No more Miss Nice Gal? Is it OK to be scary?

  During August this year Sheryl Sandberg was on the cover of Time magazine with the headline, ‘Don’t hate her because she’s successful’. When I read that article online it led me to another that outlined seven traits of successful women leaders. I have a love-hate relationship with these kind of articles: Love because it is always interesting to read another take on women in leadership. Hate because more often than not these articles focus on what women in particular can bring to their work as leaders. Weirdly I don’t see as many articles on male leadership. Odd that. Two of the seven traits in this article intrigued me more than the others. Firstly, Assertiveness. The article chooses to frame this in the terms that a successful woman leader will be prepared to say no, will not be taken advantage of and will be prepared to argue her case. What struck about these was that each suggestion appeared to assume that the woman started from a disadvantaged place. 

The second trait that I thought was interesting was Aggressiveness. Again the article suggested that this was in terms of ‘constructive aggressiveness’ going on to use the word ‘feisty’. Now I’m a big fan of the word ‘feisty’ in the right context, but can’t help feeling that women in leadership is not that context. It has the smatterings of angry pup about it, that I think implies that any kind of female aggressiveness is the workplace equivalent of Scrappy Doo.  

More interesting was reading an article this week in Grazia magazine asking the question why women are afraid of being scary at work. It’s an interesting read focusing on the concept of the ‘dominance penalty’ & a Harvard study which suggests that if women are tough at work, displaying ‘leadership qualities like strength and decisiveness’ (Emma Barnett, 5 October), then they can expect to be disliked. I think this is equally true in an education setting, women in leadership are incredibly supportive of each other, but it tends to be about encouragement & overcoming obstacles, but what about taking a different tack? What about asking the question is it bad to be too tough? It’s definitely an uphill struggle if you bring together the supposed successful traits of women leaders, plus (dare I say it) a tendency of articles on women in leadership to focus on ideas such as How do we manage it all? Being brave enough to speak up and not being negative about ourselves. Isn’t it about time we acknowledge that, along with Barnett and architect Zaha Hadid on Radio4 this week, it is OK to be scary if scary means being tough enough to stand up for truth and fight for your values. Is #WomenEd ready to get scary and…even have a go at reclaiming the b word. One thing that did make me smile on the traits page was a quotation from Tina Fey – ‘Know what? B*****s get stuff done’. Too much?

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How do ‘Back to School’ signs make you feel?

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One thing you can be certain of is that, within seconds of schools breaking up, shops will be taken over by huge advertising campaigns proclaiming that we should all be thinking about going ‘Back to School’. What this means in reality is piles of neat white socks, Teflon coated indestructible trousers and pinafores, endless rows of new highlighter configurations and, of course, new ranges of pencil cases, my bet for this year – Minion inspired yellow will feature heavily. But how does it all make you feel?

Perhaps you are a parent and have managed to switch roles smoothly, thinking only now about the needs of your own offspring for the next impending year. Perhaps you wave an angry fist at the advertising hoardings berating them for stealing the joy of those early days of summer from tired teachers, ‘just let me have my five minutes of freedom!’ Perhaps you are one of those creatures who has already put the stresses of a frantic summer term behind you, a now distant memory and you already gain a heady sense of anticipation about all the wondrous possibilities of the new academic year.

Maybe the signs cause a sense of queasiness thinking about the big hurdles between now and the start of September – results days. Will you achieve your goals, will the students get where they want to go. ‘Back to School’ signs often prompt the teaching equivalent of resolutions, whilst thinking about the academic year ahead. What must I do to improve; what changes do I intend to make? This is particularly true if the prospect of another year at the chalkface causes butterflies in the stomach – good or bad ones. These are some of the ‘Back to School intentions I have had over the years.

