Perspectives #6 - "Am I Responsible For Myself?"
Updated: Jul 4, 2020
"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.
Aditi Singh is a biologist and SEMH school leader about to take on her first Head of School role in September 2020. When not immersed in all things education, she can be found admiring wildflowers, marvelling at mountains or painting in bright colours.
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In educator terms I can be considered young. Heck, in human terms I am young. But in life terms, I sometimes feel like I’ve lived three lives. And I say this largely because the emotional labour of wellness is not equally distributed across people in any field, and so also in education.
I am not one for conformity and there are few boxes that I conveniently fit into. It took me a while to understand and accept this; but this was also complicated by my surroundings in education. I work in a special school in South East London and there are no (very) small, South Asian women with accents intact, wandering around those niches with ambition and abandon. I am known for some naiveté in judging people’s intentions (lost in my own thoughts), and so recklessly wandered into special education with all of my above descriptors, avec sharp edges, temperament, a need to create and no cultural filters. I am as forthright as they come, and only a tiny part of me took on the social astuteness that is so ‘British’ in its presentation – by which I mean ‘white’ social astuteness in education and academia. Yes, whiteness the construct.
Needless to say, I have long felt like a sharp, uncomfortable tack in the mattress. I love what my life stands for and am grateful for the opportunities that economic stability provides; but the last few years feel long, difficult and unforgiving. At first, there was the racism at work – which hurt doubly when it came from the children; more when I was new and then dwindling with time, but still present. Then there was the pressure of needing to prove myself in a brand new field from scratch. And then finally it was the constant yearly battle to build systems that I knew the school needed, while being worn down daily by that particular brand of sexism and/or self-involvement that does not doubt itself at all. Oh the peak exhaustion. To make life at work more in keeping with reality, I became a part of groups that spoke up about xenophobia and stood up for activism and advocacy. But those things are tiring when one of the people you’re also trying to keep safe is yourself.
I knew I was sound as a practitioner. And yet we live in a world where social and professional rules are underwritten by insecurity, and are designed to weed people out. This is why people who become more and more marginalised (women, men of colour, then women of colour, disabled people, queer people, queer people of colour) become exceptionally resilient in order to have a half-decent life. You have to be, to make it past the flaming hurdles. Multiply that exponentially by poverty when it exists; and multiply by a refusal to play by ‘the rules’; and life can get hard. And this resilience in the face of difficulty needs to cease being such a prominent feature in people’s lives. Just because every human being I know loves to stick with what is familiar, and fears, and sometimes destroys, everything that isn’t, doesn’t make it acceptable. This goes for me too.
I had to learn skills I never knew I needed in order to navigate my workplace – brushing off belittling, sharpening my comeback game, repeating my ‘mission’ to myself most weeks to get past the undermining, tantrums and jokes. I curse my Indian + woman upbringing, where I also then soothed and ‘nursed’ people’s emotional distress so that we could get actual jobs done; not knowing what the professional consequences would be if I, a then-visa-holding individual, resisted. And I dislike that I had to grow that layer of practical deceit to keep myself safe. I was the wellbeing and teaching lead – writing bulletins, celebrating staff, coaching, mentoring and building rock-solid relationships that will last our lifetimes; and yet I was personally uncomfortable the whole time.
I have a reputation for being the ‘caution’ when I know that were I a man, I would have been celebrated as a budget Harvey Specter but with more integrity. That we are still having these conversations seems ridiculous; but also, I’d quite like to be a wellbeing lead who can actually live that life. And a school leader that doesn’t come with a ‘but…’.
My life is actually good. I’m getting on with most things that I really wanted to do, and now with clarity. I have friends, colleagues and loved ones who have been and will be with me as best as they are able. And the learning from my last few years will be for life. Recognising things that are good for us, choosing things that are good for us and maintaining those healthy, secure connections is a life skill for wellbeing. I am more regimented, better at genuine empathy and more in tune with who I am, simply because I had to slowly but ruthlessly eliminate all the noise. This was a brilliant result.
So I *am* the one who is responsible for myself.
But it takes a village. To maintain a healthy adult. And us that are already healthy (privilege) owe it to ourselves and our teams to remain secure in the face of pressure, to ensure that mental wellness can be a goal for all. This is binding.
If we have racial, ableness and gender-based privileges, we owe it even more to our communities to probe our blind spots, so that we aren’t asking people to absorb our emotional incontinence, excuse our behaviours and continue to function in a cocoon where we are unaware of how we affect others.
Our schools are villages and we owe those villages health.
So, recommendations for school leaders where we can foster a true culture of wellbeing, are:
1. Let’s work on self-awareness and learn how to be secure and well-adjusted. Because personal blind spots can foster cultures that exponentially multiply toxicity. Once a workplace veers down this road, bringing it back to centre is difficult.
2. Let’s exercise and model self-accountability, self-compassion, boundaries and unprejudiced behaviour, so that there is less room for people to exercise insecurity in the workplace. There are no mistakes, only frameworks for learning. There is no shame in learning, only progress.
3. Let us all educate children that learn to recognise emotions as fleeting and know that their actions are the choices they make *in spite* of their emotions. I am as likely to lose control as anyone else, but we can collectively learn to do better. And the bonus is, that though parenting is not our job at all, well-adjusted pupils today will be the parents of tomorrow. And on and on. We could build good things with what we have in our control.
We cannot go on for generations, where being raised in social privilege means that our emotional difficulties and maturity issues are absorbed by our school communities, and disproportionately so by those less privileged than us. I am bound by this too.
I for one am going to set better boundaries, recognise my privilege and make rude gestures at my fear of sanction. What about you?
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