He for She

“They tried to bury us. They didn’t know we were seeds.”
Mexican Proverb

As I’ve discovered this week, writing about gender brings out strong reactions in other people. This is fine, because I don’t use my blog as a way to try and get other people to agree with me; I use it as a space to try and figure out what I think. It is also fine because, in order to have the confidence to keep saying what I wish, I have erected what you might call a “wall of mute” around myself. Yes I know people say that you should “follow people you disagree with” on Twitter, in order to “challenge your thinking”. But actually, all this typically amounts to is people metaphorically looking over your shoulder and making snarky remarks. (I would be a bit less sceptical if I saw evidence that people had changed their opinions via an online conversation.) Ironically, I think the ability not to care what other people think about what I say or write is quite a ‘masculine’ trait in me. Whether this is to do with socialisation, or biology, I have no idea, but generally I think that women want to please others more than men do. We are more ‘touchy-feely’ in so many ways.

Anyway, I digress. The purpose of this final blog in my 3-part ‘mini series’ is not to reignite a debate, or to inspire someone to write yet another ‘blog about a blog’. The purpose of this blog is simply to celebrate some wonderful men who are at the top of my ‘He for She’ list. Men who, through their behaviour, their comments or their approaches, give women a boost and support us in having a voice. And number one on the list is the guy who is sitting beside me right at this moment. He would rather stab needles into his eyes than join Twitter, participate in any form of social media, or come to a teaching event, so you’ll never get to meet him. But he is the reason why I can do what I do. He has no problem at all with taking on what some people might see as ‘female roles’, such as childcare, cooking and shopping. He is the calm, still, rational balance to creative, flaky, emotional me. When I have a crazy idea (such as “let’s take our children out of school for a term and go on the road with them”), he is the guy who makes it happen. He is happy to be the butt of the jokes in my upcoming Road School book. Together, we are more than the sum of our parts.

“Waste no more time arguing about what a good man should be. Be one.”
Marcus Aurelius

The other men I would like to celebrate are the ones who do the He for She thing online. Sometimes this is overt – men who speak directly about feminism, or in a way that boosts up women – but sometimes it’s just about the way that they talk, or the attitudes they take. In no particular order, I would like to thank Jonny Walker for his thoughtful blogs on being a male primary school teacher; David McQueen, for balancing a masculine presence on Twitter with an appreciation of women; Chris Chivers, for sensitive and nuanced tweets and blogs; David Weston, for speaking about coming out as a teacher, and for talking in Strictly Come Dancing metaphors with me; Peter Ford, for helping me get my head around words such as “epistemology” and not minding that I can’t; AspieDeLaZouch for writing the most stunning feminist blog I have ever read; Peter Blenkinsop, because even though we virulently disagree he disagrees with me in a way that never damages my confidence; Matt Young, who has only recently joined Twitter, but who has already boosted me up on many occasions; and lots of other guys who I don’t have space to mention here, but who will hopefully know who they are because I have said ‘thank you’ to them in the past.

“A woman is like a tea bag – you can’t tell how strong she is
until you put her in hot water.”
Eleanor Roosevelt

Here’s the thing about discussions of gender: for me, it is not about male versus female, nor about women versus men. It is not even about masculine versus feminine, or biology versus socialisation. I don’t want men to become women, or women to become men. I’m rather keen on men being men, and women being women, since that is what they are. It is just (for me at least) about balance. It is about using language and approaches that are supportive to both genders, whenever we possibly can. So if you’re out there, busy looking for evidence, and rational explanations, and scientific rationales, or if you think that more grit and character, or more measurement and tests, are the answer, then that is all well and good. But that does not mean I have to agree with you, or that I can’t say what I think as well. And while I am strong enough not to care what others say to or about me, there are plenty of women who are not. At its heart, ‘He for She’ is about more than men being feminists. It is about men, supporting women, to have a voice.

“I do not wish women to have power over men; but over themselves.”
Mary Shelley

Posted in Confidence, Equality, Feminism, Road School | 3 Comments

Like a Lady

“When a man gives his opinion, he’s a man.
When a woman gives her opinion, she’s a bitch.”
Bette Davis

Women and men are not the same. No matter how we might wish them to be so, or how often we claim to take no account of gender in living our lives, I’m afraid that we all do. You do it, I do it, we all do it. There are basic biological differences between men and women that affect us all, and we cannot simply put these to one side. As this article points out, “the odds of men and women having evolved the exact same emotional psychology are basically zero”. No matter how much I might yearn for equity, I do not want to achieve it by ‘owning’ male words and attitudes, or behaving more like a man. That would not lead us to greater equity, it would just lead to women behaving more like men in order to gain a fairer share of the power. In order to achieve equity, I think we need to accept that there are what we might term ‘feminine and masculine traits’, and then we should value these equally, in both men and women. We need ‘yin and yang’ to create a balance.