  1. I will not get behind on marking. Interesting one this, given our political leader’s instruction to not do it after 5pm (but to focus on teaching more – I mean if marking has nothing to do with your teaching, surely you know you’re in trouble!). Personally, I have found that a teacher must respond to their own body clock about this. If you are late-into-the-night person, then that can work for you. I haven’t been, hence I often had early starts & other strategies to try not to fall behind. This is an area where teachers can get their own kind of ‘teacher’s block’. Marking becomes harder to do the longer you leave it. Eventually it becomes a giant monster blocking your path, the black cloud that lingers and impossible to ignore. Along with picking the right time, making sure you don’t do the – I’ll do this first because I like this set and it’s easier- route. Personally I think that’s a big mistake, because you have to face the hard stuff sooner or later. I found that if I imposed the discipline of chronology on it, it at least began to chip at the teacher’s block before it took hold.
  2. I will not have an untidy desk/pigeon hole/inbox. This is an area which often reflects the teacher’s character. I’m sure we’ve all heard people say, ‘My desk is untidy, because I’m generally an untidy person!’ There is undoubtedly truth in this, but I found it often just became my excuse. Personally I tend to ‘nest’ – I will happily build piles of paper/debris/rubbish around me, claiming I might need it shortly. I’m not a neat person, but because of that I had to keep a clean desk, because I knew if I gave that notion even a moment to take hold I would have piles of rubbish permanently covering my desk. So, every night I would temporarily clear my work-space/desk, because coming into a clean desk is far less depressing. The same went for pigeon holes – clogging up with endless bulk mailings. So I forced myself to clear it once a week, if possible on a Friday so that coming in on Monday morning was that little bit easier. Didn’t always happen, but was great when it did.
  3. My lessons will be amazing. We tend to review the year and reflect on the highs and the lows, the real achievements we have made and those frustrating brick walls we have faced. The reality is that some of our lessons will be amazing, lots we hope, but it’s worth remembering it takes two, or in a teacher’s case about 30 to tango. An amazing lesson is about synchronicity. Sometimes everything clicks into place and our amazing planning, activities, resources and assessment works. Other times it doesn’t and that’s not always down to us – let’s face it, it could be something as simple as the weather being a bit blustery. Intention and planning can be amazing, and hopefully it will work, but we can still learn a lot about our classes and ourselves when it doesn’t so we should cut ourselves some slack.
  4. I will keep up to date with what’s happening in education. Well if you’re reading this then you are probably already doing one of the best ways to make this happen – using Twitter. Someone once told me you should always have more followers than follow people, but I’ve never managed that. There are always so many interesting accounts to follow, from the headliners to many teachers sharing their resources and displays. Keeping up with the headlines is fairly easy to do via Twitter, but look out for the people who don’t appear on every #ff list, because there are some amazing accounts, blogs, pictures, experiences out there.  If you are a leader and want to dip your toe in the whole research stuff that is going on then I whole heartedly recommend joining BELMAS (British Educational Leadership, Management & Administration Society). The first year is FREE to join and you get two different research journals sent to you during the year (10 a year!), you get book discounts and you attend one of the warmest, friendliest conferences (organised by the wonderful @DrMeganCrawford), which overlaps with a #SLTeachmeet! Where else would I have been able to discuss #WomenEd with the amazing Vivienne Porritt (@LCLL_Director), female leadership in Cyprus, becoming a Headteacher in Chile, the perils of Social Media for leaders (@plurivocal), and Ethics in leadership with the brilliant Rob Campbell (@robcampbe11). Someone recommended it to me when I first took on a leadership post and it’s the real deal, genuine collaboration between research and schools. 
  5. I will have a life outside school. This is something I’ve always been passionate about. We know people who sign up to a lot, not just the classroom stuff, but it’s so important to protect the non teaching bit of your life. I’ve admired the whole #teacher5aday trend on Twitter as teachers at all levels share their time off with others. Our emotional well being is so important for us to function well in the classroom and with colleagues. If things are not right, talk to someone. As a deputy I took the care of staff as a major part of my role and would like to think they knew they could come and talk whenever. Sometimes I think the phrase work/life balance has been hijacked to mean being a parent to your children. Now, don’t get me wrong, I think that’s essential, but I think we sometimes reduce the word ‘life’ in that phrase. It’s about our lives, whatever path we have taken, our identities and its that I believe needs looking after, because our school communities can be so overwhelming that we lose sight of that.

My list isn’t comprehensive and it most certainly isn’t true for everyone, I’m certainly not telling people what to do!  I love the good intentions of September, even if it gets hard as Autumn slips into Winter. However it’s worth noting that reaction to the next ‘Back to School’ ad you see. How do they make you feel and perhaps more importantly why. Do they make you think over your resolutions? Butterflies are always a good thing when September approaches, so if you’re a PGCEr or NQT starting out with a tummy full of them do not fear, because I think it’s a good sign. I have them still after over twenty years as a teacher. What’s on your list of good intentions for the next academic year?

