Perspectives #3 - "Going Beyond Representation"
Updated: Jun 23
"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.
Olivia Saunders is an Assistant Head Teacher working in a start up school in North Greenwich. Her strategic areas of focus are Character Development and Key Stage 3. She completed the Teach First Leadership Development programme in 2014 and is passionate about pastoral support on offer for students as well as ensuring that the school curriculum is diverse and inclusive for all.
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My experience as a student
Before I explore my own career journey, it's important to revisit my childhood experience which has informed a lot of the choices I've made in teaching. In Year 8, I was a bright and opinionated young girl, but these characteristics were labelled as bolshy, and I was perceived as a ringleader that encouraged negative behaviour from others. I remember feeling a real disconnect with my tutor; she would not listen or even understand where I was coming from. I was the only black girl within my class and my year, and from my point of view I was behaving in the same way as other children. What made my behaviour so different from others in my tutor's eyes?
The break-down of that relationship led to exclusions from tutor time and registering with the Deputy Headteacher. Still to this day, I hold onto that experience and use it to fuel my own practice. Did I really exhibit behaviour that was more challenging than my peers? Or was it because I was a black child displaying this behaviour?
Beginning my leadership journey
My avenue into teaching was Teach First; their Leadership Development Programme addressing educational disadvantage was something that interested me. I felt that I could be that teacher for a student who was like 'childhood me'. I would take the time to understand and channel their energy into something positive if they were struggling to find their way. When I arrived in Tower Hamlets and found myself placed in a secondary school where 70% of students were Bengali, I was shocked; as a naive 22 years old, I expected to arrive to a school of all white children. As a minority throughout my own school life I had never experienced a setting where an ethnic minority was the majority – how strange! This was a huge learning curve; I immersed myself within their culture and had conversations with students around their traditional dress, food, and cultural celebrations.
My first school was a culturally enriching experience, but it was also interesting to see the culture created by a leadership team that lacked representation (they were majority white British). I witnessed an authoritarian leadership style, where there was little to no consultation of the staff body. It's difficult to explore how I felt about this because at the time, I was on my own journey with something to prove, and recent events have made me contemplate the playing field I was on then. I've always had the attitude that I'm a black woman and I can do whatever anyone else can do. I've always thought that I'm never going to let the fact that I am black and a woman hold me back, that I'm going to do whatever any other person can do and do it better, going above and beyond and not allowing an employer or a Head Teacher the opportunity to say that I am not good enough.
To break down this feeling further, I guess I have never wanted to accept that I've been in a disadvantageous position, therefore I have always laid the responsibility at my own door. I will work my hardest to be good enough and rub my shoulders with those at the top. I have thought hard about this, and there is no issue with diligence and going above what is expected to impress. However, what is heart-breaking is that I thought this because I believed both my race and sex placed me at a disadvantage, and I was hell-bent on proving that this wasn't the case to myself and to my peers. It's so hard for you to believe you can take a place at the top if you don't see others that look like you sat there with you or before you.
At my current school, the leadership team is a lot more representative, and this representation can be seen at all levels within the organisation. However, I believe to have a culture and ethos that promotes diversity, it goes well beyond representation amongst your staff. My current school is on a journey, and here are some of the steps we are taking and what I feel other institutions can do to promote diversity:
1. Staff Voice. Your staff having a voice, and staff feeling like their voice is valued, is so important, as it allows staff to feel they can come forward with ideas as well as share their experiences. This can be done in several ways, but anonymous staff surveys providing staff a platform to speak is essential. This allows leadership teams to understand the starting point and address any issues there may be.
2. Tokenism. There is nothing worse than sticking an additional line in the newsletter about Ramadan or doing a token assembly on Black History Month. Promoting diversity should be an integral part of school culture. The only way that this can happen is by dedicating time to reviewing existing practices, the curriculum, the CPD schedule, the assembly programme, and school policies. Leaders should ensure all these areas are representative and should consider the diversity of the student and staff body as well as the wider school community.
3. Dedicated CPD time. It is so important that leadership teams make safe spaces for staff to explore diversity. There are several reasons why this important. Teaching staff may often hold discriminatory views or misconceptions that need addressing. For example, when talking about the LGBT+ community there are lots of different terms used to define genders and sexuality. There is a need for staff to have training, so they feel they can have conversations well, free from those misconceptions. I think this space also needs to be safe so staff can raise any concerns they have, so this can be addressed and the school can move forwards towards a more inclusive ethos.
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