Perspectives #15 - "Disadvantage, Sexuality, and Masculinity"
"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.
Alex Purdie is a Curriculum Leader of Technology (food specialist) in a large secondary school in Greater Manchester. In his 10th year of teaching, he is the LGBT+ lead, a Professional Mentor, Primary school governor and also currently undertaking his NPQSL. He is extremely passionate about T&L, CPD and staff wellbeing. To relax he loves to cook, exercise, read, watch TV and movies, going for walks and socialising with friends & family.
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As a child in school, I knew I was different. I used to be given a big gold token to collect my lunch, and if this was today, I would be labelled as disadvantaged’, ‘vulnerable’, or a ‘Pupil Premium/Free School Meals’ pupil. That’s one reason why I always feel that I can relate to my students, because I’m proud to say these ‘disadvantages’ didn’t stop me being the best version of myself. I think it’s absolutely necessary to state at this point that I do have white privilege, but I’m here to share my experiences of being raised on a council estate in a single parent family and being an openly gay man. While this account may not help everyone, I hope it will help you see things from a different perspective.
Without going into too much detail about my childhood, I always had one champion: my Mum. As an adult I look back on what she did for me and my siblings, and I have so much gratitude. She would get me to practice my signature for when I had my own ‘fancy office’; she would get us to walk miles and miles to my Grandmother’s as we couldn’t afford the bus fare and get us to tell stories and pick flowers on the way; she worked constantly, sometimes two jobs; she made the biggest fuss over our birthdays, Christmas and Easter. All of these things I remember fondly, and they always make me smile. And whenever any negativity would enter our lives, she taught me to how to deal with it well and ignore the opinions of others. This inner strength is something I have definitely inherited from her. I learnt quickly that my wellbeing, happiness and my opinion was important. She would always get me to think about others, be kind, treat others as I would like to be treated, support others and to not be judgemental. Thank you, Mum.
When I teach students that I know are ‘vulnerable’ or having a tough time, I always try to ensure that I’m compassionate, but my standards are still just as high for what I expect of them. I understand what some of our young people are going through and empathy is key, but I also want people to realise that we need to express our feelings and ask for support, which is why I always ask students, friends, colleagues, family “are you okay”? I understand the importance of positivity, and I understand the importance of asking for help or support if you need it. This is especially important as men, as we are often told we can’t express ‘unusual’ emotions or vulnerability, something my estranged father tried to embed this into me when I was a child. If I cried or didn’t want to play football I was ‘gay’, ‘a fag’, or ‘not my son’. This was drilled into me, but I had the best Mum who made me realise that this isn’t true and it’s fine to cry, it’s fine to show any emotion and that it’s fine to be gay. We all know children can express certain views that their families demonstrate at home, and I consider myself incredibly lucky to have a Mother who ensured that I have liberal views and accept everyone around me, whilst treating all with respect.
When I entered teaching, wellbeing or workload wasn’t a ‘thing’; we can all agree they have always existed but from my own experience I would say it’s in the past five years that it has become much more apparent and important, and something that school leaders should be considering. As a middle leader, I continually consider wellbeing when I’ve my Curriculum Leader hat on. All people that work in schools work extremely hard, and I believe recognition and praise goes a long way. Some of the small but effective things I have introduced to develop staff wellbeing are: shout-outs to staff, an annual “Bake Off” competition, the “cup of joy” birthday cards for my team, SLT gifts for staff, and end of term gifts.
I also encourage positive wellbeing for students through being a form tutor. I LOVE being a form tutor! I think it’s a great way to start the day, and it’s the students that you get to know the best in your teaching career, in my opinion. I have had two forms and I absolutely think they are the best students in the world. I also feel that it’s important that they utilise their form tutor as their ‘champion’. My tutees know I will always support them and never judge them but will challenge when needed, and in return I expect respect, honesty, and for them to try their best. I try my best to encourage a Positive Mental Attitude, and I always do the following to ensure this: smile to all students, ask how they are, tell them ‘I’m nagging you because I care’ and remind them of the benefits of being positive.
I’m lucky to work in a school where staff and student wellbeing is a priority as the effects are huge for all.
If I could give any leader three recommendations of how it can be protected, it would be these:
1. Mirror good wellbeing strategies yourself. If SLT are doing this, all should be considering their own wellbeing and be vocal about it.
2. Ask for honest opinions on workload. Some of these opinions may not be easy to hear but you must start somewhere.
3. Don’t be encouraging or implementing a positive wellbeing strategy if you do not fully believe in it. Wellbeing cannot be a ‘tick box’ activity and if it is, the staff will realise this.
I do feel my school have successfully fostered this culture, and whilst it’s fantastic, it slightly annoys me that schools are applauded by catering for their staff’s wellbeing. I just can’t understand why all schools aren’t doing the same! It still perplexes me, and I know whatever school I work in, I will make this a priority.
My brain never stops thinking of how I can make my department and my school a happier place, and while I always like to think of new incentives of my own to introduce into school, some of my ideas have come from literature such as: Teacher Wellbeing Toolkit (Andrew Cowley); A Practical Guide to Teacher Wellbeing (Elizabeth Holmes) and Mindful Teacher, Mindful School (Kevin Hawkins). Also, don’t underestimate the importance of developing your Professional Learning Network (PLN) on Twitter where you are able to collaborate and therefore implement more ideas.
To finish this piece, I say these quotes to myself on a daily basis and I think they sum up what I’m trying to say:
"If you can't love yourself how are you gonna love somebody else?" - RuPaul
"We are products of our past, but we don’t have to be prisoners of it." - Rick Warren
I hope as educators we remember that all students (and staff!) are capable of amazing things, and regardless of their background or sexuality, we should all be championing and supporting them in whatever path they choose to take. As I’m typing this, I reflect on the little boy who decorated his bedroom with Liverpool FC wallpaper to appear ‘straight’, was scared to cross his legs in front of friends so not to get ridiculed, and was pitied by teachers due to my estranged father. I have GCSE’s, A-Levels, Degrees, a successful job, a beautiful partner, and a drive to do my best whilst supporting, collaborating and networking with other amazing people that I can learn from.
Twitter: @mrpfoodie (Alex has said you’re more than welcome to contact him if you would like any advice or support on staff wellbeing or LGBT+ in your school.)