Embracing Difference

30 days ago, I started working at the Chartered College of Teaching. This time has absolutely flown by and I found myself arriving at the Annual Conference early on a Saturday morning to help with the set-up wondering what I would get from the day.

When working full-time as a teacher and leader, it was always at this time of the year (and to be honest – most other times of the year) when I badly needed an injection of inspiration to propel me forwards. It was rare that I’d find enough juice for my batteries in the staffroom and so a Saturday conference was invariably where I’d head. I began the day doubtful that I was in need of this same shot of passion in my new position but this was to be a very different Saturday conference for more than one reason.

The programme put together for this day represented diversity in all of its facets. We heard from teachers and leaders throughout the day that I’d not heard from before. We were inspired by passionate educators who affirmed our purpose through honestly sharing their own.

There are many things that separate us as humans, and certainly as educators –
– Our voices and perspectives
– Our backgrounds and politics
– Our qualities and challenges

It was whilst listening to Abed Ahmed that I  recognised the strength that lies in not just accepting a difference in yourself that others may see as a weakness but going beyond mere acceptance and towards embracing it wholeheartedly.

This video explains much of the power Abed has, in his words, as a result of ‘stammering with confidence’ and helping his students to do the same. And stammering confidently, believe it or not, is wholly achievable – we were all lucky enough to witness it first hand.

It seems to me that society often labels difference as weakness, rather than strength. Oftentimes, apologies are made for such differences and perceived limits are put firmly in place. Abed referenced a point in his life when he’d been told that teaching wouldn’t be the right career choice for him; his stammer would apparently hold him back.

Maggie Aderin-Pocock shared a similar story later on when she related her experiences of schools where teachers had underestimated her abilities as a dyslexic girl from a broken home… and yet, it was a teacher who was able to turn this narrative around. Just the encouragement, on a single occasion, to answer a tricky maths question was enough to help her think differently about her future and to continue believing in her dreams.

Listening to the debate panel on inclusion later in the day made me consider the strength in difference to an even greater extent. Teachers and leaders have the capacity to enable every young person they work with to look to the stars, yet so often we give up before all avenues have been explored and limits are placed on what a student is able to see for their future. Maggie shared her view that as teachers, we are the nurturers of their ‘desire to aspire’.

Whilst there is an enormous barrier to be overcome in persuading some of this philosophy, there are other hurdles to be overcome too if inclusion is to be realised across the education system and I believe they demand a more nuanced discussion. For many, there is a fear over inclusion that became apparent for me through overheard discussions and questions asked by members. We can’t just bury this fear with moral arguments. I would suggest that many schools and colleges are a long way off realising inclusion, not necessarily because they don’t buy into what it means but because there is no investment in the development, structure, and support to enable it to happen effectively.

Listening to our teachers when it comes to inclusion is vital if we’re to begin changing the narrative and the importance of teacher voice was highlighted throughout the day, not least of all by Dr Helen Woodley.

How many times have you listened to your colleagues share their ideas for positive change and they’re ignored? It’s not that the ideas simply can’t be actioned but more than that – no dialogue even takes place about the possibilities that might result from such ideas. Many of you will have witnessed what this does to colleagues over time and disengagement is the least of it. If we are to inject a greater level of professionalism into teaching then we must begin with dialogue and genuine listening. Change can be actioned by a single teacher within their own classroom and it is on most days of the year so to ignore their voice the rest of the time is foolish at the very least. I love Nancy Kline’s work on this with ‘Time to Think’. So often we shut down our vocal colleagues because they’re ‘off on one again’… and yet, what might be the reason for their being ‘off on one’ again? Perhaps we shut them down the last time they tried to speak too… At the other end of this spectrum is the colleague whose opening to speak is not a busy team meeting but a conversation with a trusted colleague over a cup of tea in the morning break. How can we ensure there is space for each of our teacher’s voices to be truly heard in meaningful ways?

