Thank you Barack and Michelle Obama

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Dear Barack and Michelle Obama,

I wonder if you realise how far the influence of your Presidency extends? I know the President of the United States is often dubbed the “Leader of the Free World,” but your time in the White House has had a truly global reach. In my little part of England, I have been moved to tears more than once by the example that you both have set for me, for my family, for the students I teach, and for future generations.

I want to thank you. Over the past eight years, you have shown the world what it is like to behave with dignity, compassion, and humanity in public office. The first black President and First Lady in the White House, you have completed your tenure without personal scandal or revelation, with your integrity intact. This shouldn’t be a rarity, but public figures with such qualities are few and far between.

I want to thank you for your leadership. You have shown what it is to lead with vision and values, a set of principles that you articulated clearly and which ran through every aspect of your Presidency. I am sure that you will feel frustrated at not having achieved all that you wished to, obstructed by partisan division and political machination. I am sure you will be frustrated as you watch some of what you have achieved rolled back and undone by your successor. But you have borne those setbacks with equanimity and tolerance, and they seem to have strengthened your resolve, not weakened it.

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I want to thank you for the example you have set as a family. I admire the care you have taken to protect your children and ensure that their upbringing was insulated from the extraordinary circumstances of your role. The fact that Sasha did not attend her father’s farewell address because she had an important exam the next day tells us everything about your priorities as parents, and the value that you place on education.

It was fitting that the First Lady’s final public engagement was at a celebration of school counsellors, and you took the opportunity to re-emphasise your commitment to the importance of education to the success of our society. You have yourselves shown what the power of good schooling can do, as it was your own education which allowed you to overcome all of the barriers and obstacles between you and the highest political office, and to speak with such authority, knowledge and wisdom on so many occasions and on so many topics.

 

I want to thank you for your feminism and all you have done to overcome stereotyped masculine and feminine roles in the workplace, in authority, and in relationships. In your farewell address, and on so many occasions throughout your two terms in the Oval Office, you have shown that your marriage is a partnership of equals, modelling those values that so many still struggle to live by. You took time to reply to a letter from a young girl suffering bullying because her parents were a gay couple, saying:

In America, no two families look the same. We celebrate this diversity. And we recognize that whether you have two dads or one mom what matters above all is the love we show one another. You are very fortunate to have two parents who care deeply for you. They are lucky to have such an exceptional daughter in you.

Our differences unite us.

I want to thank you for your humour. From Carpool Karaoke to the Correspondents’ Dinner, from your Thanksgiving dad-jokes to your Saturday Night Live appearances, you have set a new standard in political comedy – although I admit your competition is scarce. You have balanced this with the dignity you have mustered in times of unbearable tragedy and commemoration. You have shown that laughter and tears do not diminish your leadership, but enhance it.

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I want to thank you for all the barriers you have broken down. You have shown people what is possible with a good education, a set of deeply held principles and values by which you chart your course, and the unconditional love and support for one another as a couple and as a family – not just in America, but the world over. You talked about the audacity of hope. But in your time as President you have shown what can be achieved by daring to hope, by daring to try, and by believing in what is possible. You have been inspiring. And no matter what follows, that will always remain.

Thank you, Barack and Michelle Obama. Thank you.

 

 

Women into Leadership at #WomenEd

On Saturday 8th October my colleagues Jo Gill (@JoanneSGill, Assistant Headteacher Teaching & Learning) and Sue Strachan (@SusanSEnglish, Head of KS4 English) headed for Microsoft’s HQ in Reading for #WomenEd’s Second Unconference. We were co-presenting the approach we’ve taken at Churchill Academy & Sixth Form to promoting gender equality, with a particular emphasis on women into leadership. Here are my remarks. You can see the Prezi, along with the sections presented by Jo and Sue, here.

#HeForShe Headteacher

 

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The field when I interviewed for the Headship at Churchill was 50/50 male/female. I got the job. I feel therefore that I am already on the back foot when discussing the issue of promoting women into leadership roles. The numbers are clear:

  • 63% of secondary school teachers are female
  • 50% of secondary school senior leaders are female
  • 37% of secondary school headteachers are female

 

There are, however, signs that things might be improving. When Kate Chhatwal was writing in the New Statesman in 2014 about The Invisible Prejudice Holding Women Teachers Back,  she was faced with a choice to take her proposals forward:

Now, which of our great education or political leaders should I pitch the idea to? The man at No 10 or the man in charge of education?

There have been significant steps forward in gender representation at the top of education, although opinion is currently quite mixed on whether this represents progress for education generally.

What to do?

As a HeForShe advocate, I am committed to improving gender equality wherever I can exert any influence at all. In doing so, I need to avoid stereotyping, patronising or “mansplaining”.