In yesterday’s blog, I associated the current discourse of mastery, knowledge, grit and traditionalism with masculinity and force. While “mastery” and “domain” are obviously gendered, some commentators asked why I said the same about these other concepts. Surely it was sexist to suggest that women couldn’t be ‘forceful’? Surely women can be just as ‘gritty’ and ‘intellectual’ as men, on their own terms? Clearly, they can, but if you tune in to the current discourse, this is not what it tells us. Apparently the best way to get “grit” into children is to bring rugby players and soldiers into schools, and to get children to join the cadets. While there is no reason why such activities should be the preserve of men, that is not the point: they are part of a masculine narrative, in which strength, aggression and force are the way to get things done. The ‘knowledge debate’ is dominated by male voices (if you don’t agree, just look at the big name authors, the traditionalist ‘blogrolls’, or the panel line-ups for conferences on the subject). The term “child centered” has become an insult, with the slogan “no excuses” now seen as a compliment. Only the logical, rational and intellectual can lead us to a rigorous truth. A soft, emotional approach is irrational, illogical, and not to be tolerated. Masculine over feminine. “Stop being a big girl’s blouse.”

It’s vital to note that this imbalance impacts as much on men as it does on women; perhaps even more so. While women miss out on leadership roles, men suffer from being pushed to take on traditional gender roles, in other ways. They miss out on spending time with their babies. Consider the most recent statistics on male suicides, or this on gender in the prison population: “The male prison population is 82,001 and the female prison population is 3,891.”  Why are men 20 times more likely to be in prison than women? Could it be something to do with the way that we bring them up? Is there something about the way society treats men, and the kind of behaviours and attitudes we value in them? Once again, the language we use shines a light on our values, it influences our thinking even when we think that it does not. And so it is that, while I rarely act much “like a lady”, I most certainly do not want to be demonised for behaving “like a girl”.

“The worst thing you can call a girl is a girl.
The worst thing you can call a guy is a girl.
Being a woman is the ultimate insult.”
Jessica Valenti

Posted in Equality, Feminism | 4 Comments

Man Up

“But if thought corrupts language, language can also corrupt thought.”
George Orwell, 1984

Language is an incredibly powerful tool. It can make us laugh, or cry, or rage with fury against injustice, but it can also pervade our lives, without us being aware of how it influences our thinking. In the last five or so years, the language that we use around education has undergone a sea change. If I didn’t know better, I would wonder if I had stumbled into a badly written erotic novel. Where once we said that “every child matters”, nowadays people talk about how our “pupils” must attain “mastery”. They discuss “knowledge domains” and “academic subjects”, and rail against “anti-intellectualism”. Government documents show us how to “administer the check” and insist that we must have sufficient “rigour” in our curriculum. Children who do not make the grade must be told that they are “Below National Standards” which is probably because they do not have sufficient “grit”. If we dare to hint that we might have a child centered view of education, we are told that we are “enemies of promise”, or that we are displaying the “soft bigotry of low expectations”. There are “no excuses” for this kind of stuff.

The underlying message behind many of these linguistic changes is an interesting one. On the surface the narrative seems to be about high standards, and a return to what we might term a ‘traditional’ view of education. But swimming underneath, like a Great White Shark with only its fin visible, is a different set of meanings altogether. What many of these words have in common is that they echo a peculiarly masculine and forceful take on life, with a dollop of ‘public school boy’ thrown in for good measure. This is a world in which we must “man up”, “grow a pair” and “stop acting like a girl”. The way that we use language is inextricably linked to the way that we think. And so, if we want to create a more equitable society, we need to think about more than just equal numbers of women on panels, in Parliament, or in leadership roles. We need to think about what we say as well.

“Every word first looks around in every direction
before letting itself be written down by me.”
Franz Kafka

Posted in Confidence, Equality, Feminism | 17 Comments

A Logical Impossibility

Earlier this week I went to a meeting at my kid’s school, where the new head teacher was introduced. At the end of the meeting, we were asked “Does anyone have any questions?” and my question was “What about Assessment without Levels?”. I felt a bit mean asking, since the answer to that question is “Nobody Knows!”. (This was, in the end, pretty much what he said – good for him.) But I am getting increasingly annoyed at what is happening to assessment at the moment, both as a parent, and on behalf of the primary teachers who are faced with it. (If you need more detail, Michael Tidd’s blog is a great place to start.) Partly, I am cross because of all the reasons that Michael so eloquently explains – the limbo into which schools have been placed, the upswing in ‘expected’ standards, the difficulty this means for schools in communicating confidently with parents. But the main reason for my irritation is that schools are being asked to do two things which directly contradict each other:

  • Find a way to assess children without giving them a number/level/grade.
  • Get children to sit National Tests which result in a number/level/grade.