The voice of Farhaan Patel has been left resonating in my mind since the conference. He showed what’s possible in a world where difference is not merely ‘tolerated’ as British Values would let us believe but celebrated. It’s clear to me that as educators, there is a moral imperative to help our young people to see difference as simply a part of living in the modern world. When we show our young people what diversity looks like, we make them curious about it and we’ll have moved far beyond the kind of ‘telling them about it’ that ticks the ‘E&D box’ on a lesson plan. Farhaan shared a window into his school where children ask endless questions as a result of open dialogue with the adults they trust. Through a partnership with another school, his students became thirsty to learn more and ultimately found friends in places they would likely never have ventured. I’m left wondering why every area in the country has not done as Leicester has and connected their young people through projects like their ‘UnitEd’.

Another ‘box’ leaders and teachers should be equally reticent to ‘tick’ is the wellbeing one. With the current situation with retention and workload in the sector, more fundamental changes need to be put into place. Dr Tim O’Brien facilitated a panel of practising teachers and leaders from his recent wellbeing CPD programmes for the Chartered College. Having attended the pilot as a member, I’d recommend to it anyone. You’re encouraged to take a ramble through wellbeing issues in the education context and you engage in an experiment within your own context to assess its impact. You can read more about it here.

At the end of the panel, I was speaking to a Chartered College member who shared that he finds his colleagues’ negativity a drain on his energies as a relatively new teacher but the most uplifting parts of his day are when he walks into his classroom and shuts the door to teach. More than that, he relishes the opportunity to engage with pupils on his thrice-weekly lunch duties where he can continue to foster positive relationships with the young people at his school. I was reminded that there is no single way to ‘well-being’ and that an individual approach is best. As we spoke, I reflected on the places I’ve worked over my teaching career and the leaders I’ve worked for. I don’t wish to lay the responsibility of wellbeing at the feet of every leader but one thing is left abundantly clear for me from these reflections: where there was trust, autonomy, support, and gratitude then the very challenging job that is teaching was made far easier.

Our day ended with trainee teacher, Philip McCahillsharing his advice for his future teacher self. He ultimately spoke of hope and possibility. We were shown today that, without doubt, there is always another way. It’s simply a case of being open to ‘possibility’. As a teacher, this sense of ‘possibility’ is multiplied exponentially if we can consider all of the lives we may influence by embracing the power that lies in difference.

Teacher Wellbeing – Day 2

After Day 1 of this wellbeing CPD, offered by The Chartered College, I was really excited to meet up with everyone again, spend a day talking about wellbeing and hearing how everyone’s interventions had gone. On day 1, we explored what we meant by wellbeing a little, spoke about stress and anxiety before we ventured into exploring what our wellbeing intervention back in our own contexts might be. If you missed it, you can read about day 1 here.

We were introduced to a great deal on day 1 so I knew that day 2 was likely to provide some all important space for us to reflect (one of many things that’s invariably missing from a busy educator’s week and indeed, most CPD programmes).

Data as Truth

After a short introduction from Tim (@Doctob) and Dennis, we set about considering the importance of being more critical about data we’re presented with. What does it actually mean? Has it been manipulated? What are we really looking at? Does it really say what others have concluded it has? I believe that Tom Bennett (@TomBennett71) and the ResearchEd (@ResearchEd1) crowd would have been pleased at teacher CPD containing this call for a more discerning look at ‘evidence’.

The figures that sparked the discussion were these ‘measures of national well-being‘ that indicate an increase in ‘trust in government’ for instance (?!) and a decrease in ‘difficulty managing financially’ (?!).

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https://www.ons.gov.uk/visualisations/dvc364/dashboard/index.html

A couple of questions we might ask of this data was:

  • How representative is the sample? Who was asked and what are their contexts?
  • The data indicates the % of people who think their wellbeing is better but this is surely relative? We recognise that wellbeing is not clearly defined nor shared across groups of people – it’s an incredibly personal concept so wouldn’t you think it better if one year you were dealing with a serious personal trauma and the following year, things improved? How could this be reasonably compared to someone moving from one job to a more stressful one?

