Gender and middle leadership: A personal reflection

‘How you are seen may affect how you are heard.’

This was one of many lines in Prof. Jennifer Eberhardt’s book ‘Biased: Uncovering the Hidden Prejudice That Shapes What We See, Think, and Do’ that resonated with me. 

In this context Eberhardt was talking about the gender bias in the historic hiring of female classical musicians for orchestras. Mounting criticism over the lack of female musicians during the 1970s led to many orchestras adopting ‘blind auditions’ so as to not reveal the identity of the auditionee, and therefore avoid any bias that may unfairly affect the outcome.

As Eberhardt notes, female musicians had long been the victims of negative stereotypes that downgraded their talent, believed, for example, to have ‘smaller techniques’ and producing ‘smaller sound’ than men. They were also alleged to be more temperamental, less consistent and requiring ‘special attention and treatment’.

A study by Goldin and Rouse (2000) looked into the gender bias in the hiring of orchestral musicians. They acquired audition records from leading orchestras in the US, and examined the experiences of over 7000 candidates in more than 14,000 rounds of auditions to explore the effectiveness of blind auditioning. 

It turned out that the blind audition process increased the likelihood that a female musician would be hired to a leading orchestra by 25%. 

How you are seen definitely seems to affect how you are heard.

Another recent study by sociologist Natasha Quadlin (2018) sought to investigate how gender and academic performance impact upon employment outcomes for recent college graduates. In order to do this Quadlin submitted over 2,100 fictional resumes for job openings for entry-level jobs in the US and manipulated gender, academic achievement and college major to see how these factors affected the likelihood of a job callback. In addition to this she also followed 250 ‘hiring decision-makers’ across a range of companies to monitor how applicants’ qualifications and personal characteristics affected decisions regarding callbacks and hiring. 

Quadlin found that men with high GPAs were twice as likely to get a callback than women candidates, based on their resume. Further, when Math was their major, men were more likely to get a callback by a ratio of 3:1. Following Quadlin’s follow-up research with these hiring decision-makers, she stated that ‘gendered stereotypes’ were to blame for these discrepancies.

Quadlin concluded:

Employers value competence and commitment among men applicants, but instead privilege women applicants who are perceived as likeable. This standard helps moderate-achieving women, who are often described as sociable and outgoing, but hurts high-achieving women, whose personalities are viewed with more skepticism.

When I read about this study in Eberhardt’s book it made me reflect on my own experiences, and the strong desire (and pressure) that I have always felt to be ‘likeable’.

I don’t know exactly how or why this came about, but growing up I vividly remember telling myself that it was important to be nice and to get on with people. A lot of the time though, this came at the expense of my own self-esteem and self-worth. 

The socialisation of girls, how we learn how we should act, and the societal expectations of our behaviour, have historically been undeniably different from boys. In particular there seems to have been a long-held belief that, as a woman, if you are nice, and kind, and polite, then you’ll have an ‘easier’ time. After all, it’s hard(er) to have personal and professional issues with people that are nice… that seems to be the logic that we use with ourselves, and therefore also becomes what we expect from other women.

Yet, as I entered the world of work, that didn’t seem to happen. 

I experienced multiple incidences where I was undermined and under-supported, and was left time and time again with one overriding question; ‘Would I be treated or spoken to like this if I were a man?’

I couldn’t help thinking that I probably wouldn’t… I didn’t see it happening to my male colleagues, even those of similar age or experience – they almost seemed to have an invisible shield around them.

Why?

Once I hit my thirties, I had something of an epiphany. I realised that ‘being nice’ as one of the sole parts underpinning my professional identity wasn’t serving me anymore. In fact, it was damaging me.

This is not to say that I’m no longer nice (I actually am, I promise!) but I no longer feel I have to compromise who I am, or what I think, in order to appear ‘nice’ in a professional setting. I will try to constructively disagree when I think it’s the right thing to do. I will ask the questions that I think need to be asked. I will confidently share my views and suggestions.

However, whilst this experience has been liberating, now that I have found myself in a middle leadership position, I remain particularly conscious of the difficulty that many women can experience when shifting to positions of management and responsibility. 

I remember someone asking me once, ‘Would you ever want to be a school leader?’…. ‘Absolutely not in a million years’ I answered.