Whose job is it to care about Staff Morale and what we can learn from chocolate

Teacher in a classroomIt’s interesting to see the difference an ‘e’ can make when added to ‘moral’, it can change pronunciation, change emphasis and create a whole dimension of leadership studies – the importance of the emotional well-being of staff. The last eleven months in particular have been filled with tales of teacher morale being at an all time low and sometimes a dip into Twitter of an evening confirms that. Tired teachers at the end of a frustrating day, questioning whether it is worth continuing with the profession that they once loved with a passion. Often the answer is to raise a shaking fist to whatever happens to be the latest political clanger. A recent favourite of mine was the Tory Peer, Lord Nash, oh so thoughtfully suggesting that lesson planning was a waste of time, so helpful! However, political changes, ridiculous initiatives will always be with us, does this mean that morale is something beyond our control? Far from it.

Within business much has been made of the correlation between how content employees feel with the productivity of the company. Perhaps it might be worth thinking more about the correlation between teacher morale and higher grades – spending the extra couple of hundred on that fancy coffee machine might then seem like a good investment! So who should be thinking about staff morale. Perhaps we are spending too much time shaking our fists at the wrong people? Perhaps Senior Leadership Teams should be making this a priority in their planning with opportunities for change available at every level. So how can SLTs make a difference to staff morale in tangible ways?

  1. Take time to find out what staff are actually doing. It’s important to really listen, observe and read what is happening in terms of subject content. How is the working experience of teachers changing year to year and is this making assessment harder? Are your demands for increasingly frequent assessments actually reasonable or are you making it harder for staff to actually get through their subject content.
  2. Think about everyone’s experiences when you are doing the timetable. I’ve been involved in timetabling for well over ten years and I’m amazed how many educational ideals go out of the window when timetables are put together. It’s so important to think about the quality of each member of staff’s day, as well as the experience of each student. Compromises are often made just to make things fit without thinking about the week in, week out realities that someone has to live with. It’s hard work to do it, but not impossible. Sadly as far as I know existing training in ‘how to do timetabling’ never seems to cover this.
  3. Environment matters. It makes such a difference to your working experience if you have space to work and that someone has thought about you when your workspace was planned. Too often teachers are surrounded by piles of debris that they never have the time or opportunity to tackle. We are busy shouting to the world at large that we are professionals, but staff sometimes have to mark or eat with piles of books or plates perched precariously on knees in crowded staff rooms.
  4. Genuinely celebrate your staff. As schools we are used to celebrating our pupils’ achievements, but do we shout as loudly about staff achievements? I’ve still got the personal letters I’ve received from leaders, who have taken the time to recognise my work, in a genuinely meaningful way.
  5. Give staff a voice. I’ve always thought it’s really important for staff to be able to meet without Senior Management present in order for them to discuss matters that can then be brought forward and presented in a neutral way. This is very different to the valuable work that unions do in schools, it’s about being able to deal with local matters swiftly so that staff are truly listened to and matters can be addressed. This relies upon the next point happening too.
  6. Listen to staff. I’ve written before about the need for leaders to be accessible. It’s so easy to be trapped in meetings in your office. I remember very well feeling guilty if an overstuffed calendar meant that I was not talking enough with staff. It’s not always possible to have that door wedged open physically, but metaphorically it always has to be open. Staff have got to feel that they have access, not just to deputies, but to Heads as well. I was lucky to work with outstanding PAs and their professionalism is essential to ensure that teachers never feel like they are being turned away.
  7. Teachers are people too. It’s sometimes easy to be so caught up in performance, grades and appraisals that we forget that every member of staff is a unique individual with their own lives beyond school. There are mixed opinions about this, but I think there are times when, if it helps, leaders should be prepared to be there to support staff through personal crises. Some feel it’s not professional to bring this into your work place, but we are only human and sometimes we need others to help us when we don’t feel strong. For me I’ve only thought of leaders as being more impressive when this happens.
  8. Invest in your team. Even when budget strings are being pulled tighter and tighter it is so important to invest in the development of teachers. Of course this refers to professional development, investing in good training. As a trainer you can instantly see those leadership teams that are genuinely wanting to invest in their staff – teachers, teaching support staff and admin teams. Investment goes beyond training, to time allocations for responsibility posts, and to creating a happy, productive working environment.

Ultimately it’s all about respecting other members of the staff community. So what has chocolate got to do with this? You could rightly think it’s about supplying the staff room with the obligatory chocolate boxes at the end of a hard term, but actually there is more to be learned here. I’m thinking in particular of the lessons that could be learned from the history of Cadbury’s. Many people are aware of the Quaker history of the Cadbury’s company, but this had huge implications for their care for the workforce.