These questions and their answers wouldn’t necessarily mean that we dismiss the findings of this research altogether; but we were encouraged to be more wary of any research that presents itself as THE truth. It’s merely A truth and perhaps not an especially reliable one at that.

This discussion lead to one about measures we use in our own roles and how helpful these are. We may often present parents and students with THE truth- you’re working at level 4. ‘Actually, no. I don’t really know what that means and I don’t really know how to explain it to you but it’s a judgement I’ve been required to make.’ In an education system with grades holding such weight, students will always be working at or towards something. As teachers, it’s demanded of us that we keep pace with ever-changing measures, criteria, expectations – we then have to apply these measures to students with little clarity about what we’re measuring. I was left wondering how detrimental this lack of clarity and compromise of our values might be to our wellbeing over time…

Is teacher wellbeing really unique?

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Image available from here

After Tim and Dennis left this grenade of ‘using data as truth’ and ‘measures as truth’ for us to contemplate further, they set off another one-

Assuming teachers’ wellbeing is different to that in other professions, what is it that makes it distinct?

Well, that generated some discussion! Whilst we had touched upon this on Day 1, it was here that we explored it in greater depth.

Amidst my recovery from the morning’s travel sickness, I somehow managed to scribble down an entire A4 sheet of possibilities and thoughts that captured the majority of discussion had in the room-

  • The extent of comparison and benchmarking and the level of competition this creates
  • Ongoing scrutiny and hyper-accountability
  • Low levels of trust
  • The complexity of and speed with which information is having to be dealt with during a small space of lesson (during a lesson specifically)
  • Heavy responsibility- for the moral, social, emotional, cultural, spiritual, physical and cognitive development of a child…. Or up to 200 children at any one time.
  • Continual proving of our impact
  • A lack of shared responsibility amongst colleagues
  • There’s a requirement for us to be highly resilient due to the nature of the job.
  • The emotional labour involved in the job- there is a need for us to self-regulate our emotions
  • We’re rarely adequately equipped (internal and external resources) for the job we’re expected to do but we still have to carry on doing it regardless
  • Our sense of agency has been reduced over time, we’ve lost ‘control’
  • We suffer from decision-making fatigue
  • The number of initiatives and directives has resulted in a generation of teachers who are unable to think for themselves
  • An attack on professionalism
  • We’re never allowed to be in a state of ‘not knowing’

We considered the extent to which other professionals might experience these things and we recognised, as expected, a number of commonalities with other professions for each of the things on the list. Not least of all the high levels of stress likely within health professions. Just the fact this research exists into how the helping professions can develop their emotional resilience indicates there may be something in common where wellbeing is concerned – CLICK HERE to read.

Nurses having to cover several wards with numerous patients, all presenting with different needs. Their job is to meet these needs whilst also competing against the pressures of reduced funding and fewer staff and the heavy demand on the service and beds.

Paramedics having to respond to situations and take on board lots of information quickly, adapting to the individual(s) and context they have suddenly found themselves in. Having gone through high levels of stress, they would then drop them off in the hospital often with little satisfaction and a feeling of, ‘Did my work have any impact on that person?’

Whilst there were obvious correlations in what causes teachers’ stress with health professionals, there are other professions where stress would be high-

Architects having to please all of the stakeholders’ ever-changing expectations and needs in a fluctuating budget. Having to deal with sensitive conversations and egos whilst also finding space for their own creativity and expertise so that their own values weren’t being continually compromised. Often never getting to view the finished ‘product’, perhaps only ever getting to see the unfinished shell before the project is classed as ‘completed’ (Based on a random conversation I had a couple of years ago with an architect whilst we were delayed on a train between Didcot and Reading one morning).

It’s clear to me that any job at all has the potential to have a negative influence on our wellbeing but stress does seem to be high in the teaching profession so do we all just lack the internal resources and resilience to deal with the negative influences on our wellbeing or is it more than this?

