will now need to charge for these summer schools which will defeat the very important purpose of targeting underprivileged students.

Induction for new staff members

Most of the jobs I have taken on have found me working things out for myself and without a clear induction – mainly because I seem to have taken on new roles within an organisation, in start-up situations, or there has been an element of make-do-and-mend in the workplace I entered. However, I know that as a line manager, I have always ensured that my new staff members are inducted clearly and in a gradual and logical way. It can be overwhelming the amount of information one needs to take on in a new job. And it can be reassuring to know that your line manager and colleagues actually understand the workings of their organisation, the role you are taking on and what is expected of you.

The NCTL sums it up well when they say that induction should “be designed to help the new member of staff to contribute quickly and fully to the life and work of the school. This requires processes that will enable them to be integrated socially as well as formally into the school community”. Similarly to students starting a new school, The National College says that induction can help ensure new employees are highly motivated, and that employees who settle quickly will become productive and efficient from early on. Induction should cover:

  • A brief overview of the school and its management structure
  • Conditions of employment, for example hours of work and holidays
  • Procedures relating to sickness notification
  • Health and safety arrangements

The Advisory, Conciliation and Arbitration Service (ACAS) has produced a booklet with advice on the recruitment and induction process in all types of organisations. The benefits of an effective induction programme reflect those outlined by the NCTL and are:

  • A more settled employee
  • A more effective response to training
  • Lower turnover
  • Improved industrial relations

The booklet also says:

  • A good reception on the first day, where the line manager spends time with the new employee, is important
  • A written checklist of what should be covered in the programme is useful, so the new starter and the manager know what has and has not been covered, and to give some structure to the programme
  • Care should be taken not to overload the new employee with information
  • Written materials, such as a handbook, can cover key information and help employees to remember it
  • A guide, mentor or buddy can usefully help with everyday questions, introduce other co-workers, and explain the layout of the building

Induction is important

I don’t think I am exaggerating when I say that induction is absolutely crucial in any organisation to get newcomers off to the right start. I hope that the examples given here have been useful and that they can give some food for thought on how you work with new people, set the standards and get colleagues and peers feeling clear, focussed, involved and enthused from their first interaction with you.

If you need any help, some constructive criticism or support, you know where to find me!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Living the dream: what the heck is social mobility anyway?

After I left The Key I worked briefly with a social enterprise whose perhaps audacious goal is to try to guarantee social mobility for the young people on its four-year programmes. My role was to get them up and running to sell their programmes more effectively to schools and to help them inject more clarity into what schools might need by way of evidence that these programmes do indeed work. It certainly got me exercised about the whole concept of social mobility and in my previous blog post I look at how schools might start thinking about their own engagement with issues of social mobility. The first of many questions to consider though is always the big one: what the heck is social mobility anyway?

The fact is, when you delve just below the surface, the whole concept of social mobility is problematic – for some to move up, others must move aside and make room. And yet some organisations working with young people from deprived backgrounds, schools included, might be tempted to think it starts with telling students that, as Lawrence Samuel put it The American Dream: A Cultural History, anyone can, “through dedication and with a can-do spirit, climb the ladder of success.” We might therefore feel justified in telling our students that anyone can be anything they want in life, they just need to want it badly enough, keep their noses clean and work for it. And there is some truth in this but it’s never that simple, is it?

All too often, being socially mobile or even being a ‘success’ seems to be equated with a rapid acquisition of huge wealth. The media often screams messages of quick ascent to fame and fortune so long as you are ‘in it to win it’. I hear it a lot from teachers, parents, youth workers and the like that young people often need a swift and intensive crash course in the actual reality that isn’t found in the ‘reality’ TV shows and celebrity lifestyles readily available to them as role models. Unpack these celebrity footballers’ and famous personalities’ lives and you see how short-lived, fraught and insecure their riches really are. In fact when you look at the statistics for these outliers, you begin to understand that many young people (and probably an equal number of older ones too) will clearly see this dream crumble before their very eyes when you start to unpack the odds for them. I can’t tell you how many times the team I worked with started conversations with their Success for Life programme participants with helping them understand that becoming a premier league footballer might not be a viable all-eggs-in-the-basket first option (especially considering you aren’t even in the first team at school and aren’t training more than a couple of times a month).

This isn’t to say we shouldn’t encourage young people to dream, to be aspirational, and to set their goals high. But our role as educators is to, well, educate. Are we clear ourselves on the way in which our society seems to reject the notion that social mobility might be determined by forces which are beyond our control? With twisted pseudo-meritocratic themes coming through loud and clear around the undeserving poor, benefits cheats and scroungers have we lost sight of the noble desire for equality of opportunity as a starting point for all our young people? And in practical terms, is there even space in the timetable for existential enquiry around politics, society, history and democracy unless they are part of the curriculum of your chosen GCSE and A level subjects?

