Visible Role Models

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#DiverseEd: Big Virtual Conversation – Saturday 13th June

As a MIxed White/Black Caribbean Senior Leader, former Headteacher and teacher of 20 years, this is a topic that is close to my heart and one that I am passionate about changing by, yes, you guessed it… BEING VISIBLE! 

I spoke at the #DiverseEd conference  at the weekend and was overwhelmed by the response. I was visible, in sharing my story of being the change I wish to see, ensuring that I plant seeds to grow the vision and aspiration of future generations. I can not lie… it was strange talking to a screen and not feeling the energy of the room, not seeing how many people were tuned in! 5 minutes was not enough to convey everything that I wanted to, so I’ve put the rest on paper, for you to read, feel, resonate and muse on the importance of the topic. 

If you heard my talk, you will have heard me highlight two key themes: 

  1. Being the role model that YOU needed as a student
  2. Being the role model that YOU needed from a senior colleague

First, I wish to place some background to why I am so passionate about these two themes. 

My background

I grew up in Birmingham, raised in a highly deprived area of the city. We were what would now be termed as Pupil Premium, with my inter-racial parents (Black Caribbean father and White British mother) living below the breadline. We lived in a predominantly white area which in the 1980s was an extremely racist part of the city. National Front emblems were spray painted around the estate, we were regularly called a nigger, coon and black bastard amongst other racial slurs. There was a black dog (called ‘Blackie’- the irony is not lost on me) who had been trained to attack black and brown people! We had to divert routes home or where we were playing depending on where this dog roamed! Against this backdrop, for many it would have been easy to develop a distaste for white people… except I, and half of my family are white! My maternal Grandad initially fueled the fire throwing my mom out when he found out she was having a black baby. I am proud to say, he is a hugely visible role model in my life and one for society, as he changed his programming (can you guess who’s the favourite grandchild?) 

My schooling experience and role models

As a kid, I loved school, I had a thirst for learning. At Primary school, I benefited from being placed in a class with students a year older than me (what I now understand to be a funding and a lack of numbers on roll issues). My progress was accelerated and I thrived. I fondly look back on that school where I had two terrific male role models – Mr Ratcliffe, the Headteacher (who I heard recently had passed away) and Mr Turner, the Deputy Headteacher (later a fine Headteacher). They poured genuine love, energy and enthusiasm into me to be the best that I could. They even welcomed me back as a young man when I began my first steps into the world of teaching, allowing me to volunteer and understand the privilege it is to work with young people. They judged me as a human being first and I will never forget that. Without them, I question would I be here today? They were role models to me, just like both my Grandfathers and Dad – something a number of my black friends didn’t have. They pushed me to dream, desire greatness and showed me that anything was possible. My paternal Grandad role modelled to the Birmingham community by being the first Black Publican at a time when that was simply unthinkable!  

In 1987, I left that primary school as we moved to another area, looking back, that’s when I began to notice a difference…. From Year 5 of Primary school, things were different… the culture of school was different. The teachers treated me differently. Not in obvious, overt ways, many were subtle, and as a child I didn’t consciously pick up on them… death by a thousand papercuts. I was pushed towards the stereotypical area of sport. Yes, I excelled in sport, loving football and athletics, yet, as a capable student in the classroom, I was not pushed, I was not extended. 

In September 1989, I arrived at my secondary school, still with a zest for school. I was fortunate, I had the most amazing Form Tutor, Mr Eades (RIP). He is the teacher I aspire to be. More importantly he is the template I use to coach and develop others to be. Mr Eades saw who I was, he knew what made me tick, he knew how to get the best out of me, and minimise the worst. Yet, it was not just me, everyone loved him as he made you feel special, like you mattered above everything else. He was the ‘Students’ Champ’. He kept me on the straight and narrow, when so many of my other teachers were not so kind, until he was no longer my Form Tutor after my second year. That’s when things went downhill… massively. I began to fall foul of the stereotypes, assumptions, biases, micro-aggressions and prejudices of staff. ‘Lazy, argumentative, rude and disruptive’ are some of the labels I gathered, all of which I will discuss in another blog, at another time.

