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.