The reason I gave (apart from the obvious ‘that seems like a lot of work!’) was that I didn’t want to have to compromise who I was in order to do a job. When probed about what I meant by this, I said that building relationships and listening to others is what I feel I do well, and I feared losing this. Initially I thought that this tension between who you are as a person and who you need to be as a leader was a conflict free of gender. However, I now feel that there are compromises that female leaders in particular have to make in order to fit into what is still very much a patriarchal domain (despite the higher ratio of female teachers in the profession).

I got caught up in an intense self-examination. Could I be both myself and a manager? I couldn’t help but feel like as a woman, I might have to compromise who I was. And yet, as I struggled with this question, when I looked around I didn’t seem to see my male colleagues grappling with this. They appeared to be able to effortlessly flit from friend, to colleague, to manager, and back. One minute joking around in the staffroom, and the next holding serious meetings. 

To this day, the stereotypes surrounding female leaders are alive and well. I myself often see women who I perceive to be assertive and good at their jobs being viewed as ‘difficult’ by male colleagues. My male counterparts often seem to receive praise in more obvious or public ways, whereas for women more often it appears to be downplayed (and dare I say, expected?) In my experience, men also seem to experience more leniency when under-performing, when compared with their female colleagues.

I appreciate that I am doing my own generalising here, and I know that these things aren’t true of all male professionals! I also acknowledge that I am still on a personal quest of figuring out how I can be myself and in a position of responsibility, in a way that holds true to my personality and what I stand for (as well as accounting for how I’ve ‘learnt’ to be).

I am caught in a cycle of self-reflection, but also examining the role of society in how I present myself, as a person and as a leader. I am torn between wanting to do what I was socialised to do (be ‘nice’) and being respected as an equal. 

Ultimately, I know that how I am seen does affect how I am heard, but how I see myself is what I value the most. 

I am kind and challenging. I am a team player and I ask questions.

I am a woman and I can be both.

Conflict in international schools: How can we move past it?

International schools pose a variety of interesting challenges that can lead to potential conflict. 

Executive boards often reflect diverse thoughts on business and education. In many countries, key positions in the school and on the board will be made up of stakeholders from both within and outside of that particular country. Whilst this range of perspectives undoubtedly brings much value to a school it can also bring conflict, and I’m sure many of us can think of examples in our own settings where disagreements and conflict have taken place as a result of these differing cultures, experiences and perspectives all coming together.

Additionally, many international schools walk the fine line between business and education which, ethically, probably causes some of the deepest rooted conflict – particularly for teachers. As Dr Denry Machin outlines in his article Sales: In Schools It’s a Dirty Word, sales within the context of schools is admissions. Drawing on Daniel Pink’s book To Sell is Human, the top 5 most associated words with sales are ‘pushy’, ‘yuck’, ‘annoying’, slimy’, and ‘manipulative’. In his article, Machin points out that sales are a critically important area of international schools (despite schools wanting to hide it), and rather a better understanding of the sales mindset can improve and enhance the admissions process to be something that doesn’t conform with these negative associations.

In a further article on the morality of profit, Machin poses an interesting question for those of us working in international or private education:

Is profit morally wrong and making a profit from education somehow inherently bad?

Ultimately, in any argument against the corrupting powers of profit-seeking, the conclusion that is drawn time and time again, is that there is often a moral conflict between profit and the interests of students, and that education should be free from these corruptive forces. Context matters here, and it is important to note that profit is not necessarily a ‘bad’ thing (profit itself is neither good nor bad) but for many people who have chosen to pursue a career in education, it can sit quite uncomfortably. 

Now, if we combine the issue of the morality of profit (in education), with the negative connotations that sales has, and the potential for intercultural misunderstandings or disagreements, we immediately have three possible sources of conflict that international schools may face.

This week I read an incredibly interesting book by Amanda Ripley entitled High Conflict: Why We Get Trapped and How We Get Out. Ripley differentiates between healthy conflict, that which can be serious and intense, but ultimately leads to positive movement and doesn’t collapse into ‘othering’, and high conflict, that which becomes a self-perpetuating, all consuming, us-versus-them conflict.