I am in complete sympathy with schools, who have had the rug suddenly pulled out from under their feet in an unnecessary way, and who face being judged by Ofsted on the results their ‘assessed without levels’ children receive. The mass academisation of primary schools that do not meet ‘the expected standard’ seems the most likely result. But I am even more angry as a parent. How dare the DfE tell me that my child will be ‘assessed without levels’ during her primary school years, and then give her a scaled score at the end? This is a logical impossibility; a sleight of hand of the very worst kind. And, quite frankly, the cheek of it takes my breath away.

Posted in Assessment, Children | Leave a comment

The Xylophone Technique

A few years ago, I met a teacher who told me he managed his classroom ‘By Xylophone’. When he said this, my first thought was “say what?”, my second thought was “that sounds cool”, and my third thought was “how on earth do you do that?”. It turned out that what he did was to teach his children a set of tunes, at the start of the year, which covered all the basic classroom routines. There was a tune for ‘everyone fall silent’, there was a tune for ‘everyone line up’, there was a tune for ‘hand out the resources’, and so on and on. To this day, I imagine him stood at the front of his classroom, picking out a tune without saying a word, as the students follow his musical commands. I come across a lot of classroom management techniques on my travels around schools. Many are about getting silence, because silence is something all teachers must be able to get, but many children struggle to give. Mostly, silence techniques are variations on the usual themes – a hand in the air or a finger on the lips. But once in a while I come across a fresh and surprising approach. My favourite ‘getting silence’ technique came courtesy of a teacher who worked in a tricky London school. She had tried everything she could think of to get silence, but nothing worked. So in the end she decided to ask the kids what she should do. And their advice? “You need to speak our language, Miss. So if you say ‘oi!’, we’ll say ‘you wot?'”

This morning I re-read a blog I had read earlier this month about Practising Classroom Routines. Since reading the blog the first time, it had been troubling me, but I couldn’t quite put my finger on what my unease was about. In the blog the writer describes how all the teachers in his school are trained to use the same set of routines, in what I imagine is a Doug Lemov kind of way. I can see how this approach could be supportive, especially for new teachers. I completely understand the desire to get on with the learning (especially when the pressure to do so is so intense). But when it comes to classroom management, the ‘best’ strategy is not one that someone else tells you that you should use, or one that ‘evidence shows’ is most efficient. The ‘best’ strategy is the one you choose yourself, because it works for you and your children. A strategy that works for one person may fail completely for another; a strategy that works on the first Monday of term may stop working on a Friday near the end. Classroom management is not something to separate out from teaching and learning, or to delegate to someone else; it is part of the deal that you strike with your kids. It is an element of the relationship that you have with each other. I control you, in my own inimitable style, because I want you to learn. And if that means calling “oi” to get your attention, or devising something as creative and bizarre as The Xylophone Technique, then that is exactly what I should do. Because I am exercising my professional judgement.

Posted in Behaviour, Creativity, Evidence | 3 Comments

Just Leap!

“With confidence, you have won before you have started.”
Marcus Garvey

I’ve been thinking a lot about confidence this week: what it is, whether I have enough of it, and to what extent it is a cause of inequality between men and women in the work place. Confidence will be a key theme in my #WomenEd Unconference talk on 3rd October. This morning I read three different articles on the subject of confidence. There was an editorial by Ann Mroz in today’s TES, urging women to speak out more about how brilliant they are. There was this piece from The Harvard Business Review, which was fascinating about the character traits associated with excessive confidence (although unnecessarily rude in its title). And there was this piece from The Atlantic, in which women’s lack of confidence was identified as a barrier to their success.

“Nobody can hurt me without my permission.”
Mahatma Gandhi

My feeling is that there are two different kinds of confidence. First, there is the confidence that sits inside you – the confidence that says ‘yes, this is what I believe’ or ‘yes, I am good at this’ or ‘yes, I have the right to say what I think’. To build this kind of confidence, you must get very good at not caring what other people say to you, or about you. When people are rude about you (which they will be if you are in the public eye), this confidence is the voice in your head that says: “I think you are mistaking me for someone who gives a s**t.” It is not that you do not care what other people think about you or your ideas – of course you do. It is not that you think you are always right, or that you are better than everyone else – of course you don’t. It is simply that you refuse to let other people damage your confidence in yourself. You do not give them permission to bring you down.

