I remember when I was teaching in primary school, I wanted to teach about sexual diversity.
- They said, You can’t do that. They’re too young for that and the parents will complain.
- They pointed me towards Years 7 and 8. They’re more mature then, they said.
I remember when I spoke to Year 7 and 8 teachers.
- They said, No, you can’t do that. Not with Year 7s or 8s, they’re far too young and immature. Better to wait until they’re in Years 9 or 10.
I remember when I was teaching in university, I wanted to teach about sexual diversity.
- They said, You can’t do that. They’re only first year students, they won’t cope with it.
I remember when I was teaching in an English Language Centre, I wanted to teach about sexual diversity.
- They said, You can’t do that. It’s against their religion. You’ll offend them.
It didn’t matter where I went, or who I was teaching, the refrain was the same, “You can’t do that.”
The place where I ‘could do that’ – where I could teach about sexual diversity – was always somewhere else – with some other group of students.
When I went to that supposedly more ‘accepting’ place – surprise, surprise, what did I hear, You can’t do that here.
Hmmm…Let’s Check in with my Students:
I remember telling the first year university students: “I’ve been warned not to talk about gay or lesbian issues with you because you’re straight out of school and won’t cope with it.’
The first year students cracked up laughing.
What do they mean,’ they asked, ‘when they say we can’t cope? We often wanted to talk about sexual diversity in high school but our teachers didn’t want to, were uncomfortable, or wouldn’t let us.
I remember telling my English language students, from a diverse range of ethnic and religious backgrounds, that I’d been warned not to talk about gender and sexual diversity with them.
We want to know about these things but no-one ever talks about them with us. This is the first time we’ve talked about such things in our English classes.
HOW TO OVERCOME THE OBSTACLES – 6 TIPS
Whenever I get a ‘you can’t do that’, or ‘that’s not how we do things here’ it certainly frustrates, annoys, and upsets me. That’s not the end of the story though, far from it. The issues are too important to let go.
Obstacles inspire me to get creative. Here’s what I’ve learned thus far.
1. Don’t Believe Them when they say, ‘You Can’t Do That Here.’
Those who oppose, are negative, or resistant are often anxious or fearful. Sometimes they’re prejudiced. Regardless, they’re trying to keep you out or shut you down. Invest your attention elsewhere.
Look for signs of support from other staff – within and outside your school. Focus your attention and energy here.
- Connect and work with these allies. They’ll raise your spirit, keep you positive, and keep you focused.
- Support your outside school allies (in whatever way you can). Invite them into your school or develop cross-class connections via Skype and social media platforms like Facebook, Pinterest and Twitter.
When colleagues stereotype whole groups of people – be sceptical.
- Show by your words and deeds that there is much diversity within any group. Showcase positive examples.
2. Plant Seeds of Ideas. Nourish and Nurture them over time.
Drop the idea here and there – and be prepared for the long-game. Quick wins can certainly be exhilarating but often it’s not like that. Here’s what you can do:
Show what teachers elsewhere are doing. Often the ideas can be less threatening if they’re seen as coming from someone else. For example,
Have you seen what X is doing? They have a policy of Y…and this is what they’re doing. This is what they’ve achieved.
Do what you can within your classroom. Build your data and collate your Snapshots of Success. This is all part of building your evidence-base.
Share your experiences with colleagues who are on-board. Your collective enthusiasm and positivity will likely resonate with others.
- When talking about your actions, talk in the language that resonates. For example, refer to key parts of school policy and make links to common-sense notions such as student safety and well-being.
- Talk in a confident, matter of fact way. Pleading (whilst understandable) is often not successful, I’ve found.
- Drip feed your ideas and suggestions over time.
Should someone one day, make a suggestion that is a carbon copy of what you’ve been advocating for some time, swallow your ego and get out there and support them. It’s the idea or new practice that’s most important, not who thought of it first.
3. Build your Language for Change
Connect with other advocates for change. Listen to how they talk about taking action: how they make the case for it; how they describe the results. Learn from what worked or didn’t work elsewhere. Study the circumstances in each instance.
Tune into the language within research, policies and frameworks that build a case for change. Get comfortable with this language by using it. You want to sound natural when you say it.
Look at your school’s policies and frameworks. How might the language be used to justify change? Get creative here. There’s often many opportunities here if you dig a little.
4. Show that you Trust and Believe Students (and Parents/Guardians) to be better than how others position them
When other staff assume negativity of students for example, take a counter stand.
- Make sure you have evidence for what you say. Do your homework before-hand. Anticipate what’ll be said and be prepared to respond.
Talk to your students as though they are ‘on-board’ with you.
- If you’ve built a solid foundation of trust and respect with your students – If daily classroom life is based on their needs, interests and issues – Then students will more likely rise to the occasion – and work in partnership with you.
5. Be Honest with your Students
Your capacity to build community – to run with you – is built on a foundation of trust and respect.
I remember teaching an eclectic year 4 class in the East End of London in the United Kingdom. It was an area of high social disadvantage and my class had proved a challenge to many teachers before me.
I was planning an excursion via train to an inner city farm. A number of staff said, ‘Don’t do it, Greg, they’ll go off, they’ll go crazy.’
I told my students what others expected of them, how others viewed them.
So What Happened? How did it Turn Out?
- Well, it was almost like they were graduates of ‘GOOD STUDENT 101.’ They stood up for others, opened doors, spoke politely.
- My students were the very model of ‘civility’ – with a touch of quirk and personality thankfully added in. You certainly don’t want to lose that color and movement do you?
6. Try to Understand where People are Coming From
This has been an especially challenging proposition for me – one which I’ve often tripped up on. When there’s opposition we can too easily fall into the ‘us versus them’ game. Instead, listen to the opposition, inquire into it, show that you’ve understood their key points. Build a bridge, if you can.
Be a model of engagement. You may not ever win over the opposition but you’ll get a far better idea of the world from where they stand. This is critical information in the movement for change.
- Active listening will demonstrate that you’re not the enemy – that you will constructively engage with others. This is a building of credibility – of sorts – for you and your cause/s.
It is indeed a community effort to change ‘taken for granted’ practices (even at a micro level). With that in mind I give heartfelt thanks to the following people:
- To my students for being far more than others said you were. Thanks for jumping the fence and running with me;
- To the colleagues who joined with me – as we found ways through;
- To the trail-blazing activists who lit a fire within me – who showed ways through – who held firm often at great cost to themselves;
- To my managers and co-ordinators who trusted me and backed me – as we worked for change;
- To my partner, Simon for encouraging and supporting my thirst for social justice – through the ups, downs and many round-rounds – always learning, always passionate together.