IMG_0767.JPGThe Cadbury family were pioneers when it comes to staff morale and staff welfare. They brought in many new initiatives concerned with the welfare of their staff, for example, they were one of the first companies to close on Bank Holidays. In the nineteenth century they introduced incentive schemes for employees, invested in further education for their staff and created excellent facilities including,

“properly heated dressing rooms; kitchens for heating food; separate gardens for men and women as well as extensive sports fields and women’s and men’s swimming pools. Sports facilities included football, hockey and cricket pitches, tennis and squash racquet courts and a bowling green.” (The Story of Cadbury)

Perhaps most impressive was their emphasis on social welfare by purchasing 120 acres, creating Bournville, to build housing for their employees. They built housing in line with the Garden City Movement so that it was a clean living environment for staff, many of the cottages with their own apple trees. Sometimes teachers are lucky if they get an apple at work!  The Cadburys did care about their staff as people, about their lives whilst they worked in the factory and how they lived outside of work hours.

It was the Quaker belief system that lay behind the Cadbury family’s decisions to care for the staff so that everyone benefits from the happy workforce. They had a vision which they communicated to their staff and was evident from the actions they carried out to look after their staff. The same goes for mission statements of schools, do they work for the best of every member of the school community?

You might have strategies in place to raise standards, to improve teaching and learning, and to maximise your pastoral care, but how central is your planning for improving staff morale? Is it even part of your strategic plan? And if you don’t think it’s your job, whose is it?

Teacher with Apple

 

see also https://www.cadbury.co.uk/the-story 

Education Book recommendation for the Summer: Ecclesiastes

20140702-114319-42199272.jpgAs we approach the summer holidays it is a time when many teachers thoughts turn to their summer holidays and the reading material for those long, lazy days. On Twitter I have already seen a number of book lists, which seem to consist of weighty educational tomes (make sure you check your baggage allowance!) that all seem to be worthy contenders. I have a recommendation for your reading list and it is only 51p on Kindle and about sixty pages, it’s an easy, accessible treat. My recommendation for a summer reading is the book Ecclesiastes. Shockingly it is a book of the Bible. I am recommending it, not only because there are lots of gems in there to make you think about life, the universe and everything, but also because I think it can give an insight to a lot of what is happening in education at the moment.

The author is a shadowy figure, less accessible than say your Hatties and Dwecks. The author has no name as such, although is referred to as Qoheleth, which means the ‘wise one’ or the ‘preacher’, in fact in some versions this is actually translated as ‘Teacher’ so think of the connections there. They seem to be a philosophical kind of person, with their opening words, having more than a dash of Buddhism about them,

“Meaningless! Meaningless!” says the Teacher. “Utterly meaningless! Everything is meaningless.” (1:1)

Already I imagine there are some that might say, ‘Ah here is someone who truly understands the craziness that forms the basis of educational matters these days’. This quote certainly does set the tone for the one of the themes of the book. The author considers the meaningless nature of what we know. A wonderful epistemological question right from the outset. What can really be known? A question that, if we could answer it, might just guide our journeys through Teaching and Learning land. Qoheleth says that so many of the things that we consider to be important are really worth nothing; he says that it is just like chasing the wind. A lesson to be learnt there regarding levels perhaps, is there really such a thing as an objective benchmark and do we need one anyway?

Perhaps one of the most telling parts of the opening section of Ecclesiastes is when Qoheleth says,

What has been will be again,
what has been done will be done again;
there is nothing new under the sun.
Is there anything of which one can say,
“Look! This is something new”? (1:9f)

I recently came across the phrase ‘graphic organisers’ when researching new assessment and differentiation practices and wondered what it was referring to. When I looked further it was essentially the distilling of information into boxes or different shapes on a handout. Look back across the decades of teaching experience and you will see this practice existing in one form or another. We might give ideas new labels, but perhaps Qoheleth has a point, is there anything of which one can say, Look! this is something new! Perhaps instead of looking for easy new answers, or debunking myths, we should be considering permutations, in the words of one of Ian Gilbert’s Thunks (@ThatIanGilbert), can you really stand on the same beach twice. It is all too clear that education is forever in a state of flux, perhaps there is nothing new, but what we can do is learn to adapt to our ever changing environment,

If you feel like the emphasis on the meaninglessness is a little too much for the summer holidays, keep going, in the way you would with Its a Wonderful Life, because chapter three takes you to familiar territory. One of the most well known passages of Ecclesiastes has made it into popular culture, particularly if you know the 1965 hit for The Byrds, ‘Turn, Turn, Turn’. The passage famously examines the concept of time and the inevitability of certain events and rituals.