I’m a middle leader by title (although I see my role as Head of Sixth Form/University Counselling more as being an additional source of pastoral support to students), and don’t have any formal leadership expertise or training to speak of. However, what I feel I have both experienced myself, and see in many others schools that are experiencing some of the challenges mentioned, is the disintegration of conflict into the us-versus-them dynamic (often teachers versus admin/ leaders). 

In this last year in particular, many schools have had to make a lot of quick changes as a result of the pandemic; some teachers have been laid off (which might also have had a knock-on effect of increasing the workloads of the teachers that remain), holidays have been lost, additional meetings and demands on time have increased beyond what is normal (which is often high as it is), and whilst some schools are growing in enrolment, others have lost significant numbers of students, which has created additional pressures for admissions staff. During a time when we have most needed a ‘we’re all in it together’ culture, instead the stresses hitting international schools have in some instances deepened the cavern between teachers and everyone else. 

As the saying goes… ‘s*** rolls downhill!’.

Now the thing is, in an us-versus-them conflict, whilst it can feel good and righteous at times, it ultimately serves to chip away at our own wellbeing. Our jobs are our biggest non-romantic relationship, and as Ripley notes, ‘no one wins at marriage’.

When an us-versus-them divide starts in our workplace, even over what we feel strongly are good and legitimate reasons, as the losses (or decisions we disagree with) accumulate, we can end up losing our way from the common ground that we started with – the marriage that we chose to go into because, hopefully, we like the school that we chose to be a part of. 

At the core of many relationship breakdowns is a sense of not feeling understood, something that is fundamental to our sense of self. As Ripley states, being understood can feel more important than money, property or even winning.

Our leaders and managers may say they listen, and attempt to, but listening is not understanding. 

If you take this into account, along with the other potential areas of conflict mentioned above, intercultural management, sales, and the morality of profit, you can see that these areas can be tied to our sense of who we are, particularly the last two. For many teachers, being asked to do certain things that are in some way linked to making the school money, can challenge our sense of what we think education stands for, and make us more convicted in our sense of conflict. 

The goal however, is not to bring people to our way of thinking, but to extend the definition of ‘us’ in the us-versus-them dynamic. One of the ways in which Ripley states that we can move away from damaging and stagnant ‘high conflict’ is through what she terms ‘looping for understanding’. Similar to motivational interviewing techniques, ‘looping for understanding’ (developed by Freidman and Himmelstein) involves reflecting back what someone has said in order to check for understanding and is very much an active listening process. It also involves ‘going down the why trail’. 

To illustrate this point, the book discusses the process of mediation, using the example of divorce. When a couple is arguing over who gets the crockpot in a divorce, it is important to investigate why the crockpot matters so much. Perhaps the wife wants to keep the crockpot because it is symbolic and reminds her of Sunday dinners with her parents when she was growing up. The husband on the other hand, perhaps just wants the crockpot because the wife wants it so much, and the battle for it has come to represent the pain he is feeling about the divorce. Rarely is a crockpot just a ‘crockpot’ – there is often an understory to most ‘high conflicts’. 

Figuring out the symbolic ‘crockpot’ and using ‘looping for understanding’ (for both sides of a source of conflict) can perhaps extend the version of ‘us’ that we allow. This may be of particular help when, for example, negotiating salaries, contracts, school fee increases, changes in the organisational structure, or changes to expectations regarding workload/working hours – particularly when these link to issues that are emotive, such as the morality of profit in international schools. 

For any of these changes, perhaps what could be useful is to construct a mediative process (rather than just a forum for passive listening) to help improve and develop a shared understanding. If teachers are upset about new salary scales, perhaps rather than choosing to simply iterate that the changes are not up for discussion/ beyond your control, you could become curious as to why they are upset (beyond the more obvious reasoning). You could invite a discussion in which you can ask staff questions that might allow them to healthily express their feelings; What does this change mean to you? How would a freeze/decrease in salary affect how you feel about your job? What would be a fair salary? Why would this be an optimal salary? How would this change your life? When asked out of genuine curiosity, this could help you to figure out the ‘crockpot’ and the true reasons behind people’s behaviour. 

Likewise, creating a forum in which teachers can find out why a decision has been made may also deepen their understanding. In doing so, you might encourage them to ask questions of their own, such as; What does this change mean for the school? What will be the impact of this decision on the school community as a whole? Is there a bigger picture that hasn’t been shared with us? If teachers are genuinely seeking to understand something, and are themselves motivated to repair a relationship that is threatening to become fractured, strategies such as this may allow for conflict to be addressed and diffused, before it becomes damaging. 