“It’s not bragging if you can back it up.”
Muhammad Ali

And then there is the other kind of confidence – the confidence that shouts “look at me and how great I am!”. This is the confidence that (according to these articles) men are good at, and women need to do more of to have a fair chance of success. This kind of confidence can be an outward manifestation of self belief, although ironically it can also be a symptom of a lack of it. This confidence allows you to retweet compliments, or to share great reviews of your books, which is all good (although which can get distasteful if you do too much of it). This confidence is important in getting your work noticed, but beware of the danger of believing in your own publicity (see Michael Wilshaw as a handy example). There is a tricky balance to be found, I think, between telling people how great you are to sell your stuff, and accidentally getting “too up yourself” as you do it. Let positive word of mouth do most of the work for you, or you risk alienating as many people as you win over.

You wouldn’t worry so much about what others think of you
if you realised how seldom they do.”
Eleanor Roosevelt

Interestingly, both kinds of confidence are crucial when you are an author. Writing is a supreme act of confidence and self belief. You have to believe that people will want to read what you write. You must also be willing to talk about your own work, because otherwise your books will not get noticed in an increasingly crowded marketplace. Both types of confidence are also vital in teaching – you have to believe in your ability to make the right decisions about what is best for your children, and you have to look confident in what you are doing as well. If you get this right, your children will feel confident in your presence. One of the very first questions I ask when I am giving talks on behaviour management is: “Do I come across as confident?” My next question is “Why?” (Remember that confidence is always at least partly a bluff – very few people truly believe they are brilliant.)

“All you need in this life is ignorance and confidence, and then success is sure.”
Mark Twain

When women see men constantly referred to as ‘experts’, and when male names dominate the discourse (as they do in both writing and education), this may put women off from entering the arena. If women always see a majority of men picked as ‘the right person for the job‘ then it is going to take courage and self belief to put themselves forwards. Perhaps the route to equitable representation doesn’t actually lie in asking women to behave more like men, and insisting that they develop the kind of brash, shouty confidence Ann Mroz describes in her editorial. Maybe it lies more in thinking about how we can boost women’s confidence, and help them deal with those things that might dent it.

“When in doubt, make a fool of yourself.
There is a microscopically thin line between being brilliantly creative

and acting like the most gigantic idiot on earth.
So what the hell, leap.”
Cynthia Heimel

The title of my #WomenEd keynote comes from something that my best friend once said to me, after she went on a course about leadership. (My friend runs a multi million pound Clinical Research Unit, so it seems like she’s doing okay to me.) Anyway, the course leader had said to her: “What would you do today if you were ten per cent braver?”. And that, for me, has always been the secret of success. Not to shout about how great I am. Nor to spend my life in a state of self doubt. But to stop caring what other people say about me. And (what the hell) to just leap!

Posted in Confidence, Feminism, Women, Writing | 5 Comments

Fuzzy Thinking

“Learning happens when people have to think hard.”
Robert Coe

Today I am sat in my study, writing (or, to more accurate, ‘writing’). I have banned myself from Twitter, the urgent emails are all answered, the preschool accounts are pretty much finished. There is no reason for me not to focus on what I am meant to be doing. And yet I am flitting between writing the article I am meant to be writing, and writing this blog post. I am bouncing between time spent working on Road School, and time spent staring out of the window. This is not a problem, though; it is perfectly normal. It is the way that I write.

When you write, you have to (a) figure out what you are going to write about, (b) figure out what form your writing is going to take, and (c) decide what your ideas actually are and how you can express them in a way that will work for your reader. And (for me at least) this last part is where fuzzy thinking comes in. Fuzzy thinking is what I do when I need to be creative. It’s hard to describe, but it is basically about emptying your mind so that random ideas can bounce around inside it. What I am waiting for is for two thoughts to bump into each other and create something that is more than the sum of their parts. I can’t make this happen by thinking hard; I can only make it happen when I stop trying to think.

One of the bits of Road School I am writing today is about our trip to The Great Wall of China. I know what I am going to write about, so that is (a) sorted. I know what form the book is taking (comic narrative), so that is (b) decided as well. But in order to make (c) happen I must stare into the distance. I must focus on something else. I must allow my memories of the day to trickle into my consciousness. I must let my emotions and my senses mix around together. I must remember what it felt like to actually be there, and figure out what being there made me think. I must stop looking so hard. And eventually, when the fuzzy thinking performs its magic, BANG! something new will be created.

“Creativity happens when people stop trying to think hard.”


Posted in Creativity, Road School, Thinking, Writing | 1 Comment