There is a time for everything,
and a season for every activity under the heavens:
a time to be born and a time to die,
a time to plant and a time to uproot,
a time to kill and a time to heal,
a time to tear down and a time to build,
a time to weep and a time to laugh,
a time to mourn and a time to dance,
a time to scatter stones and a time to gather them,
a time to embrace and a time to refrain from embracing,
a time to search and a time to give up,
a time to keep and a time to throw away,
a time to tear and a time to mend,
a time to be silent and a time to speak,
a time to love and a time to hate,
a time for war and a time for peace. (3:1-8)

There is a time when certain things are right and a time when they are not. Inevitability requires an acceptance that there are things that are beyond your control. This is not the same as refusing to challenge injustice, but it is to recognise that ideas will come and go regardless. There is a time to search out, but there is also a time to give up. What is particularly noteworthy for teachers is the time to be silent. The space for peace and quiet can be a rare thing in schools and especially for those who work in schools. What better way to restore balance but to seek out a moment or two of silence over the summer. Even the tweets can cease some times. What is encouraged is to live your life to the full and to enjoy the pleasures of today, because they could be gone tomorrow.

This is what I have observed to be good: that it is appropriate for a person to eat, to drink and to find satisfaction in their toilsome labour under the sun during the few days of life God has given them—for this is their lot. (5:18)

If Qoheleth is to be believed then our lives should reflect the balance of all those things. One of the worst mistakes you could make, particularly as a teacher, is to imagine you know what is going to happen. The academic year might be sketched out, dates might be in place, calendars taking shape, but it has yet to be painted in. Students will return as new individuals and their learning pathways are yet to be written.

Qoheleth writes on the nature of wisdom and encourages us to persevere. A number of interesting ideas are included, which you might agree with or think are ridiculous, but they at least might give you something to think about. Some might give you comfort when faced with the latest educational headline.

Frustration is better than laughter,
because a sad face is good for the heart. (7:3)

Other points might be helpful for those who get embroiled in ‘educational’ twitter debates.

Do not be quickly provoked in your spirit,
for anger resides in the lap of fools. (7:9)

Another point might be helpful when you find yourself about to embark on yet another debate about teaching standards.

Do not say, “Why were the old days better than these?”
For it is not wise to ask such questions. (7:10)

If after all of this you feel at a loss as to what your goal should be, Qoheleth has something to say about this too, which may appeal in its simple nobility.

So I turned my mind to understand,
to investigate and to search out wisdom and the scheme of things
and to understand the stupidity of wickedness
and the madness of folly. (7:25)

Now I’m not saying it is always an easy read. Ecclesiastes is a strange, challenging, difficult, depressing, uplifting, bizarre, annoying, confusing and illuminating read. I do recommend that you read it, whatever your beliefs and if you do not believe in religion. I haven’t given the end away. Read it, you never know you might love it.

 

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Thank goodness RE is complicated

complicatedWhy did I choose to teach RE? The answer was really simple, because I loved my subject. I was passionate about Theology & Philosophy of Religion, and by the time I reached the dizzy heights of 22, had been so for at least a decade. Why did I love it so? Because of complexity. It was the way in which humans encountered the divine in a number of ways, but each was beautifully complex. I had loved my university lectures on Systematic Theology, because I liked the nitty gritty of Incarnational or Trinitarian theology, for example. I even enjoyed coping with the complexities of early church history, because those Patristic leaders seemed to spend decades arguing over single words, because they wanted to agree to create creeds and canons. With Patristic Theology there never seemed to be a sense of, ‘Well, that’ll do for now’. Then there were the textual studies. Having been prepared for Theology by learning New Testament Greek, at my local comprehensive, by the most brilliant of teachers (see ‘I want to continue to develop professionally’ ) I was ready to dissect text with the rest of them. I was happy to translate Mark’s Gospel with all its hurried mistakes and clumsiness. Was challenged by the detail of Romans, but loved in particular John’s Gospel, with all its hidden symbolism, underpinning structural meanings, its theological clues that sent you on an exciting detective hunt. I loved the complexity. Even now, if I’m feeling in the mood for a little Greek jousting, I will happily answer the door to bewildered JWs to discuss the role of the definite article in Trinitarian theology. For me, there were frustrating, yet beautiful paradoxes to battle with and yet this was only half of the picture. Theology’s intricacies also sprung from the fact that people are complicated too. Not surprising if you believe in Imago Dei.