Conflict, when managed correctly, is healthy and enables things to progress and improve. Understanding someone else’s point of view is never a weakness or a concession, and adding to our understanding of a situation is what is needed in order to move forward. Therefore, my advice for leaders is, rather than managing a fallout, find the crockpot!

Ultimately, the aim is to foster a culture of understanding which will lead towards everyone having a shared ownership of a school’s purpose and vision – as Kim Green, Head of School at the International School of Ho Chi Minh City, stated in a recent podcast. If we can work towards a shared goal that is bigger than us as individuals, then we can start to break out of the us-versus-them thinking, in which everyone loses out. 

Afterall “no one wins at marriage”.

Wellbeing in international schools: Are we missing the bigger picture?

Having been interested in the subject of wellbeing for the past year, and spending much time researching this area through reading, listening to podcasts and attending webinars, I often can’t shake the feeling that many of these discussions, whilst helpful, neglect some of the biggest challenges to student wellbeing within the international school context; safeguarding, diversity and inclusion, and culture. 

Instead, what you get are four very much intertwined strands, separated. On one level I can completely appreciate why; these are big areas of discussion that warrant and deserve their own space. However, whilst I feel that whilst this proliferation of reports and webinars is only a good thing, they often have a tendency to examine wellbeing from a very narrow perspective. 

There has been much talk about student wellbeing, happiness, and self-confidence, and links drawn between these factors and subsequent academic achievement. All good stuff. But what these discussions often lack is a look at the bigger picture… Do students feel safe? Do they feel that they can be who they truly are? Do they have a greater appreciation for cultural nuances about wellbeing? Is the role of culture even something that is acknowledged in these discussions?

Let’s talk first about safety. As Jane Larsson, Executive Director of the Council of International Schools, mentioned in 2016, there is no information about the prevalence of abuse by teachers in international schools. Historically, safeguarding in international schools has posed unique challenges due to weak or inconsistent hiring practices, ease of mobility, and (in some countries) underdeveloped legal systems, all of which have served to make international schools an attractive place of work for those inclined to harm children. 

There has been, and continues to be, some tremendous work done by organisations such as CIS and the International Task Force on Child Protection (ITFCP), and a shift in thinking by many schools with a greater focus on ‘Maslow before Bloom’, but certainly the pandemic and on/off lockdowns and restrictions of movement have exacerbated issues of child safety. For example, reports by the BBC stated a 25% increase in domestic abuse calls and online requests for help. In addition Europol, along with U.K.’s National Crime Agency, the Swedish Police Authority had seen an increase in online child exploitation since the pandemic started.

In addition to this, in a recent webinar safeguarding series that was hosted by ISAT and the British Embassy, safeguarding expert Robin Watts echoed the words that he had mentioned previously in an EduCare article; that there can often be a false sense of security felt in independent schools (which could also be extended to international schools) as a result of the incorrect assumption that children in affluent families are less likely to experience abuse. However, as Robin states:

“There can be a perception that abuse only occurs infrequently in such advantaged families. However, this is a myth. Statistically, abuse is just as likely (and arguably marginally more likely) than in lower income families. In affluent families, abuse tends to be more hidden in these areas and abusers more sophisticated in their ability to hide abuse. 

“Children are far less likely to come to the attention of the authorities than children from a lower class/income. In addition to this, parents and carers are thought to be far safer when they are from a middle to high income area and viewed as such by the potentially protective adults around the child.”

In addition to these factors, many international school families often lack support networks in their newly settled countries. As a teacher living abroad and working in international schools myself, I am also aware of the transient nature of many friendships, and during tough times have sorely missed the support that I believe I would have had at home in the UK.

