Bennie Kara delivered this perfect summary of the day in the panel that helped to close the launch of LGBTed. Held last weekend, it was an occasion for workshops, networking and the start of an organisation with real potential to make a serious difference. The organisation’s main function is to create more visibility in the UK education system in order to make schools more inclusive places. It was an inspirational day. This blogpost is some thoughts on some of the key themes that emerged for me over the course of the day.
Claire Birkenshaw‘s session titled ‘A trans perspective on nurturing a sense of belonging for young trans and non-binary people in learning communities’ was the most explicitly narrative driven session of the day. She set about sharing with us her story (‘safari’), as a means of promoting learning through creating empathy. It was a powerful session, very tweetable: “Every child should feel they belong in their school environment and nothing should hold them back.”
Professor Jonathan Glazzard presented a compelling case for the existence of LGBTed when he showed through statistics that the stories aren’t changing. However, what reoccurred consistently across the day was the power of knowledge to disrupt narratives. This came through the buzzword of authenticity, and the idea of being your authentic self to create meaningful learning environments. David Weston also included the quote on the right from Harvey Milk in his concluding keynote along this theme. Author Sarah Ban Breathnach was also quoted during the day: “the authentic self is a soul made visible.”
The Progress Divide
I remember the idea of progress being challenged at the ILGA Oceania Conference in 2016. The divide there was between LGBTI+ rights in the Pacific Island nations compared to progressive New Zealand (“Don’t ask me how far away from marriage equality we are when we are not safe in our own streets”). It was the rural/urban divide that arose at LGBTed. The stark difference in statistics on the experiences of LGBT teachers based on where they live was shocking.
This rung the bell of inclusion and the need for diverse voices within diversity. The majority of teachers at the conferences represented the first three letters of LGBT and were predominantly white. It’s important that we are sensitive to representation and ensure we are listening to other perspectives. David Weston also made this point; inclusion is key to progress which includes conservatives and readers of the Daily Mail.
Related to the divide is the notion of othering. David Weston suggested that “when people look at LGBT communities and ‘other’ us, it’s a natural psychological thing but it is deeply scarring”. This then creates shame. Claire Birkenshaw responded to the current so called ‘trans* debate’ by saying that of all the things that are being questioned, the one that cannot be challenged is that we are human. This framing immediately changes the expectations around the dignity and nature of the discourse that should be allowed in this questioning dialogue. Knowledge is again the key, and that is where educators – armed with a knowledge curriculum – are so vital; we can be the champions of equality for the future.
Since mid-February I have been travelling through Vietnam and China on my way to make a new home in London. For most of Vietnam I had travel companions, for most of China I have been a solo traveler. By myself I’ve felt like the outsider at times, being the only European and English speaker in many situations. Particularly in China I’ve been in environments that by their very design exclude me from particpating.
While I’ve enjoyed the extended break, I’ve been missing the classroom and pedagogy has never to too far from my mind. Traveling and education are much the same in how they are both about journeys. Traveling from the south of vietnam to the north of China could be a metaphor for a student’s journey through school: its about making sense of new environments, gaining knowledge, achieving success. There is also the challenge of maintaining your own identity and agency in the face of systems that tend to favour homogeneity.
An important part of my identity is that I am gay. It has been a struggle at times to have that part of my identity validated on this trip. Buying clothes, most shop assistants will attempt to sell me something for my girlfriend; arranged marriages with local girls have been proposed more than once after locals discover I am traveling alone. In Vietnam, I spent some time in Yen Duc Village a couple of hours from Hanoi. At my homestay I had to give up trying to explain I had a male partner. At first I was laughed at, then later I was reasoned with – my homestay mother explaining through a translator that if I only held other boys’ hands then it would be ok. This might not be homophobia, but more of a cultural clash where my identity cannot be seen for this family in Vietnam.
More overt homophobia happened later in Chengdu, when an Australian in a food tour group delighted in telling us his ‘awful’ story about accidentally going to a Chinese gay bar. He told us he didn’t know what type of bar it was, found it was full of only men and experienced guys hitting on him. He then explained how he got out of there as quick as he could barely disguising his disgust in his reenactment. This form of homophobia pales in comparison to the young fabulous boy I saw being spat at in Shanghai. While that was disturbing to witness, the ubiquity of spitting in China makes me doubt how directed an attack that was. But then again there was no attempt to apologise.