GCSE years are when the proverbial started to hit the fan. Geography, maths, science and English all began to slide. I experienced low expectations, subtle jibes and labels but they all paled into insignificance to the experiences of my history lessons. My teacher told me that I was worthless, those were her actual words… WORTHLESS! If that wasn’t bad enough, she told my mom at parents’ evening that I would amount to nothing and end up being a ‘dosser on the dole’ signing on. These experiences led me to significantly underachieve, leaving school with 2 Bs (Physical Education and Graphics), 2 Cs (Maths, History – yes, I proved that teacher wrong!)  and 5 Ds (Science Double Award, English Lang and Lit and Geography) fulfilling the stereotypes of students who looked like me – good practically, not so good in the academic subjects. 

The importance of representation

I talk through the lens and experiences of being a black male, however, the principles are the same for all under the diversity umbrella. Being a visible role model is applicable to not only BAME students/colleagues, but those of the other communities under the #DiverseEd banner from the conference – disability, LGBT and women. Take out my story and replace it with one of a person of disability, LGBT or a woman, there will be similar themes. I left school 26 years ago (getting on a bit, I know!), and I would like to think things have significantly moved on… if it had, we wouldn’t have had the conference, we wouldn’t be talking about it in this manner and we wouldn’t have the various groups highlighting the causes and the continued drive for equality. 

Often, I am asked by people how can I help? How can I do more to change this agenda? My answer is BE VISIBLE. By being visible, you will do more for those young people than you will ever know. Representation matters and works in two distinct ways. Many will ask what the significance of having role models who look like you? If you are a white heterosexual male or female, it may not be apparent at first as there are plenty of people around you who look like you and are in positions of authority and respect for you, as a child, to look up to in almost every single arena. A Policeman, a Headteacher, the Prime Minister, Doctors, Lawyers, CEOs of Multinational companies… they are there for you to see in society and this is deemed the ‘norm’. What if you are black, disabled or a member of the LGBT community who is open about their sexuality? My experience of seeing those people in the roles highlighted… er… not… so…much! 

Representation matters to students of diverse backgrounds, because as I highlighted in my story it allows them to see what is possible. I had some fantastic role models who helped to shape who I have become. I also had some teachers who were given the privilege of educating who unconsciously (and very consciously in some cases), went out of their way to make the lives of minorities less fulfilled. Through my 18 years of education (11 years in compulsory, 3 years further and 4 years in higher education), I did not encounter one teacher that looked like me! I did not have an academic role model who looked like me. I grew up where the only role models who looked like me were entertainers – Denzel Washington, Wesley Snipes, Eddie Murphy, Richard Prior, Lenny Henry. Sportsmen – Linford Christie, Mike Tyson, Kris Akabusi, Frank Bruno, Michael Jordan, Cyrille Regis, John Barnes and Tony Daley (Yes – you may have to google them – I am showing my age!). Musicians – LL Cool J, Jay Z, Nas, Tupac, Notorious BIG, Wu Tang Clan, Dr Dre and NWA (can you tell I am an avid rap fan?) to name a few. I did not have any males of colour to go to for advice and guidance to help me avoid the pitfalls on the path I chose to walk. I had to walk that path alone. It is hard to picture something that you have not seen. Without visible role models, it is really difficult for many to believe and to realise the goal without succumbing to the distractions, living up to the stereotypes and walking the path of least resistance (drugs, quick money – getting a job over a career/vocation). 

More importantly for me, it is about being a visible role model to those of non-diverse backgrounds. We have a duty to ‘usualise’ the aforementioned roles to being synonymous with men, women, people of colour, disability and sexuality. By being a minority person in senior positions, we say to society that this is usual, this is how things are. Currently, I lead across and work in 7 schools where there is little diversity in terms of colour (98% White British). This is helping to break down barriers, myths and stereotypes within the communities. For many they have only seen black people in specific roles, with some, having little to no interaction with people of other ethnicities. They think it is acceptable to come up to all Black people and greet you with a fist bump, yelling ‘SAFE!’, ‘Wha gwarn?’, ‘innit’ or ‘ya get me?’. Ignorance is not an excuse, education, however, is the cure. Not everyone lives in a diverse community, so needs guidance and support to develop appropriate understanding. By having daily conversations with these students (and parents), educating them about the inappropriateness of behaving in this way, inroads are being made to show, we are all the same despite our cultural differences. 