After further discussion, I reached the conclusion that, if the wellbeing of teachers was to be seen as unique then it would perhaps be the ‘fuster-cluck’ (@LeadingLearner) of a whole host of factors affecting wellbeing negatively convening in one place . Whilst each of the following factors can apply to other professionals, the collective influence of all of these factors may set teaching out as unique (although I’m not left entirely convinced that it is)-

  • Generosity Burnout – educators give a great deal of themselves to others- parents, students and colleagues without topping themselves up sufficiently in between.
  • Our desire for job satisfaction is high (a number of us had discovered this through our research) but the job is never done and there are always things to develop further.
  • The pace of new initiatives thrown our way (without consultation) that we then become accountable for, yet are given little support and time to adapt to.
  • Absolutely everyone has an opinion about education and what ‘good’ looks like and so we experience continual criticism from all angles.
  • The job involves a high level of planning– we don’t just have to ‘do‘ our job but we have to plan for it, reflect on it and continue to plan. Many other professions get to just ‘do’.

One additional thought I’ve considered as I write is the negative impact the holidays might have on teachers’ wellbeing. Hear me out here…

Teachers know that they get to have a ‘break’ in 6 or 7 weeks time. It’s a milestone for them to work towards, plan for and enjoy. It does mean, though, that they may ‘save up’ all of their relaxation, down time, time with friends and family, hobbies, and exercise for these moments. They work so relentlessly hard in the weeks leading up to it and the pace of workload is so high that the holiday becomes more recovery time than the restorative break it should be. Perhaps leaders in schools and Colleges could be doing more to ease the pressure and workload so that terms don’t feel like such a relentless slog and a countdown to the holidays.

So all of these factors can make the profession one of high stress and many of them link to workload and external pressures but I believe we still hold part of the solution too. What potential for change is created by us questioning more of the work sent our way? What potential is there to ease the pressures in initiatives that seek to find the joy in our work? Yes, there’s a decrease in the sense of agency we feel in the profession at present but I don’t think a search for better wellbeing is a hopeless one.

The flip side of wellbeing

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Image available from here

Whilst there is so much focus placed on how being in the teaching profession can negatively impact our wellbeing, I feel that there is a need to recognise that, at the same time as all of these stressors, the job of teaching (in the right circumstances) has the potential to offer the perfect combination of factors to positively affect wellbeing too-

  • The opportunity to collaborate with colleagues
  • Ongoing learning opportunities
  • A supportive community
  • The strong satisfaction and meaning added to our life when our students go on a journey…

So whilst our wellbeing may be affected uniquely in a negative way, it may also be just as unique in how it is positively affected.

 

Resilience

Tim spoke of espoused values. Many of us can articulate to others what our values for. What we stand for,. What’s important.

But… How are these lived out? What do they look like day-to-day?

If our lived out experiences are undermining our espoused values then there’s a mis-alignment that can greatly damage our resilience. I’ve found this a useful free tool to explore the alignment of my values-

https://www.mapwellbeing.com/

Our ability to bounce back when our values are undermined or when we experience setbacks has become a part of the modern conscience. Whilst ‘resilience’ is bandied about freely, is it truly understood?

Sometimes you’re up. Sometimes you’re down. Get your head in the right place, look around… 

The Happiness Hypothesis was shared as a reading recommendation for us with an interesting chapter about adversity and resilience. We can only become properly resilient when we experience adversity for ourselves. We think we’ve experienced it and then we finally do. We may not be able to bounce back immediately, but we may have developed all the inner resources needed to bounce back longer term.

As if these two days of CPD, with research in between, hadn’t been god enough already, Tim went and read us a story. And Dr Seuss no less.

This is nowhere near as good but as none of us filmed our reading, this will have to do…

Resilience is an acceptance that things don’t work out all the time but that we have responsibility for how we respond and relentless optimism is possible. People who lack resilience can get stuck in behaviours for some time and as Dr Seuss tells us, ‘Unslumping yourself is not easily done‘. 