In our classrooms, students may find our educational spaces similar to traveling in a foreign country.
How do we ensure we are validating our students’ identities? How are we ensuring that everyone feels like they belong? Are our classrooms inclusive of all the differences that our students bring? Alienation can be brought about through language barriers and cultural practices that don’t find space for difference. The challenge here isn’t for China and Vietnam to change, it is for educators to make our classrooms inclusive destinations for all our travellers. I think I’ve learnt a lot from the reminder of both what it feels like to be the outsider and the privilege of experiencing this so rarely.
Last year I wrote a 2016 in review to reflect on a year of professional learning and the blogposts that I had written. It was an interesting exercise, reaffirming the reason for writing this blog, which is more for personal assimilation than for any potential audience out there (the potential audience pressures me to assimilate). Three trends from reflecting on the blogposts I wrote in 2017:
Technology in the Back Seat
I’ve felt the ubiquity of technology (the second year teaching in a full BYOD environment) has made it less of driver around professional learning conversations. This came through my own refocusing on inquiry through the work of Kath Murdoch as well as the action research of my eFellowship. The keynotes at uLearn also reinforced this shift. Eric Mazur’s focus on shifting from transferring information to assimilating information and Abdul Chohan’s articulation of the role of belief in change initiatives both moved away from the tool to the pedagogy.
Last year I drove away from Newlands College for the last time. After eight years I needed a change and shortly I’m going to be making my way to London to teach in a new system in a new country. I’m disappointed this comes at a time just as I’ve been woken up by Ann Milne who has helped me find my internal bias and my need for action to truly become a culturally responsive teacher. I’ve found through the process of reflecting on leaving along with Milne’s book and uLearn presentation this year that ‘people’ is the key to my educational philosophy. Something I tried to capture that in some of the last words I spoke at Newlands College:
Celebrate our differences, our uniqueness, our diversity. Champion our people, because it is the people that make this place so special. It is the people here that have made the difference to me. It is the people I will always remember. He aha te mea nui o te ao? He tāngata, he tāngata, he tāngata.
At the end of last year the Out@Work Biennial Conference/Hui was held in Wellington. The theme of the conference was pride, power and politics as relating to issues faced by workers of minority genders and sexualities. A diverse range of unions across the country were present including the PPTA.
The PPTA was represented at the conference by Kirsty Farrant (Advisory Officer) and Jerome Cargill (Rainbow Taskforce), who ran a workshop titled ‘Changing a Work Culture’.
This presentation used the ‘Safer School for All’ workshop, which the Rainbow Taskforce has delivered in more than 60 Secondary Schools across New Zealand in the last few years, as an example of the direction that other unions could take. The workshop addresses the bullying of students and other members of the wider school community who are perceived to be different because of their sexual orientation or gender identity.
The argument made was that the issues faced by workers of minority genders and sexualities could be challenged by more education for our young people who will be our next generation of workers. By creating safer and more accepting spaces in schools, we will create the expectation that workplaces follow the same principles.
It was an exciting opportunity to share this work. Feedback from the workshop reinforced that professional development and education is the best way forward for changing heteronormative and cisnormative cultures (the presumption that almost all people are assigned a gender at birth they feel comfortable with). Environments where hetereosexuality is expected and binary views of gender dominate are likely to contain discrimination on some level.
The conference reinforced that the PPTA are leading other unions in the way that formal structures exist in order to deal with the issues faced by the diverse workforce. We are fortunate to have the active voices of the Rainbow Taskforce which enables education of these important issues to be delivered across the union.
The conference featured a dinner as part of the programme attended by guest speakers Grant Robertson, Jan Logie and Kevin Hague. Each delivered a passionate speech about their experience fighting for equal rights for this community.
Kevin Hague made the point that despite our positive steps forward legislating equality through means such as the Marriage Amendment Act 2013, coming out for a young person today is just as scary as it was for someone 30 years ago. This speaks to the need for educators to continue to work towards providing inclusive environments for all students, as there is still a long way to go.