Sussex University sociologist Peter Saunders has written extensively on social mobility and on the question of how meritocratic Britain really is. He defined an ideal meritocratic society as one where “each generation would be recruited to a different class position on the basis of individual intelligence”. And schools seem committed to this notion that intelligence is the defining factor in fixing our intellectual and professional status as adults. This is reinforced by the fact that schools are judged by academic outcomes in particular for our students from deprived backgrounds, and ‘closing the gap’ is what it is all about. It seems that we do mean well and that this is embedded in our educational and societal structures. If this is the case, schools don’t necessarily need to see beyond the confines of their contribution to a student’s future success. They are doing everything they can and in that sense, the mantra of ‘work hard and you can get anywhere you want’ does seem appropriate when you are referring to gaining the grades that buy you a ticket from school to the next stage.

But if knowledge is power then there are two things young people need from their education and we need to take responsibility for the fact that it can’t be covered by simply selling the American Dream. The first is a commitment to fearlessly educate them about social mobility itself, the divisiveness of our society and how inequality is embedded at every level. This is not to demotivate or disincentivise our young but rather to empower them to perhaps even be the agents of change. And secondly, we need to ensure young people have a chance to explore their own personal story, their roots, their feelings, and assumptions about themselves as actors not just within a classroom and a school, but as a family member and as a member of wider society and even the global community. This intertwined story of ourselves as both social and personal beings, and as products of and actors in society is one that is not easy to unpick but unlocking it as a concept can be the key to achieving real, enduring success, for life.

Four things to help students to think big:

  • Don’t ask students what they want to be when they grow up, but ask them who they are and what makes them excited. Students need to know what sparks their passions and need to build on their strengths. We spend too much time in life trying to improve things that we can’t do well, when we should be spending more time building on our strengths.
  • While we are on the subject of self-knowledge and self-worth, it’s important to make sure that students can not only look inwards and understand themselves – the personal, and the political. They need to know how to articulate what they feel, think, believe and hold dear. Students need opportunities to put across their case and promote themselves as worthy beings with much to say. They need time to develop and differentiate their world view and they need opportunities to try out these thoughts and beliefs on different audiences for different ends.
  • Make sure students know about a variety of people and their professions, from the mundane to the specialised, to the generalists and the quirky. Ensure they understand the skills sets, interests and pathways that led people into these professions. Bring these people into school, take the students out into the world, use low-cost options through social media or the Internet. Get them into the habit of asking people about their journey that led them to where they are now.
  • Help young people to understand that hard graft and dedication are essential and that good grades are your ticket to greater things, but that there is more than this that determines success. And some of that is deeply entrenched prejudice, inequality and injustice. A thorough understanding of society, the barriers and the opportunities we all face in different ways can help empower students to be the agents of change and to build a better future. How good is that?

You can see my article in Teach Secondary here http://www.teachwire.net/news/in-their-dreams-young-people-need-to-be-taught-about-social-inequality

Four things for schools to consider when thinking about social mobility

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Beware the American Dream
Many organisations working with young people seem to sell students something similar to The American Dream – all you need to do is work hard and want it badly enough, and you too can reach the highest heights. This is reinforced by media depictions of ordinary people’s quick ascent to fame and fortune. TV channels are flooded with shows pitting people against each other, the promise of celebrity and copious wealth within pirouetting distance. Many a student buys into these myths (and a surprising number of intelligent adults too). The American Dream crumbles before their very eyes when you start to unpack the odds for them. I can’t tell you how many times we have helped our participants understand that becoming a premier league footballer – even if it’s your biggest dream – might not be a viable option especially considering you aren’t even in the first team at school and aren’t training more than a couple of times a month. But it goes beyond explaining the odds. Knowledge is power and there are things young people need from their education that isn’t covered by the American Dream. (A few TV channels might also like to take on the challenge of educating the masses on this too). My vision would be to ensure that no child leaves school without a clear understanding of themselves as a member of and a product of society, and without questioning what they want to be going forward – and how they might make that happen. We should want our young to be aspirational and reach for the sky and I don’t believe debunking the American Dream will demotivate them, but will rather empower them.

When grades aren’t enough
Social mobility pundits are seemingly preoccupied with making everyone middle class. To achieve this aim schools, and a plethora of education charities aimed at improving students’ university applications, can be seen to push some students to get into a top university and seemingly to urge them to denounce their background and become a banker or lawyer. It might be controversial to say this but attending an elite university without adequate support is tantamount to sponsoring a life of feeling inadequate, developing imposter syndrome and being left caught between a rock and a hard place. I know this all too well, being the only one in my single-parent, free-school-meals-eligible family with a degree. There is also the danger of giving young people messages that their often aspirational and supportive family are inadequate losers. You can see where this leads – you don’t fit in anywhere in the end. ‘Posh kids’ have social and cultural capital that comes with rubbing shoulders with an array of professional people. Schools do their utmost to try to address this with high expectations for all, free music tuition, debating, rowing, fencing and more. But what of the fact that middle class students will have access to culture, professional contacts and support throughout their journey in life? Again, packing off a young person to an elite university having helped them gain great grades at GCSE and A level, taught them violin and rowing is a start but it doesn’t plug the gap of social and cultural capital. Whose connections do students tap into for job opportunities and to fund an internship? What more can we do to narrow the gap on these life-long inequalities of opportunity?

