In search of more non-violent pedagogies*, I was due to visit Athenian School in Danville, California, on Monday 29th June. The nearest airport is San Francisco, so the day after SCOTUS passed equal marriage across all 50 states I found myself landing in arguably the gay capital of the world, at the beginning of Pride weekend.
The city was ready: Market Street was decked with rainbow flags and my hotel was full of jubilant gay people, ready to start the biggest city wide celebration of their lives. Walking out that evening to get my bearings and some food, it was both thrilling and daunting to see gay people of all shapes, sizes, ages and colours casually and unself-consciously wandering the city streets hand in hand, children and elderly relatives in tow: thrilling because that’s the way I hope to see it one day on the streets of British cities and daunting because I read things like this, and I hear the stories of my gay friends and pupils, and I know we still have a mountain to climb before we get there.
The next day the start of the parade got off to a roaring start courtesy of several hundred bikers on Harley Davidsons. After that, the more usual form: fire fighters get bigger cheers than police officers, bare chests (usually male) and leather are de rigeur; feathers, drag queens, stilt walkers and disco music are mandatory. San Francisco’s parade was a bigger shinier version of the same, and it also featured large cohorts in matching t-shirts from Google (Red) Facebook (Blue) and Apple (White) as well as the cast of OITNB blowing kisses to the crowd from the Netflix float, which you don’t see in London. After the celebrities and the tech giants, there were hundreds marching behind the ‘proud families’ banner: adult children with elderly same sex parents (“I love my gay moms!”) alongside young gay couples pushing babies in strollers, churches and smaller organisations: elder care groups (“60+ is sexy!”) AIDS hospices and animal shelters – even a group of gay pit-bull owners, keen to show off their ugly dogs’ softer sides by dressing them in rainbow gauze tutus for the occasion. Marriage equality was a major theme and the street vendors’ rainbow wares included hen-night wedding veils alongside the feather boas, beads and wrist-bands.
And then there were the schools. High schools and elementary (primary) schools from San Francisco school districts and from satellite towns – Oakland, Cloverdale, Walnut Creek, came one after another in the procession. I was delighted and, knowing the resistance to talking about ‘the gay stuff’ in British schools, amazed to see parents, teachers and pupils all walking together behind their school banners proclaiming their school’s public support for LGBT rights. My phone was dead by the time they came down Market Street, so I didn’t get a photo of the guy carrying the placard proclaiming that ‘Out teachers save lives’ but it stayed with me: firstly because it struck me that the ongoing argument we have in the UK about whether or not LGBT teachers, or black teachers, or female teachers, ‘should have to be flag carriers’ for their group seems to have been conclusively resolved in the San Francisco. And secondly because it reminded me of a former colleague, a traditional, classically educated chap, who used to deride a young colleague’s break time enthusiasm about something amazing that had happened in his classroom that day with a sarcastic ‘Oh yes: we’re saving lives here!’. On a literal level my old colleague was right: nobody is going to die if they don’t get an A* in GCSE English Language, and it’s perfectly possible to adopt a professional persona for the purposes of getting a bunch of kids through an exam. Allowing that having measurable criteria for assessing learning is a pre-requisite, I’d question whether what we think we’re teaching is actually the same thing as what the kids are learning. The Californian teacher I saw waving the placard was probably thinking literally too: it’s well known that LGBT youth are 4-6 times more likely to attempt suicide than their heteronormative peers (just Google LGBT youth suicide and take your pick). However, as referenced in my last post, mental health issues are becoming more than a ‘diversity’ issue and our collective obsession with narrowly defined performance data isn’t obviously making anyone’s life better. So I’m nailing my (rainbow) colours to the mast of teachers being effective in furthering the educational development of their students to the extent that they bring their whole self to the classroom, not (only) because it might make the classroom a nicer place for the kids, but also because if we each bring our awareness of what makes us tick and what pushes our buttons intellectually and emotionally, it might also galvanise the wider culture, so that what we say we do and what we actually do and what the students perceive us doing begin to align.
Would this lead towards more engaged students (and less stressed out teachers)? I think it’s worth trying, and here’s why: while I’ve been away I’ve continued to ruminate on Carol Dweck’s* comments at EdFest on ‘false growth mindset’ and how there has to be a parallel learning journey for educators if students are going to really ‘get it’. What I understood her saying is that it’s easy to jump on a bandwagon, and ‘talk the talk’ without actually doing the work of working out our own areas of fixed mindset, for example, the belief by some teachers that we classroom practitioners should only have to concern ourselves with academic subject/curriculum knowledge because ‘we’re not social workers’. The fixed mindset of individual teachers is not generally challenged by the wider educational culture of specialisation and our schools’ mission statements are full of quotable gobbets about educating the whole person, but in practice, unless we ‘go the Pastoral route’ schools don’t do a lot to encourage teachers to think outside classroom management or beyond the next set of exams. PSHE anyone?
San Francisco was almost the end of my American journey; later that week I spoke with Kal Balaven, Athenian’s Head of Equality and Inclusion, after I discovered almost by accident that a job called ‘Head of Diversity and Social Justice’ is a Senior Leadership (what they call ‘Administration’) position in many U.S. Schools. You don’t see many ads for that post in the TES and I could only guess what it entailed but very existence of the post implies a more holistic and integrated approach than putting the ‘diversity stuff’ (when acknowledged at all) on the plate of the Pastoral Head, along with eating disorders and the other awkward things schools have to deal with that fall outside the drive for academic excellence. Kal told me U.S schools started addressing diversity issues around race in the eighties, and everything else followed from there. Thirty years in, it can still be done well or done badly; some schools merely tick the boxes by ‘having a taco day’ but schools who ‘have a healthy approach’ work to embed diversity and inclusion throughout their curriculum as part of an educational remit to ‘give students the skills to navigate a global community’.
I guess what appealed to me about the ‘Out teachers’ placard is that although that teacher was (I assume) referring to sexuality, it chimed with my sense that what we do has to come from the heart as well as the head, from a place of trust rather than a place of fear about not only the outcomes but also about what we individual teachers are bringing to the process. And if I were in charge, I’d organise things so that teacher training provided not only a chance to learn the subjects and effective classroom strategies but also a time to do what the Americans call ‘some work on ourselves’ and discover our own internal barriers to learning as part of professional development. How we might then communicate ourselves to our students, and how that might effect transformative learning with measurable outcomes, is the next question. I’m currently reading Ron Richart’s ‘Creating Cultures of Thinking’, the book Athenian School has bought in bulk and asked its entire ‘faculty’ to read over the summer vacation (imagine!). They gave me a copy too; I’m currently on the chapter about language. One thing that’s clear is that how we use language in the classroom is crucial in getting to where we want to go, but language, like anything else we do in the classroom, is most effective when it’s coming from a place of clarity about where we are.
*Non-violent pedagogies is my term for teaching and learning strategies and philosophies based on dialogue and collaboration.