 

I find explanations which focus on the generic qualities of “women leaders” as though that is a homogenous group unhelpful. However, Lean In provides I think useful advice in tips for managers and how to be a workplace ally. As a Head I try to ensure that I:

 

1. Make sure women’s ideas are heard

The chair of SLT rotates. We haven’t ever used the Are Men Talking Too Much? counter but perhaps it’s not a bad idea…

2. Challenge the likeability penalty

This is about challenging perceptions of male and female success. Lean In asks:

When a man is successful, his peers often like him more; when a woman is successful, both men and women often like her less. Who are you more likely to support and promote, the man with high marks across the board or the woman who has equally high marks but is just not as well liked?

At every point, it’s important to challenge the likeability penalty, asking colleagues (and myself) “Would you have the same reaction if a man did the same thing?”

3. Support mentorship and coaching

We are strategic partners in the North Somerset Teaching Alliance which runs a Women into Leadership programme. Both Jo and Sue have undertaken this course and continue to promote it to other women. I have encouraged female SLT to sign up to the National College’s Women Leading in Education coaching programme, as coaches and as coachees.

4. Celebrate women’s accomplishments

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It should go without saying that it’s the role of the Headteacher to celebrate accomplishments and positively reinforce success. However, as a strategy to encourage women into leadership, it’s vital. As Michelle Obama’s visits to the Elizabeth Garrett Anderson School show, highlighting high-profile successful women’s accomplishments can have a transformative impact: the “I did this; you could too” effect.

5. Encourage women to go for it

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I don’t know whether the statistic quoted on Lean In, that men apply for jobs when they meet 60% of the criteria while women wait for 100%, is accurate – or even if such a generalisation is helpful. I do know that, if we are to improve gender equality, it’s my role as Headteacher to spot potential, develop it, and maximise it. My school will benefit from it and, if and when those leaders eventually leave, the wider system will benefit too.

As the Assistant Headteacher at Churchill, Jo Gill, said: 

 In order to move on in your career it is all about taking opportunities when they present themselves to you, but also to seek out those opportunities that you are looking for to enhance your career prospects. Ensuring that you have a mentor – or mentors – that you can trust and that you value their opinion and their advice. Having confidence in yourself about the experiences that you have gained along the way that shape the kind of leader that you want to be and demonstrate these skills and experience in job applications and when you achieve that promotion.

 

#HeForShe Education Pledge: No Haters


A year ago I published my post #HeForShe, or I am a feminist to affirm my commitment to gender equality publicly. Since that time I have kept to the movement’s four core commitments, to:

  1. Express zero tolerance for discrimination and violence against women and girls
  2. Believe in equal access to social, political and economic opportunities
  3. Understand that taking a stand for women and girls is taking a stand for humanity
  4. Speak up when you see physical, emotional or sexual harassment


I’ve also been inspired over the past year by the growth of WomenEd and other movements such as the Leading Women’s Alliance, Token Man, This Girl Can, and others. It was a catch up on the WomenEd Yammer and StaffRm threads that led me back to the #HeForShe Education page and their suggestions for action that I can take to help further gender equality in my field. 

#HeForShe makes three suggestions under their Be The Change banner: 

  1. That’s not okay: What does it mean to act “like a girl” or “like a man”? Call out gender-biased language from students and teachers alike. Ask the speaker to think about how these comments reinforce gender stereotypes.
  2. No Haters: Online bullies want your silence. Enlist your friends and followers to send messages of support to victims of social media trolling. You’ll help turn the internet into a safe space for everyone.
  3. Teach a teacher: Empower educators to create equality in the classroom. Get the UNESCO Guide for Gender Equality in Teacher Education Policy and Practices, a step-by-step guide for including gender equality issues in teacher training.


These are all great commitments, and I am happy to enact them all. However, I was particularly struck by the No Haters commitment as a really positive step that I can do more to affirm. I see a lot of negative behaviour on Twitter and in other online spaces. There seems to be an increasing proportion of educators who spend their time scanning their timelines for ideas they can attack, criticise, take down, or belittle. They are always ready to say “that won’t work” or “you shouldn’t do that” or “you are wrong.” And these people fall on both sides of the traditional/progressive divide. If you teach at Michaela and share your practice online, it’s time to batten down the hatches for the “you’re damaging children” onslaught – when they quite clearly care very, very deeply about the children they teach. Similarly, if you dare to suggest that an open ended creative project might be a good idea, or that children should enjoy their learning, there are those who are only too ready to tell you that you’re wasting your time. I don’t get involved in these threads too often, as I swear by “don’t feed the trolls” in the online sphere, but I always feel that I’m not really honoring my “no bystanders” commitment to speak up when I see harassment occurring. 


