And one day she discovered that she was fierce, and strong, and full of fire, and that not even she could hold herself back because her passion burned brighter than her fears.
Simone de Beauvoir argued that she wasn’t born a woman; rather, she became a woman. The world we have created, as humans, is a world which defines one’s identity beyond our inalienable sense of freedom and self. The world we have created can often become our own prison, or chain us down in ways which don’t match our birth rights.
Recently, I’ve been inspired by some of my colleagues who’ve been actively challenging the injustices female teachers and leaders face in our current system and which feed into the inequalities our children get used to. As our Deputy Headteacher argues, ‘as leaders we need to change the culture and shout from the rooftops so that [a more equal reality] becomes normalised.’
Education, as I’ve argued over the past few blogs, is the basis upon which solutions can be established.
Professor Henry Giroux, in an address to Graduates, eloquently linked education to the ‘promise of democracy’:
Education should be preparing people to enter a society that badly needs to be reimagined. As future educators, I would hope you would teach your students to become agents of social change, teach them the skills, knowledge and values that they can use to organize political movements capable of stopping the destruction of the environment, ending the vast inequalities in our society, and building a world based on love and generosity rather than on selfishness and materialism. You can use your classroom to do this, even though that may mean transgressing established norms and bureaucratic procedures. I also want you to remember that schools are not going to change one classroom at a time. Teachers need to organize not just for better pay, but also to once again gain control over their classrooms. That means building a movement to create a different kind of educational system and a more democratic society. Get involved in politics, run for local school boards, become publicly engaged citizens, use the power of ideas to move your peers and others, and work to develop the institutions that allow everybody to participate in the creation of a world in which justice matters, the environment matters, and living lives of decency and dignity matter.
There have been lots of discussions over the past few months – if not years – about textbooks in the classroom. Seen as a tool to support schools in terms of workload and subject expertise, many have been arguing that textbooks can be really beneficial. In some ways, I agree. Textbooks can provide us with carefully-developed sequences of learning, expertly-developed activities which enable students to wrestle with concepts taught in systematic ways.
I’m not against textbooks.
However, textbooks aren’t the answer to everything.
Teachers because of their status/place in society play a key part in the writing or, for that matter, the re-writing of history.
Critical pedagogy, as approached by Giroux, is about engaging with the world and the word that often comes to define it. At our school, we want teachers to think about the world we live in – with all its injustices, its chains, its biases – and re-write it. Our teaching, therefore, is essentially – and subjectively – political. This is a process we cannot avoid. I won’t comment of the trends emerging – on twitter and beyond – and which lead some to argue for knowledge-rich curricula. My point here isn’t to reflect on the content of the many knowledge organisers shared with 1000s of students across our schools. My point, rather, is to surface the fact that our teachers need to be reminded of their role as critics of history and society.
The challenge, therefore, is to embrace politics within our schools and support school leaders and teachers to craft curricula which include debates and encourage reflection. This dialogic process sees teachers as historians whose views will often differ.
And it is these contradictions which we need to embrace more vocally within our school communities. In the same way as democracy is messy, so should our classroom discussions. It is in debates that a sense of what ‘the common good’ is about can be found. If politics is about establishing what living together, across our subjective and complicated – yet fascinating – differences, our classrooms need to foster that.
Recently, an amazing group of teachers in my school (credit to @jenjen1985, @Keshosalama, and @_SEEdwards) have been crafting a series of lessons to support our children’s knowledge of writing genres and grammatical rules in English. Seeing beyond the need to teach the knowledge required to write clearly in English, they delved into the worlds of feminism and musical history.
Mozart became the focus and, more precisely, the fact that his story is the one that most of us know. However, when it comes to her story – the story of Maria Anna Mozart – very little is known. Reading about her life, critiquing why she’d been silenced in her days and until recently, our children were able to politically engage with the Mozarts’ world as well as the world around them, in a cosmopolitan neighbourhood in South East London. Looking at Maria Anna Mozart’s status and the status of girls and women in our school, the country, and world we live in, deep discussions took place.
As someone recently shared with me, what you permit becomes what you promote. In Desmond Tutu’s words, ‘if an elephant has its foot on the tail of a mouse and you say that you are neutral, the mouse will not appreciate your neutrality.’
As a school and as a society, we’ll never be 100% right. Justice doesn’t work that simply and politics isn’t a process of right vs. wrong (as much as our partisan system would have us think). Rather, and as Socrates argued (see previous blog here), it is a process of becoming. This is why it is so important to not fix what we teach (which is why we’d never have schemes of work in our school). As Peter Hyman also argued recently, teachers could be described as ‘curators’ who can ‘provide yes textbooks, but also links to documentaries, podcasts, a wider bibliography, interviews, etc. often get the best out of students for whom using a range of media is commonplace. […] The point about subject knowledge is that you are entering a conversation, you are wrestling with fascinating academic arguments, you are making meaning and understanding out of rich material.’
Inspired by the way our girls at school have embraced the challenges they face in the world they’re entering – back to the Simone de Beauvoir argument I started with – I am hopeful that, when it comes to gender equality, a thoughtfully-curated curriculum can help us bend the arch of his/her-story towards justice.
See more examples of what this can look like here.
Want to share some of your successes, get in touch @sebchapleau.