 

Why did I want to teach RE? Well that love and appreciation of complexity of belief, of people and of divinity had been nurtured in me by outstanding teachers. They loved their subjects too and had passed that on to me. The RE department that I attended did have its beautiful wall displays (albeit in a portacabin, too hot for summer, too cold for winter), but it had even more beautiful discussions. Nobody dumbed anything down, that I can remember. We were not a selective school, a nice rural comprehensive, so quite a mixed bag. There were a lot of ultra brights, Oxbridge classes for some, but some struggled too. I remember my A level class had about 20 in it. Students were drawn to the variety within the subject. I wanted to be able to pass that excitement on, just as my teachers had done.

 

Once teaching, I like to think that I managed to sustain that level of complexity, even being asked to teach an A Level paper on Patristic Theology and still using the Greek for analysing Mark’s Gospel at GCSE. Over the years the demands and expectations of the subject have changed, but the best RE is still a subject that embraces the complexity, rather than distils it into something unrecognisable. Watered down, the study of religious views loses its vibrancy. Maybe this is echoed in the ‘post-Christianity’ that Rowan Williams recently spoke about. Rather than a dismissal of Christian values instead an ‘in-the-background’ complacency. It would be easy for that to be a feature of RE too, if it wasn’t for the vigilance of great RE teachers. The classic ‘breadth at the expense of depth’ conflict, making sure we know something of what everyone says on the subject of abortion, at the expense of really knowing what anyone believes. How could you possibly

‘adopt an enquiring, critical and reflective approach to the study of religion’ (‘Religious Education: realising the potential, Ofsted, p5)

if religion has become a beige catalogue of pretty days and greeting card sentiments. No wonder RE organisations and teachers see the need to challenge the level of achievement in RE. It lifts the heart to see that the Religious Education Council’s first step in mapping out a way forward with RE is to acknowledge its complexity, not only in terms of its undefinable quality, but also in its encompassing of the complexity of people (‘A Review of Religious Education in England, p48). It’s a tough job out there.

 

So, the on-going challenge to teachers of RE is to embrace and communicate the challenge. One way in which faith was presented to us in a more sophisticated way was through the medium of television with the third series of Rev on the BBC. Here we met with Rev Adam Smallbone, his wide, his colleagues, and his parishioners. What we were shown was an exploration of what faith means, of the value and meaning of prayer, of forgiveness, of liturgy, of sin, of death, of tradition, of ecclesiastical structures, of Easter and perhaps most importantly of doubt. Nothing was explained away to the nth degree, questions were not always answered and it wasn’t always funny, but it was complicated, because belief in a divine being is complex, as are people. Encounters like this also serve to highlight where good RE teaching has always led the way in tried and tested educational theory (see Delivering the Perfect RE Lesson ). A discussion about Rev. could illicit some interesting and profound responses.

 

Why do I still love RE? Because now more than ever is a time to enjoy complexity. We even have a phrase, ‘dumbing down’ and we have books for dummies (of which I am happy to admit I am one). That’s fine, because we all need support and scaffolding to help us understand difficult things, but as with Wittgenstein’s early view of language as a ladder, it serves a purpose to help us climb to a different level, but we can kick it away once we’ve got there. It’s worth the effort, RE for dummies would be like ‘Wizard of Oz’ without the Technicolor. We need to embrace the complexity.

 

I can remember in the midst of my days as a theological student, going along with a friend to their place of worship to see what it was like. The people were lovely, the music was amazing, but as a rather too earnest theologian I can remember hearing a preacher say that ‘Kingdom’ was a tricky word, so for his talk he was going to use the word ‘family’ instead. I couldn’t tell you what he said after that because in my head I think I had begun to list all the ways, theological and otherwise, as to why ‘Kingdom’ was not like a ‘family’.

 

This is not an argument ignoring accessibility, instead it is a celebration of complexity. When I was a Head of RE I often had parents ask why it was still called RE, one even suggested it could be called, ‘Respect’. Hmm. My standard answer was always it is Religious Education because the majority of the world’s population are religious, it was about religion, even when it was about atheism and agnosticism, it was about religion. No need to hide from that. So, my hope, along with so many RE supporters out there is to embrace the details, light the fires of fascination and challenge each new mind you encounter, because complexity doesn’t get much better than this.