What I do know, however, that it stops people from sharing their practice online. I know it, because it’s stopped me. I am a straight white cisgendered male Headteacher, educated at an all-boys independent school and Oxford, which pretty much fills my privilege and entitlement bingo card. Yet I know that there are tweets I’ve written and deleted, articles I’ve read and saved, but not shared, and blog posts I’ve thought about and shelved, because I was nervous about the reaction. Because I didn’t want the hassle. Because it affects me personally when people are horrible to me – online or IRL. If that is my experience, with my full house of privilege and entitlement, how stifling could the gladiatorial atmosphere of edu-Twitter be to others?

For me, Twitter and blogging should be about sharing practice and discussing ideas, without fear. In that way, it should be like my classroom. Everyone in my classroom should have the confidence to venture their tentative, half-formed idea, to think it through with the help of their supportive classmates who will add to, build on and develop that tiny seed, to see if it could grow into something stronger and more robust. The critique and advice my students receive from me and their peers helps them improve. I would not tolerate someone belittling and ridiculing their idea – and to belittle and ridicule the student themselves would be a really serious matter. On Twitter we are dealing with grown adults, professionals even, and I can’t send them out or put them in detention – I’m not the Twitter police. So instead I send messages of support to those I see being attacked. Not necessarily in the public sphere – I’m still not in the business of feeding the trolls, and I don’t want to add fuel to the flame war – but to make the Internet a safer space. To thank them for sharing their ideas. To let them know that there is positivity and humanity online, and to try and build a constructive web. 

Above all, it’s important to remember that nobody got into teaching to try to and damage the children, to make them less smart, to stop them learning. We’re all in this to do our best. So let’s help one another, not tear each other down. 

#HeForShe, or I am a feminist

I have been really inspired this last week by posts from two of my favourite bloggers: Summer Turner‘s “Miss, is it true you’re a feminist?” and Jo Facer‘s Women through the ages. Jo posted her fantastic scheme of work to explore feminism in her all-girl’s school, and Summer explained how important it is to stand up and be counted as a feminist teacher. I completely agree. This is me, standing up to be counted. I am a feminist.

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As soon as Emma Watson launched the #HeForShe campaign back in September, I signed up. Her passionate, often personal, and powerful speech vocalised everything that I believe to be important about gender equality. In the sign up, the campaign asks for a commitment to:

  1. Express zero tolerance for discrimination and violence against women and girls
  2. Believe in equal access to social, political and economic opportunities
  3. Understand that taking a stand for women and girls is taking a stand for humanity
  4. Speak up when you see physical, emotional or sexual harassment

These were not difficult commitments for me to make personally, but reading Summer’s post made me realise how important it is for me as a male teacher to make them professionally. It is vitally important that the students I teach in the schools I lead see that gender equality is an issue that affects men and women, and that it is male attitudes that need to change for the benefit of both genders.

I remember witnessing a conversation in a school where a female teacher was telling a girl off because her skirt was too short. The rationale was not “you are in breach of the uniform policy” but rather “it’s too distracting for the boys in the class for you to wear that.” It was only years later that I realised why this conversation made me so uncomfortable. This kind of conversation legitimises the male gaze and the objectification of the female body, encouraging the girl to feel ashamed of the impact it would have on uncontrollable young males. This will not do. Of course, enforce a uniform policy, but more importantly challenge the boys in their attitudes towards young women. Don’t allow attitudes where the objectification of the female body is taken as a given. Encourage girls to be confident, not ashamed; as the new #thisdoesntmeanyes campaign spells out: “what I wear and how I behave are not invitations.”

It is not just with students that my feminist commitment applies. It is a scandal that, in a profession with a 74% female workforce, a higher proportion of men make it to senior leadership positions than women. I am one of those men. It is my responsibility as a school leader to encourage and develop female leaders, to redress this balance. Sexist attitudes are endemic, ingrained and often almost overlooked, as Ros McMullen has described. This cannot stand.

I do think things are changing. I can see it in the students I teach – and those that I have taught. As Jack Howard says in the video above, “we’ll be the last generation to say sexist and homophobic things, and our grandchildren will say ‘why was this ever allowed?'” Young people are prepared to engage with the ideas in feminist discourse and high profile campaigns like #HeForShe, #ThisGirlCan and #LikeAGirl help introduce this. Schemes like Jo Facer’s Women Through The Ages can build on that introduction and create a better future, where gender equality benefits all of us. Sophie from Over17Mirrors also provides a handy guide for teen feminists everywhere:

“Feminism is about not limiting people’s opportunities.” My #HeForShe commitment is to live these values in every aspect of my professional life – because I’m a feminist, and it matters.