Peter DeWitt’s 2012 book, ‘Dignity For All: Safeguarding LGBT Students’ is a call to action that is just as relevant now as it was five years ago. Written is a highly accessible way it focuses on the building the understanding of the needs of LGBT and the practical steps that can be taken to ensure safer schools.
Importantly, DeWitt makes it clear that this isn’t just about a minority group of students, this is about having a positive impact on the whole education ecology and everyone within it. “Without addressing the needs of LGBT students, educators are not addressing the needs of all students” (32).
Some of the key ideas he puts forward as action points include:
I hesitated about writing publicly about this as the award still sits uncomfortably with me. However, I felt it was important to convey these ideas in writing as that discomfort has actually enabled some deep reflection about my teaching philosophy. I also believe that this type of discussion has a stigma of being transgressive; this needs to be changed.
This article from the Independent Herald (22 June) captured a moment in a long journey with the ASG scholarship. It doesn’t capture that I’m a Media Studies teacher, but that is forgivable. What isn’t forgivable is that there is an editorial decision to no mention my work with the LGBT students and promotion of diversity as a core value to the school. Grant spoke about this in the presentation and a quick google would arrive at the Seven Sharp story from earlier in the year.
I found that this editorial omission took place earlier in the process, not by the Independent Herald, but this time by ASG themselves. Before the press release of the regional winners came out I had a chance to proof the biography that they had constructed for me. Despite over half of my award submission covering my diversity based work, my 200 word bio contained not a single acknowledgement of this defining aspect of my practice. After a small bit of negotiation my biography was agreed to contain:
As an openly gay teacher he has led a culture change in the school, promoting acceptance and diversity through a range of initiatives.
But the larger omission was when this was left from the press release which described my practice, and from which I presume the Independent Article was written. It was like trying to get the colourblind to see a rainbow. It appears that people want to recognise this work, but when it comes to actually articulating it, clouds of euphemism plague the message. I truly hope the next wave of LGBT leaders find it easier for their work to be recognised with transparent and honest language in the mainstream media.
Overall, the ASG process allowed a significant opportunity to deeply reflect about my practice. Like the video above, the essays I wrote contained a wealth of reflective thinking about what I do that makes a difference. It is a shift from the standard way I reflect whereby I am reframing what didn’t work. But I found it enormously empowering to focus on the positives of my practice and explore this in some detail.
Finally, in the article above, I’m quoted as referring to Newlands as a “fabulous culture of teaching.” I said that when it became clear I had to give a acceptance speech which was quite unexpected and uncomfortable. I survived by trying to revision the award as not being individual recognition, but a symbol of effective collaboration. Of course, I was going a bit post-truth there. The reality is that the ASG scholarship despite it’s best intentions is perpetuating the idea of teaching being an individualistic profession. Michael Fullen and Andy Hargreaves talk about the ostracizing that occurs after presenting teacher of the year awards. I haven’t felt that directly, but I have no doubt that resistance to performance based recognition is operating on some level. I know this because it is definitely operating within me.
An interesting reading by Marianne Coleman. She applies a definition of diversity as “categories of difference in individuals to which value judgement stereotypes are consciously and unconsciously applied, bringing advantage to dominant groups” (173). This has strong connections and implications for work with LGBT staff and students that I’ve previously discussed. The chapter asks two reflective questions at its conclusion:
As a leader in education what do you consider to be the key values relating to leadership and diversity in education?
In what ways might your institution ensure that diversity is fully considered in policies and practice?
The ideas in the chapter helped clarify some thinking around these provocative questions through examining leadership theory. In particular the idea of value-led leadership: “If valuing the diversity of individual students and staff is a key part of the ethos, this should feed through to every aspect of their leadership” (178). Important to this is examining bias so that an authentically inclusive environment can be created and sustained.
Another layer of the chapter I found persuasive was the notion that “the behaviours of school leaders have a greater impact on pupil performance than school structures or leadership models” (173). This speaks of the importance of interweaving diversity based values into the fabric of the school so that these values are naturally occurring. The natural presence of these values need to be balanced with the interrogation of assumptions to ensure that awareness remains high and our “value judgement stereotypes” are regulated (173).
Coleman, M. (2011) ‘Leadership and Diversity’ in Robertson, J & Timperley, H. (eds) Leadership and Learning. London: SAGE Publications. Pp. 172-185.