Another key factor that is often missing from discussions around wellbeing, is diversity and inclusion. Whilst there is some fantastic and important work being done by many groups and individuals in this area, I rarely see these discussions mentioned when it comes to wellbeing. If students (and staff) are not valued, appreciated and allowed to be who they truly are, then this will surely have a significant impact on their wellbeing and sense of self (probably one of the biggest factors after meeting core safety needs). As an LGBT+ educator who has experienced my own ‘coming out’ both as an 18-year old and continually ever since, I have felt first hand the fear of not being accepted for who I am, the challenge of having to hide parts of myself, the fear of being rejected, and the actual rejection itself. Despite this, I consider myself privileged in many respects, and I acknowledge that there are certainly many different intersectional identities that experience far more significant challenges than I. The point I feel it is important to make here is that if your school isn’t evaluating and examining it’s leadership, policies and procedures, hiring practices, and culture when it comes to diversity and inclusion, how sure can we really be that we truly honor and represent this for our students?

Lastly, what I often feel is missing from conversations around wellbeing in the international school context is an appreciation of culture, and in particular cultural differences when it comes to understandings of wellbeing and mental health. In a previous article I wrote on Mental Health and International Schools: Towards a greater understanding of cultural and contextual factors, I discuss in more detail different cultural understandings of mental health causes and treatment (emotional expression, shame and stigma, the ‘power distance’, collectivism and spirituality and religion). The reality is that many of our students take on some of the culture that they are raised in, some of the culture that they live in, and some of the culture of the school that they are educated in. Divisions and differences between accepted and enacted cultural norms may be much more fluid for the transnational students that we teach. I’m often surprised by the conversations that I have with students about their cultural views on things such as body image, career expectations, and even death. You can visibly see students grappling with the different parts of themselves, and I highly suspect that this often plays a factor in some students either not reaching out for support, or not wanting to engage in the type of talk support that many schools offer.

Despite this, I often fail to see this raised in discussions, or reflected in diverse panels that can comment on this from a ‘lived-experience’ point of view. The simple fact is that I have never been an international student, and my work and education aligns with the culture that I grew up in. It wasn’t really until I worked in an international school that I had a true appreciation of the power of culture in all aspects of life.

To bring this to a close, my feelings are that discussions around wellbeing need to be situated within, and have an appreciation of, this bigger picture. That way the efforts of schools to address and promote wellbeing will have deeper roots and will be much more likely to grow and embed as part of the school, rather than being a seasonal flower that blossoms brightly, but all too briefly.

Managing exam time stress: How to help students harness their inner ‘Chatter’

This week I had the chance to read Ethan Kross’ book Chatter: The voice in our head, why it matters, and how to harness it, and it struck quite a few chords with me.

The premise of the book is to examine the silent conversations that people have with themselves, and consider how to channel this voice constructively. Kross starts out by refuting the idea that self-reflection/introspection in terms of reflecting on our own thoughts and feelings is always the best way to analyse and solve our own problems. Rather, it can actually do more harm than good. 

This is because ‘our thoughts too often don’t save us from our thoughts…’

This intrigued me.

Instead, when we pay too much attention to our thoughts and feelings, we allow ourselves to give rise to ‘chatter’. Chatter consists of ‘the cyclical negative thoughts and emotions that turn our singular capacity for introspection into a curse rather than a blessing. It puts our performance, decision making, relationships, happiness, and health in jeopardy’. This is because we can allow our inner voice to go off track and ruminate on bad feelings, exacerbating them.

What I found really interesting about this book is that whilst there has been a big shift towards meditation and ‘living in the present’ (which certainly has many positive benefits), Kross explains that this actually runs counter to our biology. In fact, research has shown that we spend between ⅓ to ½ of our waking life not living in the present. We actually live a significant amount of our life ‘in the mind’ transporting back and forth between our past and future, whilst navigating being in the present. 

And as we do that, we talk to ourselves. 

Whilst this inner voice is pretty useful and functioning the majority of the time, at times of stress it can lead us to ruminate on or compulsively replay past events, or imagine all of the possible things that could go wrong. 

Just this week I gave a presentation to parents, during which technology could not have failed more spectacularly, despite what I believed was avid preparation. Passwords for online systems failed, no-one could see anything on the projector, people struggled to connect to the wifi… it was just shy of a complete DISASTER! It felt like I spent the whole session apologising, and rushing around trying to fix all of these errors, just so people could follow my presentation. 

It was one of those moments that for a couple of years I will feel hot just thinking about!

The truth is I was prepared, but things went wrong anyway, and I ended up not being able to sleep properly for about two nights afterwards. If the world had ended right then… I’d probably have been ok with it.