It’s time to speak up & say something interesting

20140203-150601.jpgI recently watched a short clip on television that introduced me to The Bechdel Test. This was not something I had heard of before, but was fascinated to discover that it was a very simple test that was applied to films concerning their treatment of women. This was popularised by Allison Bechdel in 1985 and consists of three simple rules:

The film must contain:

  1. Two named women who
  2. Talk to each other
  3. And the topic of their conversation must be about something other than men

Really simple you might think, but when you see some of the films that fail this test it does make you pause for thought. These failing films include recent box office hit, The Wolf of Wall Street, not surprising perhaps, but other films that fail are Slumdog Millionaire, Shrek, The Bourne Identity, Ghostbusters, Wall-E, the Pirates of the Caribbean films, Men in Black, Shawshank Redemption, Up and Toy Story. Why don’t these films have a female conversation in them? It could be because the setting wouldn’t allow it, but when you look at the list that doesn’t explain them all. There are many great films that fail this test. Their failure needn’t detract from their greatness, but it is a bit sad when it seems those you made the films thought that women have nothing interesting to say. It reminded me of one scene from Sex and the City where, yes many, many conversations were had about men, but many were not. This one scene had an exasperated Miranda who wanted to share her joy of her new Palm Pilot whilst the others wanted to discuss boyfriends. Is that really all women can talk about?

Whilst watching the latest Celebrity Big Brother I was amazed that the issue of sexism was such a strong theme throughout its run. Whether it was the naive craziness of the Lee Ryan love triangle, with grown women fighting over a very silly man, or the confidence of Luisa which others either found disgusting or threatening. Now I am not condoning all the moral choices that were discussed during the programme, but I was amazed by the way the public hated Linda’s moaning ways and yet were happy to make Jim, who had spent the majority of the programmes bad mouthing many of the women, although all the men were ‘honest’. This seemed to culminate in a heart to heart between Jim and Luisa, which was brilliantly commented on my Allison Woolley (Education Editor from the Guardian) when she said:

@alicewoolley1: Jim telling Luisa she needs to tone herself down and pretend to be less assertive. Classic sexism. #cbb

This just seems to reinforce the idea that women should pipe down. This comes at a time too when I had read a great blog from @Chocotzar (http://chocotzar.wordpress.com/2014/01/27/i-would-if/ ) . She talks about the patriarchy of Teachmeets and of Twitter itself. She touches upon an idea that has been raised before, that not enough women are prepared to speak up on Twitter. There have many well-publicised cases of women being trolled, not just by men, but by other women as well and this is thought to have put many women off from speaking up. This makes me feel very sad and the notion that women have nothing to say or are frightened to speak and I find this far more worrying a prospect than a young girl twerking on a music video award show.

In days when some are remarking on the lack of women role models it is worth taking time to think about which women are speaking up and what are they saying? Any young woman looking for a role model should really look no further than Malala, a young women with plenty to say, all of it inspiring. Great news indeed that she has just been nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize. She is not the only role model available to young women. In other spheres Jennifer Lawrence is carrying films as the lead taking on strong roles such as Katniss Everdeen in The Hunger Games, a character with a story that is not just about her relationships. Jennifer Lawrence herself has challenged some of the stereotypes wrapped up in the body image of the Hollywood ideal. Lena Dunham also has brought a refreshing depiction of life as a modern young woman. Dunham herself as writer, producer,director and actress should be inspiring young women that if they do not feel that they are being represented to go out and write their own stories.

20140203-152524.jpgI could list the inspirational figures of yesteryear, but as educators we need to lead by example and show what is worth speaking up about today. Whether you agree that the educational world on Twitter is patriarchal or not, it is still worth speaking up,whatever your gender and speak up for positive role models and the beneficial effect they and we can have on young people.