Be the role model that YOU needed as a student

Throughout my career, I have often gone out of my way to conform to the bias and stereotypes – I became a PE teacher because I was good at sport and it is an area black people have excelled in. It got me through the door to make a change in the system of our wonderful profession. I became a pastoral leader because it was somewhere I saw a progression route due to my ability to relate to students and form relationships- others saw a hulking 6 foot 4 black man that the students were ‘scared’ of and could ‘control’ the children! However, I used this to my advantage, taking under my wing any young male (primarily) who required an advocate, the empathy of knowing what they were going through, who needed to know someone cared. 

I have worked predominantly in inner city Birmingham schools, including the largest special school in the city for students with extreme behaviour needs – permanently excluded from school and statemented (now EHCPs). The difference my presence has made to those young people, often brings me to tears when they have shared the impact I have had on them. The fact that some of them have decided to turn away from being involved in crime and gang culture after being shunned by the mainstream community is nothing short of phenomenal. I can give you countless accounts of students who have told me what a difference made to them by showing them things in a different light, simply by being a presence in a role that traditionally they had not seen. Students tell me how hearing my story and some of the similarities I faced, made them think bigger. One student described it as “having you as a teacher let me know that I can do so much better than what I thought I could.” It stays with me as if it was said to me this morning! For those students, having someone who looks like them, talks like them, understands the barriers and pressures they face opens their eyes to what is possible. Their views, aspiration and limiting beliefs change. The chemistry in their brain changes. Through recalling the often traumatic things that were said to you at school (because you were a minority of some distinction), how they hurt, how nobody understood what you were going through- these kids need to know that there are others that have experienced it and can empathise with their experiences- BE THAT PERSON! 

My proudest moment in teaching occurred last year as a Headteacher, when I appointed a Black Caribbean young man who was a former student (I had nothing to do with the process until the final interview). He became a teacher because he had someone to look up to and aspire to be. The young man concerned was constantly in trouble at school in the earlier days, until we talked and worked on finding him a plan. He states himself, that without having that roadmap, the vision of seeing what was possible for him, he absolutely would have been a statistic. Since I left my headship, he has been promoted to Head of Department. Makes me gush with pride… THIS IS WHY IT IS IMPORTANT. 

Do not misconstrue what I am saying. I am not saying that only black people can be visible role models to black people. I am saying it holds a power that changes the limiting beliefs of systemically racist society. By being kind, compassionate and caring for all students, from all backgrounds makes a significant difference. Growing up a child on a council estate means I am able to empathise with many children of different backgrounds who are enduring that struggle. I have made an amazing connection this year with students of a Roma Gypsy background, once we understood we share many of the same issues. The number of former students of many backgrounds who thank me for inspiring them, and in turn, changed the course of their lives is significant. I am still in touch with many of them today. Let them know that they do not have to walk alone, like I did, and like many of you reading this have. Be your authentic self and live in your truth – be proud of who you are and the diversity you bring to this amazing profession. 

I urge you to listen more, spend time finding out about your students as a person, share stuff about you and educate those biases, prejudices and assumptions about the unknown (we all have them!) – they may have never interacted with a real life *insert* minority here. You may just be the person who breaks down some of those biases, prejudices and assumptions. 

Be the role model that YOU need(ed) from a senior colleague

When I am asked what I do for a living, I get many raised eyebrows, from all manner of people, because I do not fit the picture that society paints. What do I mean? I’ve faced comments such as “You, lead a school? Stop lying!” and “Really?” They are surprised because they are not seen as the ‘norm’. These micro-aggressions are a daily reality for people of a minority. Representation matters! 

To understand the issue, we need to explore a little deeper. In the latest available school workforce data statistics (published January 2020), there were approximately 22,400 headteachers. Roughly two thirds (approximately 15,000) of those are female. To illustrate a point, looking from my own perspective of wishing to return to being a headteacher, of the approximate 7500 male headteachers, 97.1% of them are white. 0.6% are Black Caribbean, with 0.1% of Mixed White Black Caribbean (MWBC) descent. According to the statistics, there are more white, male headteachers than there are Black Caribbean (4,800) and MWBC (1,700) teachers combined!

