This is a guest blog by Sanum J Khan who you can follow on Twitter at @Sanumjkhan. Sanum is a an Assistant Headteacher and frequently speaks at events and writes articles for the education press on a range of issues, especially diversity, equity and inclusion. She is speaking at the 13th Festival of Education this summer.
Attending events – online or in-person – are an excellent way to network with others and explore fresh perspectives. In ‘The Teaching Life’ Jones and Macpherson outline the many benefits of professional networks and education events – including networking, low cost learning, sharing ideas and supporting wellbeing. Opportunities for connecting with others in education is more popular than ever right now and so we want to ensure that, where we create such opportunities, we are doing so in an equitable manner.
However, I often feel as though I am running two professional learning programs for myself; one which engages with developments in teaching, and a second which centres around mentoring from people with similar characteristics to me who understand my lived experience more fully.
This is an unsustainable way to expect marginalised or underrepresented groups to plan their careers. When paired with The Making Progress report’s findings that there is a ‘hidden workload of coping with racism’ and Kandola et al’s exploration of the relationship between a lack of belonging and decreased wellbeing (and thus decreased productivity) at work, I conclude that representation of marginalised groups is crying out for an action plan to build trust, nurture a sense of belonging and commit to values-driven leadership and inclusive spaces.
Event organisers need to consider who they are inviting to speak and how they are being invited. As a Muslim woman, I do not always want to speak about Islamophobia I have experienced in my career as the focus of my session; it is exhausting and a session of this nature limits my professional growth. We need to normalise diversity and representation in education and can’t achieve this by only drawing attention to our diverse identities. It’s also important to identify speakers who uphold our values of inclusivity, regardless of their protected characteristics. DEI should be a lens through which we look at all work in education, as opposed to a stand-alone strand. Diverse Educators Ltd have an extensive list of organisations working in DEI and for specific speakers I recommend the BameEd Network.
Once you have your speakers, make plans to ensure that speakers from under-represented or marginalised groups feel welcome, that they belong and that their input is valued. This begins with getting names and pronouns right – in spellings and pronunciation. It is also helpful to review pen-portraits to ensure that all have stuck to the guidelines given.
Promotion of the event also needs careful consideration. Some speakers will have huge twitter followings and will have published books or blog posts that will give them immediate attention. Others will need you to amplify their work. This can include retweeting their session with a personalised comment about what you are looking forward to, encouraging participants to attend their session and reaching out to the speaker to relay the positive interest their session has generated. This final suggestion is key for someone who may have typically experienced othering behaviour and thus may not feel they fully belong at your event.
It is also helpful for speakers and organisers to have time to meet before the sessions begin – perhaps over a coffee in advance or in a welcome on the day. This can put nervous speakers at ease by offering an opportunity for them to be reminded of why their voice and work is so valued and important in this setting. I’ll always remember my conversation with Dr Emma Kell (@thsethatcan) before we spoke at the Astra conference in Bucks, 2022. Emma, thank you for reminding me that every human misplaces their USB or forgets their start time once in a while. Thank you also for referencing me in your introduction session. To have an absolute powerhouse express belief in me helped me own my vulnerability rather than having it own me.
As a speaker, you may not know who your attendees will be until the moment they come through the door. As people enter the room, be sure to say hello and to welcome them in. Encourage people to fill from the front. Make eye contact and speak to visible minorities in the room. Learn some names so that when you are presenting later, it is easier for you to invite specific people to speak or share.
There is great value in building in reflection time. This can be a ‘starter’ for participants to discuss with the person next to them as they enter – and you could eavesdrop to pick particular individuals to share ideas with the whole group – or a personal journaling activity which gives people time to tie their thoughts together. For some, offering thoughts in a group situation can feel daunting. Offering reflection time takes some of this fear away. Another way to remove some of this fear is to stay behind for a few moments in case anyone has further questions or comments that they don’t want to ask in front of peers.
Finally, think carefully about how you select people to ask questions. Giving the room a few moments for multiple hands to go up before you select people to ask questions is helpful. If you’ve picked someone who visibly represents the most common characteristics in the room to ask a question first, identify someone who does not represent these characteristics to go next – and let them know you’ll come to them next.
If you are attending an event, you are not ‘off the hook’ as far as nurturing inclusive spaces is concerned. Consider, firstly, which CPD sessions you attend. If DEI is the lens through which changes in education ought to be viewed, then you must take steps to learn more about developments here. Reading blogs, articles and books is of course valuable but attending sessions offers a networking opportunity, as well as the chance to engage with the lived experiences of others, that shouldn’t be overlooked.
When signing up for sessions within an event, don’t be afraid to attend a session you know nothing about. Listen, take notes, ask questions and plan for some reflection time after the session. Equally, if there are speakers you have not heard of, read their pen portraits and any additional reading material they have recommended. We commonly populate our professional sphere with like-minded people who have similar interests and academic pursuits. However, if doing this has not resulted in inclusive spaces and diverse events then we need to move out of our comfort zones.
Once you’re in the room, be brave and sit near the front. Make small talk with the speaker and pay particular attention to what has drawn you into their session. Also, think carefully about attendees who are sitting alone. If there are visible minorities in the room, invite yourself to join them and start a conversation. In her Netflix show ‘The Call to Courage’, Brene Brown talks about the stories we tell ourselves. So often I have sat in a space and told myself I don’t belong, others think I don’t fit here and that anything I offer will be unintelligent and unimportant. These seemingly small acts of warmth and humanity can have a huge impact.
My final piece of advice is to those who have been marginalised and who do attend sessions as the minority in the room. You deserve to be in that space and any event which doesn’t feel inclusive is not a sign that you do not belong. Be brave; sit at the front, make conversation, ask questions and send follow-up emails or tweets. Your learning and growth matters and if others have not planned through a DEI lens, you will need to dig deep to find your confidence. In my experience, it’s no easy task but with the right mentors/coaches/sponsors, it is definitely worth it.
This blog post is not a checklist for success; as society grows and changes, so too will our practices and aspirations. The books photographed here have all contributed, in some way, to the formulation of my thoughts and I recommend you add them to your summer reading list. I am also speaking at the Festival of Education this year on DEI as part of school culture – come and join me!