Metacognition, political and social awareness and self-knowledge in bucket loads
It’s troubling that there isn’t the space and time in schools to ask the question not of ‘what do you want to be when you grow up’ but ‘who are you, what are your interests and skills, where are you willing to invest your effort? What kind of lifestyle are you after? Do you know anything about the people that have that lifestyle? Are your preconceptions even close to the truth?’ My husband always wanted to be an academic. He has worked hard and now he is one It’s a far cry from his 1980s style dream. In fact, he says he has read that there is a direct parallel between academia and drugs cartels. Apparently even the salary is about the same too. And you might be surprised that in neither profession is it very high for anyone but the very top dogs.

In the 1990s, a teacher studying for my Masters in education, I took my whole class on a journey of exploration into the (now discredited) world of Learning Styles. This year-long action research project culminated in my class substantially improving their achievement across the board. The take-away lesson for me, regardless of whether or not there is any substance to Learning Styles, was that my students became engaged in understanding for themselves how they learn (metacognition). Each developed techniques to concentrate, engage, relate to and retain what they learned, giving them ownership of their learning and making them masters of their own choices. They could harness this and use it wherever and however they chose, not just in my English class. The results were stunning.

We should be similarly committed to fearlessly educate our young about social mobility itself and how inequality is intricately woven into the tapestry of everyday life. Just as young men and women need to know about homophobia, racism and feminism, so too do we need to help young people to understand the simple facts about class differences in society.

And as mentioned above, there needs to be space and time for young people to unearth their own personal story, their roots, feelings, and assumptions about themselves not just within a classroom and a school, but as a family member and as a member of wider society and even the global community. This intertwined story of ourselves as both social and personal beings, and as products of and actors in society is one that is not easy to unpick but unlocking it as a concept can be the key to achieving real, enduring success.

Sustainable solutions should be the only solutions
We’ve all heard about schools kettling groups of borderline students into the A*- C safety zone or punting the pupil premium on interventions that make low-level disruption, serial absenteeism and exclusion rates disappear in a puff of lavender-scented smoke for the prized Ofsted outstanding. We assume that means that students are getting a high quality education and gaining the grades they need to go on to the next stage of their journey in life. But how many school leaders have the longitudinal vision to say, hand on heart, that they are pledging public funds to kick-starting their most disadvantaged students’ journey on the path towards being socially mobile and successful no matter their backgrounds? When our education system is so dominated by politicians whose concerns are short-term and, well, political, are school leaders really able to see beyond their place on the league tables? Some believe schools and universities should be held accountable for what happens to their students once they have graduated and entered the world of work as a way to enforce a longer-term vision. But I like to think that some school leaders, regardless of the ever-changing trends and official requirements, are keenly committed to making sure that as many of the young people in their care as possible get everything they need to be successful in life, whether that be as a core part of the curriculum, an extra level of support from public services or bought-in opportunities that otherwise would never come their way.

There is a glut of organisations operating under the banner of social mobility. My visits to nearly 40 London schools recently has got me thinking about services schools buy in and about charities, social enterprises and businesses. I have spent some time over the summer reviewing the services available and there is a veritable mosaic of ideas, methods, outcomes and claims – not to mention groovy branded jackets, highly designed logos and flashy websites. I have heard from many school leaders that they are suffering from ‘interventionitis’ and are unsure of how the many external services actually integrate, duplicate or make sense in their own school. The collapse of Kids Company has made this all the more relevant. There have been some insightful pieces on this issue highlighting that a ‘good idea’ will result in a charity in response. I am the last to advocate for privatisation of the education sector, but I do believe that unlike a business model, charities often don’t check if their offer is commercially viable, responds to a market-tested need, or is duplicates something existing. Charities aren’t even really required to guarantee their offer is high quality, particularly in their experimental start-up stage. They need to identify potential donors, compete for funds and persuade schools to take them on. And schools will be interested because they are already working their socks off for their students, every little helps, and the charity offers services for free – surely there is nothing to lose. And yet, there is so much to lose. Some of the charities working to help deprived young people, work with only a handful at a time and are not necessarily going to survive if their funding dries up. And most worrying is that they may see that demand exceeds capacity and they could end up in hot water, unable to sustain their activity or scale up according to demand. What happens then?

I personally like the social enterprise model – it has to be self-sustaining as a business but has social responsibility firmly at its heart rather than the often distasteful for-profit mantra of ‘return for share-holders’. To know they are spending public money wisely, schools will want to see regular impact reports, a contract and to hold the organisation to account for the quality and completion of the work as described.

I would appeal to all schools to think carefully about what they can do to help guarantee success, for life, for their students. Schools should do their due diligence and be certain that whatever they choose for their students, whether it be paid for or free, that it really delivers the outcomes it says it does, that it puts the schools’ and the students’ long-term interests at its core and that it has a solid past and an equally promising future.

This post is the longer version of the article I wrote for Schools Week http://schoolsweek.co.uk/put-the-students-interests-at-your-schools-core/