I thought ‘that was the first impression people will have of you… and you looked incompetent and unprepared’, ‘are you sure you should be doing this job?’

I was pinballing between bad and worse emotions, and was becoming paralysed by my own voice.

The following few days I thought ‘I’m just going to play it safe from now on, and not put myself out there again… better to not embarrass myself right?’

Well… wrong actually, and this is why I loved this book – it forced me to look at how I could better manage this chatter.

A common human drive that we all experience is that when we are upset we want to talk to someone – we feel compelled to share our bad experiences with others. The more intense the experience was, the greater the need to talk about it… and then talk about it again…. and then maybe a few days later, talk about it some more (unless it’s something that causes us to feel shame or relates to trauma).

The thing is, the inner voice that gets so worked up and spills out into the verbal stream that we share (often with the empathetic listeners in our life) actually acts as a social repellant… people can only listen to, or absorb, so much venting. Add social media into the mix, and this is amplified even further. I’m sure we can all think of people that we have unfollowed because they just got a bit ‘too much’.

Although we have a drive to share our experiences with others, it doesn’t always help us. There are so many examples to draw on in this book, but what it makes me think about at the moment is the chatter that I often witness happening for students around exam time…

‘I can’t do this, I just don’t get it… everyone is doing better than me’, ‘why can’t I do this… I must be stupid’, ‘I know I’m going to mess up, I always do in exams, I just can’t do them’.

Our inner voice runs rife when we are tested, and at eighteen years old, exams are often the biggest challenge that they have faced yet. Combine this with the stress of university applications, with any rejection they receive serving to stoke the negative inner fire that is already raging, and this is a potent combination to work with. 

With this in mind, I wanted to share 3 pieces of advice that I have taken from this book that I will be sharing with my Sixth Form students in the next few weeks leading up to exams (also if you hadn’t already picked up my excitement about the book – I’d definitely recommend reading it!):

  1. Create distance. When a stressful conversation comes up in your mind, you can create distance with your chatter by either using your name, or the second person ‘you’. If you have a bad exam, rather than zoning in on detrimental ‘I’ statements, change your language to dampen the rumination – think about how you would advise a friend and then apply it to yourself (I’m in my thirties and i can still hear my Mum’s voice now).

‘Sarah, I know this was a difficult exam for you, but you managed to answer section 1 and 2 well and your preparation was good. What can you do to focus on the exams ahead of you now?

  1. Normalise. Know that you are not the only person that feels a certain way, and that what you are experiencing is simply a characteristic of the wider human experience. I was inspired this week by a post that I saw on Linkedin where students at Shrewsbury International School in Bangkok were encouraged to post their rejection letters from universities on a wall in school (deleting their name if they would prefer), so that they would understand that this was a ‘normal’ part of the application process. This inspired a talk that I had with my students this week which started off something like… ‘there are 3 guarantees in life… death, taxes and failure’. Not quite as moving as the idea of having a wall that normalises rejection, but what it did allow me to talk about was this idea that we can’t run away from rejection. In fact, we can do everything right and still get rejected… by someone that we like, by a friend, by a university or by an employer. The silence around rejection is where the shame creeps in, and by exposing our failures and rejections, or sharing these with others, we can feel less alone, and even bonded by this shared experience. 
  1. Rituals, routines and lucky charms. From prehistoric tribes to modern day athletes, routines and rituals have forever served a purpose in our lives. They are a way to exert some control over something that we can’t possibly have full control over. Whether those rituals are to ward off predators before going out to hunt, or whether they be the small quirky actions that athletes do before or during a game or match. On one level we know that tennis players compulsively readjusting their uniform (such as Rafa Nadal) can’t possibly make him play better. Or can it? The mind is a powerful tool and if we can encourage students to tap into things that they most likely already do to calm their nerves, then perhaps they can harness these actions to quiet their chatter before a big exam. 

The inner voice that we possess can be what tears us down, or it can be the thing that allows us to become our very best. I very much look forward to sharing some of the ideas in this book with my students, in the hope that they tap into the ideas that make sense for them. Equally, I look forward to going on this journey with them, and learning how to harness my own inner voice for better.