People who look like me are rare in schools as teachers, never mind leading schools. Again, you may ask why is this important? Good leaders are good leaders, It doesn’t matter whether they are from a diverse background, right? It does matter! Representation matters as outlined earlier. To be clear, I am not advocating positive discrimination, I am advocating for opportunity. 

Avenues are being cut off for natural leaders because opportunities are not perceived as available to them. As has been discussed elsewhere, through unconscious bias, allyship and inclusion, it matters to break down the barriers for all that say “I can’t do that’ or more importantly, ‘I can’t do that because people of *insert ethnicity/disability/sexuality* do not that’. It matters to give people the picture to be able to see the possible. 

Since becoming a Senior Leader, I noticed that it made a huge difference to, well, er…. the people who look like me! They feel represented, they feel that they have an advocate. Many are happy and proud to see ‘one of us’ make it. However, that’s never really been enough for me. I’m a disruptor, not one to settle for the status quo. I have always seen it as my duty to not only open doors, but to hold them open for others to follow me through. Just like my students, I’ve challenged black colleagues to step up and step out of their comfort zone, through my actions, words and work. First and foremost, like all good leaders, I lead by example. I lead with courage (one of my core values – more about that in my next blog) which has empowered others to understand that they are not the labels placed on them. A magical thing happens when people see someone doing something they’ve never seen before, they start to believe that they can too! 

So the question you’re all asking is what can I do to promote to colleagues as a visible role model? I have five ways in which to support colleagues. 

Make a point of discussing their background and journey to teaching with them, as their story is important and unique. I invite them to share their career goals with me. I do this for two reasons. Firstly, so I can help advise and guide an appropriate career path/plan for them based on their strengths and experiences, but secondly and more importantly, so I can share it with other decision makers within the organisation. This helps other leaders to understand what the individual is striving for and the support their development requires (this is crucial for a point in the plan later on).

Publicly endorse them, give credit where it is due to plant seeds in their mind that (a) they can do this (b) let everyone else know too. It sends a clear message to all across the organisation (and beyond) that they are capable leaders, building the confidence in their ability by all.  

Speak their name when they are not around – in SLT meetings, line management meetings – this is important as people often only remember what they see, and in the busy school day, this does not always get seen by SLT. Working hard is not always enough, especially for those colleagues who do excellent things but move in silence, not drawing attention to themselves. If you are a middle or senior leader, you are a decision maker and you can help by advocating on their behalf. 

Once there has been some momentum built, this is the time that you invite them to some higher profile meetings. Bring them along to middle leaders meetings, invite middle leaders to ‘guest’ at SLT meetings to give them insight to what the next step looks like… remember if you don’t know what it looks like, you can’t see it! Show them that the myths of middle and senior leadership are not true… that we are just regular people too!  

Remember earlier I said that it is important to share the career goals of these colleagues with SLT members? This is to plant the seeds for the final point of recommending them for projects that will stretch them. To enable these colleagues to make the jump, they need to feel what it is like to lead out of their comfort zone. These opportunities will magnify the visibility of the individual within the organisation and most importantly build their credibility. This is the best preparation for promotion. You may already do this in your school. Do you ask the same people? Do you need to expand the group of people you ask? Are there people hiding in their comfort zone?

In teaching, I’ve had a number of stretch assignments (usually the jobs no one else wanted to do). Once, I got to Vice Principal level, I hit a ceiling and needed all of the above to make the leap to Headteacher. I could not find a Black male role model to help me realise that vision, despite seeking high and low, visibility was LOW. I found an amazing mentor and coach – shout out to Diana Osagie (@CourageousLeader) who walked me through her experiences and challenges. She showed me my blind spots and helped me to channel my strengths and character to achieving that goal… she continues to be a truly visible role model, along with many others. Diana, recommended me to Hannah Wilson (@EthicalLeader) to speak at the #DiverseEd event. Hannah has been instrumental in putting me forward to speak at other events to be a representative of Black male leaders in education…again this fully illustrates the points that I am making about being a visible leader. Thank you ladies for helping my voice to be heard. 

A concerted effort is required by us all to challenge the status quo. The worldwide events over the last few weeks have been a catalyst to this discussion gathering pace and momentum. Now you have heard some of my story, and how I have worked towards being the change I want to see in the world. The question I leave you to muse, is how are you going to be a visible role model for change? 

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