Faithfully bearing witness: being invincible, not invisible.

Because of the #MeToo movement, I became more conscious of feminism and of my own responsibility towards the young men I teach and blogged about it here. This was in 2017 and I was determined to assess my schemes of work – and try to get my male colleagues on board with my project. In the end, other things got in the way, or I let them. So instead we focussed on coaching, CLT, Retrieval practise, metacognition, Deep Dives – and so on and so on. It was only when Ofsted introduced their ideas about ‘Cultural Capital’ that I began looking at the work of Bordieu and I was once again focussed on the issues of poverty, race and misogyny and how these impact on our students. And, actually, our staff.

So I did some whole school inset on racism and sexism (the ppts are here), looking initially at, for example, the sterling done work by Matt Pinkett and Mark Roberts in Boys Don’t Try as well as Decolonise the Curriculum and the brilliant work of Pran Patel. Some of it, I’m quite sure, was uncomfortable for staff (although I wanted it to be; I wanted to challenge them and get us all out of our comfort zones). Moving from ‘I’m not a racist’ to I want to be an ‘Anti-racist’ and cultivating my ‘wokeness’ was an interesting exercise. I have never considered myself racist, but Pran challenged all of my self-satisfied judgements with his continuum of socially acceptable behaviours and exposed my own white privilege.

I’m not sure how much the men in my audience appreciated the information on sexism, like racism our acceptance of poor behaviour is grounded in our patriarchal institutions. For example, I am not a royalist and I’m not invested either way in whether Meghan Markle is a ‘good person’. But I did know she was treated appallingly by our gutter press – the slides I used comparing her headlines with Kate Middleton’s were explicit and some who had previously disliked her (she was a money-grabber, a fake and so on) said they hadn’t realised that she had been treated so badly or so hypocritically.

Statistics showing the numbers of sexual assault on women were shocking – but still some men in the audience (#NotAllMen) looked bored and were obviously not listening. I found this quite disturbing – educators not wanting to be educated? I had previously heard some of these men describe older, female staff as ‘MILF’s and ‘GILF’s, they seem(ed) oblivious to the inherent misogyny in this as much as the women who giggle at being so described.

In any event, the goal was to get staff to consider how they approach both racism and sexism in school – correcting students when they use inappropriate terms and revisiting schemes of work so that we include positive representations of women and people of colour.

It got off to a slow start, one department telling me it was too hard to look at as ‘most things were invented/discovered in the western world’, while another HoD was only interested in curriculum coverage. Getting my colleagues to actually take any of this on board wasn’t going to be because of one inset session.

After the first session, for me, the hardest part was listening to my female colleagues relating their own experiences of sexual assault and rape. As a survivor myself, it was somewhat conflicting emotionally as, oddly, it felt almost reassuring being a member of a ‘sisterhood’ born in trauma. I had to balance this with the growing despair and anger I was feeling, not just with male colleagues, as it simply mirrored a wider-community that made me feel as if I’d somehow been sucked into a parallel universe which made no sense, no matter where I stood or looked.

So in January this year, I did another session and gave the audience some idea of how many female members of staff had spoken to me after the initial inset. There were about ten of us altogether (this blog is the first time I have spoken of my own experiences) a high number in such a small community. One female was quite dismissive of being groped at the age of 15, as many women are, while another’s graphic rape account was horrific to listen to. Both ends of the spectrum had been made to feel their respective assaults were their own fault.

Immediately thereafter, we went into another lockdown and so any curriculum work and focus was lost.

Once we were back in school, I revisited the work with departments, especially after the Sarah Everard vigil, but it wasn’t until this past September I led a final session on both racism and sexism. This time, delivering it felt raw, I felt angry, frustrated and passionate that we address these things in school. The wider community is lost, we can’t recover the damage that has been done, but we can, and we must, address these things with our students. It has to begin with us.

So my final session began, influenced by the Incel Plymouth shooter, not with ‘yes we know it’s not all men!’ to, actually, ‘we don’t really know that it’s not all men’. If you really are not one of those men, you have to step up and be counted, you have to advocate for us and be anti-sexist, just like we have to be anti-racist. I know there were men (and probably women) in the audience who were thinking that I was ‘off on one’. But there could be no denying some of the language and vocabulary that originated with Incel and extreme right-wing sites, has been used by some of our students. We have to call it out for what it is, it’s insidious and pervasive: the entitlement, the hatred, the violence so many men have demonstrated for women is scary and we must address it. We must, because no one else is.

Reading the statement by Sarah Everard’s mother was heart-rending. When does it end? Why does society see this as acceptable? Why aren’t there more men fighting this with us?

  1. Women are taught to avoid rape, rather than men being told not to rape. We must carry our keys outwards, don’t be out alone, run alone, exercise alone, be home alone, wear short skirts – or it’s ‘our’ fault if we are raped and killed. Know the law as to when and where a policeman can arrest you.
  2. If a policeman wants to arrest you, call 999 to check he’s a policeman or flag down a bus, or refuse to comply.
  3. It’s ok for a killer policeman to be affectionately termed ‘The Rapist’ by his colleagues, it’s ok to speak at his sentencing and say that he’s a good guy really.
  4. In the last 10 years 750 policemen have been accused of serious sexual assault – but just 80 lost their jobs. Just looking at average charging and conviction/false accusation rates show that those numbers are incredibly, unbelievably low.
  5. Since Sarah Everard’s death in March, 81 women have been raped and murdered. That’s about 1 every other day.
  6. Approximately 130,000 women went missing last year – and when ethnic minority women or poor women go missing, the press rarely acknowledge it.

So this year, my colleagues will be reassessing their curricula and showing our students positive representations of women and minority peoples. Science will show them the many women and minorities who have influenced scientific work and this will happen across the curriculum. There can be no excuses and we can’t escape our responsibility to educate our young men, to show them the benefits of strong women, of equality, equity and justice without feeling they have to challenge it or fight it or be challenged by it. If a women demands the same respect as they want for themselves or if someone from an ethnic minority background challenges racist or stereotypical assumptions we have to ensure that we normalise the idea that both women and people of colour are afforded dignity, respect and positive representation across the curriculum. And more than this, we need all our #NotAllMen, all our staff to stand up and be counted.

Of course we will need to assess the impact of this and how we do this is the next challenge and it’s more than staff. My initial thoughts are to involve the school senate – our student representatives – and get their thoughts and see what, if anything they can do to support this. We have also ‘themed’ our terms and another colleague has introduced three ‘Cultural Week’ activates which tie in with these themes. Departments are working on cross curricular themes as they develop lessons and observe each other teach – this began last year, but was also stymied because of lockdown. Most of all, I need to know how much buy-in I have from staff and this will mean a survey of attitudes and structure.

I know it should mean work in PSHRE – a greater focus with more challenge built in.

We need to make each other feel uncomfortable – recognise it, and deal with it so that we move forward, refusing to let ourselves stagnate in the cesspit that society’s toxic attitudes have brought us to. We have to fight back and educate our young because their elders seem incapable of change.

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