Perspectives #1 - "Honest Conversations"
"Perspectives" is a series of blog posts written by people different to James, the usual writer of this blog: a white heterosexual non-disabled male. Through this series, we will hear from people from Black, Asian, and Minority Ethnic, LGBT+, and faith communities, as well as women, people with disabilities, and people from a low socio-economic background. Each individual is speaking from their own experiences alone, not speaking on behalf of a group of people. The aim is for all of us to hear voices of those who are different to us, so we can understand and build a culture in our schools and organisations where the wellbeing of all is at the centre, not just the wellbeing of those who are the same as us.
Matt Dechaine is a leadership, executive and wellbeing coach working in education and across other sectors. He supports leaders and their teams through coaching, action learning and organisational development, especially in exploring and securing their values leading to sustainable change, healthy workplaces and empowered people. He is an ex-primary school headteacher and more recently worked in international education development in northern India.
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It’s interesting being asked to write a guest blog, and particularly one which is more personal and related to my own experiences of how my sexual orientation has affected my wellbeing in education. It’s important to give some background and share my personal experiences, as these have certainly shaped my view of wellbeing and how school leaders can support the wellbeing of their staff as well as themselves.
I trained as a primary school teacher in Kent through the GTP route and was immediately in love with teaching. I felt, and still do feel, proud of being a teacher and how instrumental teachers are in changing lives for children and young people. I think it’s safe to say that the job was very different when I started, and thinking about wellbeing for staff was some way off in the distant future.
By the time I had trained, I’d been with my partner for about 4 years and we had recently bought our first house together. We’re now edging towards 20 years, and have been married for 3. From the outset I was open about my relationship with my colleagues but not with children or families. I remember telling someone that I wanted to be known as a great teacher, not a great gay teacher. This undoubtedly stems from my experiences of homophobic bullying as a teenager and whilst at university. Coming out at 18 in 1995 was not easy.
I changed schools a few times and ended up as a Headteacher. My experiences of being gay in schools shaped my decision to not be out – I sometimes regret this. My first middle leader role was as the maths lead in a challenging coastal town in a school in special measures. Looking back, this is where I developed my craft and learned a lot about myself. Unfortunately, I did experience homophobia in the form of having the word ‘fag’ scratched into my car. The culprit was never found, and I brushed it off; however it compounded my decision to keep my private and professional lives separate. Equally, there was no wellbeing or pastoral support offered to me, leading to feelings of isolation. This was then supplemented by being outed after I had resigned to take up a Deputy Head position in another school. The school was in a federation and I taught the daughter of a TA in one of the other schools. She told her daughter I was gay, and this then led to the girl and her friends constantly asking me about my wedding ring, who I was married to. "Is it a woman? Are you gay?" I didn’t feel there were any opportunities to share or discuss this with senior colleagues.
This was not my only experience of being outed. When I was a Headteacher, I took my partner to the Friend’s Association quiz. A parent there told her child I was there with my boyfriend, and this then became the gossip. I wasn’t prepared for this in any way.
It’s interesting reflecting on this as I write. I’ve always been proud of who I am and proud to be in a strong relationship; however, I maintained the distinction between the personal and professional as much as I could. I was always sad when heterosexual teachers talked so openly about their partners and children with no concern for potential ramifications. I am under no illusion that I catastrophised this, but having experienced homophobia in schools, I hope I can be forgiven. This is underpinned by anti-gay legislation and a lack of equal rights when I was younger and discovering who I was. This hangover still exists for those of us who lived through Section 28, the AIDS messaging, and open homophobia in the media and society at large. I am so grateful that things have moved on so significantly, though. For example, I never thought I would be able to get married.
I hope what I've written so far gives some foundations for the next part of the blog: my 3 ideas for school leaders to support the wellbeing of their staff. I’m going to take it from my own LGBT+ perspective. That said, we are not a homogenous group and I don’t speak for all LGBT+ people.
How can SLTs support the wellbeing of all staff?
1. Firstly, the culture of a school is central to the wellbeing of all its members. This may involve taking a ‘cold light of day’ look at the school and what it stands for. There may be undercurrents which undermine an inclusive culture. This might involve looking closely at policies and procedures and not just ones discretely associated with wellbeing. To bring about the psychological safety of pupils and staff, they need to feel fully supported, embraced and valued. This is not necessarily about having LGBT+ ambassadors or celebrating Pride Month, although they have merits. If the culture does not truly demonstrate inclusivity on a daily basis then there’s a risk of tokenism and no sustainable change.
2. Secondly, talk to your staff about their experiences, if they are comfortable to do so. Ask them how they’d like to be referred to and what they’re happy to share. Ask them what support they need and ask them how you can help. In the same way that I don’t speak for all LGBT+ people, we don’t all want to be community spokespeople. The part our sexuality plays in our life varies enormously. Don’t assume that because someone is out in the staff-room that they’re happy being out in the classroom. This is a personal decision and potentially, with support and a truly inclusive school culture, LGBT+ staff members may choose to come out to students and families. Some may not. Backing this up are the robust policies which protect your staff from discrimination and prejudice.
3. My final point transcends just my own experiences as a gay man. I work with schools and organisations as a coach. Part of my practice is wellbeing coaching, and I work across schools with a variety of staff: TAs, HLTAs, 1:1 support, teachers and SLT. Wellbeing is more than giving people a wellbeing day: this again can be a sticking plaster over a wound. People have talked to me about feeling overwhelmed and when asked if they could talk to their SLT about this, the response is often no. This is because they are uncomfortable sharing their vulnerabilities with their Headteacher for risk of negative ramifications and being seen as not being able to cope. For a wellbeing culture to have roots, we all need to share, explore and acknowledge our vulnerabilities and challenges. Someone sharing their challenges is not a sign of weakness and should not be used as such.
I have to say that I have watched the move towards securing the wellbeing of school staff with interest. There is undoubtedly a disconnect between actual wellbeing and using it as a metric to judge schools. That said, perhaps it has raised the profile; I’m not sure. At the core, is the need to have open, frank and transparent conversations acknowledging what works well and what needs developing. This must be without judgement.
Although this blog is often focused on the wellbeing of staff, I am hugely passionate about the wellbeing of school leaders. Culture is often determined and shaped by the leaders and a commitment to your own wellbeing is hugely powerful in supporting the wellbeing of others.
These dialogues should lead to policy which has life, upheld and embedded by all. Fundamentally, ask your staff what they do and don’t need, and go from there; it might not be the rocky road you are anticipating.
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Linked In: linkedin.com/in/matt-dechaine-81281327