Celebrating books: covers, pages, spines and ink

I promise you I am not a dinosaur. The evidence might appear to be to the contrary given that I have declared my love for the days of chalk and blackboards and now here I am championing the age of print. However, to reiterate I am not a dinosaur. I don’t have an ereader as such although I do have relevant apps for tablets and phones, but I still tend towards buying books either from…horror shock book shops or yes, I admit, the internet. So there is a part of me that gives a secret cheer with the independent booksellers who, when asked if they wanted to be able to s20131109-165701.jpgell kindles in by their stores whilst receiving a cut said, thanks but no thanks (http://www.siliconbeat.com/2013/11/08/new-amazon-offer-selling-kindles-at-indie-bookstores/). I definitely think that ereaders fulfil a function and I find it quite handy to read research articles as PDFs on a tablet, allowing you to whizz to the relevant quote or table. Of course it’s not the same as little page markers and a soft pencil to gently annotate the page. There is something beautifully tangible about books, whether they are new or old. I’m a child of paper upbringing and it’s a hard history to shake off.

I was lucky enough to be brought up with book-loving parents who took us to countless second hand bookstores. When I was primary age my mother worked in an independent bookshop which was such an old building that there really was a curtain behind the counter, behind which a trap door mysteriously led to an underworld cellar of stock. On days off school I would live in between the boxes of books, playing games, reading and colouring in. By the time I was employable I got a Saturday job in the same bookshop, sadly now moved to modern premises. The theological specialism allowed me to use my discount to build my own library, from NT Greek lexicons to theological classics. The world of the bookshop was never dull. Over the years I worked there there were numerous adventures including shoplifting children, petrol bombings (yes really, although it was a mistake – they thought we were stocking the Satanic Verses & it was actually the bookshop fifty yards along the street), death threats, romances and suffering people. Everyone came in, it was somewhere that felt like home. Days were long, but I look back on working there with great fondness. I could easily have told you the price of any size or translation of the Bible, from cloth covering to red letter calfskin deluxe. There is something so enticing about buying books.

It doesn’t really matter if the books are old or new. If a book is new then it is the unopenedness of it which is so exciting. Of course my bibliophile upbringing meant that you NEVER broke a spine. The book adapts to you, is a reflection of you using it. If the book is second hand you inherit the book and it’s accompanying heritage. I’ve queued up to have editions signed by a favourite author, but there is something mysterious about inheriting someone else’s inscription and then turning the pages to see what words of wisdom might be penciled in the margins. There is something wonderful about owning books. For ten years I commuted to work and I had the opportunity to read so many books, there was those moments on the tube where you checked out what everyone else was reading before settling into your own little world. Perhaps if i was still commuting I might have succumbed to a little ereader for transport ease, but maybe I would do what I have done with many audio books purchased and that is buy t20131109-165730.jpghe print edition as well. I admire those people who are able to pass books on once read, but the hoarder in me likes to see a well stocked shelf, each spine a memory of the time and location when the book was read. I love libraries, but I tend not to want to give the books back! I promise I have no outstanding fines. The wonderful thing about libraries is that they celebrate books. This week I saw that a new academy opened up its library with this quotation written on the wall, “I have always imagined that Paradise will be a kind of library” by Jorge Luis Borges. I think it’s a legitimate idea. I was so impressed by the unveiling of the beautiful new Birmingham library as a celebration of the written word. Books deserve to be treated well and stored in a beautiful way and the architecture is stunning (http://www.libraryofbirmingham.com)

So with this tribute to books you can imagine my feelings about books in schools. I have to hold my tongue at the piles of text books in their unloved state, but feel am uplifted by the sight of children engrossed in a book, even if it was me telling them to put it away because the lesson is starting. The advert for a particular ereader with children absorbed is great, because ultimately we want them to read, but I wonder if the turning of pages back and forth transcribes to the electronic swiping experience. Maybe it does and I am sounding a little like a plodosaurus, but for now schools should be encouraging that contact with books. Don’t be ripping out shelves and replacing them with charging points. The library is not the same thing as a study centre, it is the home of books, with their dazzling colours and huge variety of shapes and sizes. I’ve worked in schools with amazing librarians and they have worked hard to make the library a place where intellectual curiosity thrives. Long before surfing or googling, discovering books was running a finger along a shelf, dipping in and out of the books that lived there. I’m excited by what future technology brings and that is as true for electronic books too – you only have to see ‘The Fantastic Flying Books of Mr Morris Lessmore‘ to see that, but let’s not miss out on the tangibility factor of opening a book just yet. I’ll finish with the infinitely more eloquent words of Winston Churchill:

“If you cannot read all your books…fondle them—peer into them, let them fall open where they will, read from the first sentence that arrests the eye, set them back on the shelves with your own hands, arrange them on your own plan so that you at least know where they are. Let them be your friends; let them, at any rate, be your acquaintances.”

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