When we are struck with adversity, we should ask- ‘If it was different, what would it be like?’ Well, It can be different. Different is possible. Our wellbeing is within our control.

Wellbeing Interventions

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Image available from here

Throughout the day, we were all able to share our wellbeing interventions and how they had gone. I have chosen to write a longer piece about mine that will be shared soon. What follows are my reflections on what colleagues shared. Full summaries of the research will be officially published by The Chartered College (@CharteredColl) in September.


Could CPD hold the answer?

A number of colleagues shared interventions, such as lesson study, that seemed to affect wellbeing positively. Participants in on intervention (Alison) shared that they had felt greater motivation, confidence, feeling valued and job satisfaction. They appreciated the time to fully engage with CPD, felt a greater confidence to experiment, and crucially they felt less isolated in their practice. Within the groups and teams where there was already a higher level of trust and staff felt comfortable with one another, there was a greater impact on colleagues’ autonomy and risk taking. It was clear that group dynamics and team ethos is a vital platform from which to build effective CPD. This clearly aligns with what we know about what makes a good professional learning culture – CLICK HERE to read a write-up of a workshop about professional learning from Bridget Clay.

Other participants reflected on how making time for CPD was vital; protected time, without fear of other activities encroaching on their learning. This kind of investment lead to feelings of feeling valued that are difficult to rival in any other way.


Should we focus our efforts on reducing workload?

A number of interventions were shared that sought to reduce workload. Wendy had involved colleagues in this approach at her school; asking them to consider what they were spending their time on and what the impact was of each activity, whether low, medium or high. Moves were made to question approaches to homework feedback and involvement in extra-curricular activities. Positive solutions were found and I was impressed with the collaboration and speed with which these changes were achieved. Even the smallest of changes can have an incremental effect.


Is it about explicit permission?

A number of the interventions shared were designed to encourage staff to engage in exercises of self-care and commit to activities that would positively impact their wellbeing. Whilst many of us know that we need to engage in things outside of work, it’s difficult to commit when there are competing pressures of marking, planning, and meeting students’ needs. Many educators speak of the guilt experienced when they’re not on top of their workload. What I learned from colleagues sharing their interventions was that an ‘explicit permission’ to put themselves first, often granted by members of the leadership team, could make all the difference. From staff selecting their own, personalised activity, to time off to start late or leave early, the main part is that leaders created an ethos void of guilt. 


What’s at the heart of these initiatives?

In addition to the above, other participants shared Cake Monday, Music Friday and Cycle Saturday, reducing emails, a weekly focus on the positives, and non-threatening conversations about challenging learners with staff and trained professionals- How are you managing the child and how do you feel?– generating a supportive culture of powerful listening.

One thing all of the initiatives shared have in common is the clear message they communicate- ‘We care about your wellbeing.‘ All participants seemed not to be motivated by exploring wellbeing because it might help each school or college to achieve better outcomes for students, but because they came from a place of genuine compassion for colleagues.

 

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This two day programme was one of the most valuable pieces of CPD I’ve engaged in since beginning my teaching career 8 years ago. You’ll be able to read more about its impact when I share how my intervention went.

  • The programme was facilitated by experts and not one but two complimentary voices that provided different perspectives.
  • We were encouraged to explore evidence and research to inform our practice but to approach it with a critical eye.
  • We engaged in our own research too meaning that some level of impact was achieved and so the investment of time was worth something more than a ‘pleasant day out’.
  • Reflection was prioritised so that all of the attendees (primary, secondary, grammar, independent, further education, SEND and alternative provision) each had multiple opportunities to make learning meaningful and relevant for their own contexts.
  • We were continually exposed to a variety of different avenues to explore further and I can certainly say that this CPD has left me curious to learn more. I
  • t’s great to know that our explorations will all be shared with others via The Chartered College too.

Each of us left knowing that our journey in wellbeing had only just begun and should you get the opportunity to attend this programme for yourself in the future (I believe there are plans to run it again) then I would recommend it wholeheartedly.