I make no bones about being friends with Zoe Enser; heck, she’s known as “Auntie Zoe” to my youngest. So, you can imagine how it felt for Zoe to call me out in this twitter thread - My billionaire school. You’d imagine the guilt of putting Zoe in a box would be the overwhelming emotion, yet it wasn’t – I was happy that Zoe was able to do this publicly, because our friendship is secure enough to take it for what it is; voicing our frustrations to each other.
Zoe’s Breaking Out of the Box blog the next day resonated with me, and the many conversations we’ve had around imposter syndrome, putting oneself forward for new things, and representation. More than anything this made me reflect; a difficult as I find reflection sometimes – mostly because it just seems so obvious – having honest critical friends helps the reflective process.
I believe there’s a section, maybe more accurate to say sections, of society that suffer from imposter syndrome; in fact, this is probably a fluid state of mind. This manifests itself when putting oneself outside of ‘the box’. I’m relatively new to the teaching profession, certainly in comparison with the company I keep. I still have that nagging voice that trolls me from the back of the gymnasium with a Mean Girls-esque “He doesn’t even go here!” every time I am approached to do something outside of my department. This doesn’t come from putting myself forward for things I’m not prepared for, a common phenomenon with my phenotype, rather from my background. I often put myself in a box, and this is what causes half of my issues.
I’m often told off for making the same type of self-effacing comments that Zoe discusses. I took a huge gamble when I quit my job with nothing but a dream to become a teacher. I didn’t think I’d get a place at college, but I did. Through college I didn’t think I would get into my alma mater, because I didn’t fit the mould of “university student” – I did get a place, but I was right about not fitting the mould. My solution was to smash the mould and make changes there that stand to this day. I knew I wanted to train to teach through Teach First, not because I wanted to play at being a saviour, but because I’d watched Claudenia Williams on the Tough Young Teachers series.
Claudenia continues to be an inspirational figure in education. So why does this middle-aged white lad find common ground with one of the few black women in school leadership? Back in 2014 it was because Claudenia was training to teach science. I also looked at the cast and boxed them up as “posher than me, posh, posh, posh, posher than the rest, damn he’s cavalry officer material (not in a good way!)”; this is a common perception non-teachers have of teachers. I arrived at university, and there was a common characteristic among my lecturers – no, they weren’t all white men, they were all very middle-class - this fed into my imposter syndrome at the time. A commonly overlooked issue when it comes to looking at why more white working-class boys don’t go to university – like other marginalised groups in higher education, we aren’t represented in those we see in academia. Initially I think the academics and students saw me as an outlier. Yet come the end of my final year at an awards evening I commented on how I’d “not done too bad for a tank mechanic” only to be told off because I was about to graduate with an honours degree. Like Zoe, I didn’t even consider Oxford, despite Oxford Brookes being on my UCAS list, because I just didn’t feel I would thrive there. My Royal Holloway tutor was an Oxford grad, and he set me straight on a lot of the things I put myself in a box for. I believe I’ve needed to be lifted out of my box a few times because of the social demographic I came from.
I think when we discuss the gender issues around men putting themselves forward before they are ready, or “leaning in”, social class has a part to play. All too often we see men promoted beyond their level of competency, I’m acutely aware of this because I’m lumped in with ‘white middle-aged men’ a lot, and Project COMM demonstrates this phenomenon. The trouble is, background has a real affect on personal perceptions, certainly around entitlement. I can say this with a clear conscience, because if you look like a fox, smell like a fox, and walk like a fox, people assume you’re a fox – they talk to you and treat you like a fox. I’ve more in common with those locked out by gatekeepers than I have with them.
It is easy to put people into boxes. It’s convenient, and placing talent where you know there is a proven efficacy makes sense. I understand why I was pigeon-holed as a pastoral lead, and it took moving away from that setting to have it proven to me that I was good at teaching and learning. In education I have found that a lack of understanding of careers outside of the sector relates to the issues Zoe discusses regarding what we have done before, and being openly vocal with this. Perhaps not doing this is something very ‘British’, being seen as a braggard is frowned upon.
A workplace solution to this putting in a box is succession planning. On the back of performance management, interests and skills are matched with needs within an organisation. Experienced team members nurture those interested in developing in a particular direction. This is effective CPD, personalised to each person. What I have been reminded of is that while I was setting up my imaginary school, I’d thought hard about those I have learnt from in the areas I associate them with. There is an inherent danger when drawing upon your own networks – the talent only comes from those you interact with the most. You also have boxed that person up in your mind, restricting what you can learn from that relationship. This can only come if we foster a culture of nurturing talent and ambition, and rather than force people to break out of the box, we unwrap it with them.
Like Zoe, I’m all for challenging assumptions – even those I have made about myself. I’m also grateful for those in my life that challenge the assumptions of me, and more importantly those I make of others.