School Counselling and the importance of getting it right

The other day I was speaking to my wife about the role of counsellors in international schools. When I first started working in an international school, I remember it feeling quite strange to have a ‘counsellor’ working at a school. Particularly in a British school. I always felt like this was more of an ‘American’ thing. Whatever that meant.

Counsellors have long held more of a prominent position in American Curriculum schools, and many have responsibilities that you might normally associate with a PSHE coordinator role, which in most British schools, is that of a teacher’s remit. 

‘Counsellors’ in the UK sense are often either associated with NHS mental health services such as CAMHS, or tucked away in little offices that come with a hefty price tag of upwards of £50 per hour. Something you tend to only look at if you are really in desperate need of help. After all, how many families have a spare £200 per month to burn on 4 hours of ‘therapy’ for one child? 

The idea of school counselling has always intrigued me ever since moving internationally. However, the thing that often worried me about the idea of counselling as a viable career was the fact that most international schools only have one counselling position. 

When talking to an international recruitment consultant once, he highlighted to me that the prospect of my wife and I being able to move to a different international school at some point would be challenging. For my wife, who works as a PE teacher, there are often a number of roles in any one school, but for me, often only one role may be available (if you’re lucky). The chances of both coming up at the same time are pretty slim. 

Throw our two dogs into the mix and it becomes clear that moving at some stage is going to be no small feat (I get the sweats just thinking about it)!

In addition to this, counsellors in international schools are often pulled in multiple directions to plug all of the ‘support’ holes in a school. Half social-emotional counselling, half college counselling. Part pastoral lead, part safeguarding lead, part learning support.

It’s much like being a Maths teacher that also has to teach a bit of Science and may be a bit of Design and Technology – after all they all require working with numbers, right?

There are a variety of ‘support’ combinations that many counsellors in international schools find themselves having to fulfil, particularly for counsellors at some of the smaller international schools. The idea of just being a college counsellor, or just a social-emotional counsellor, is something of a luxury that only happens at those elusive ‘big schools’. At least, that has been my impression.

Now, with student wellbeing being near the top of the agenda for many schools across the world, I’m curious to see whether that will mean a growth of school counsellor positions both in the UK and internationally. At least where money allows. 

With the sensitisation to ‘emotions’ and ‘feelings’ as part of this, and the growing SEL and wellbeing movements, now more than ever counsellors are playing a vital role in providing students with a positive experience of the ‘counselling’ magic.

Let me explain a little more.

For many young people, school counsellors provide their introduction to the weird and wonderful world of ‘counselling’. And now more than ever, students may be seeking some sort of help. 

Throw into the mix the likelihood that more students in more schools may now be coming across school counsellors, and it becomes ever clearer that the counselling experience needs to be a positive one.

Not because counsellors will wave a magic wand and make everything better (unlike many teachers and families might hope) but, much like historical (stereotypical) accounts of ‘old school PE teachers’ managing to put people off sport and exercise, at least until later life… if counsellors ‘over-therapise’ and don’t form positive relationships with students, could the same thing happen for many students when it comes to counselling? Could they be put off the thought of therapy in later life because of negative experiences that happened at school?

The counsellors always made me talk about stuff. The counsellor made us sit around in a circle and talk about our feelings. It was embarrassing. It was boring. 

I’m being pedantic here, but you get my point.

We need to find that sweet spot between ‘care’ and ‘overcaring’, being ‘supportive’ and ‘overbearing’ when it comes to counselling.

We have a significant influence in keeping counselling as a viable path if our students need to seek this type of support at some point in their lives.

Therapy really can change lives for the right person at the right time.

In saying this, I don’t think ‘therapy’ in the more traditional sense, is for everyone. But the idea of feeling safe enough to reach out to someone for support is something that should be for everyone.

We need to work with students and not push the agenda of therapy as a ‘fix all’ solution. 

We just need students to know that maybe, just maybe, it could be something that they could turn to should they ever need to.

Issue 3 of the WISEducation Magazine is out NOW!

Hi everyone,

I’m really excited to share the third issue of the WISEducation Magazine!

WISEducation Magazine Issue 3

Issue 3 contains a range of articles from 13 different contributors based across the world including Thailand, Malaysia, Peru, UAE, USA and the UK. Inside you’ll find articles covering topics such as the importance of touch and play for young children, setting healthy boundaries in pastoral provision, promoting trauma responsive teaching through Physical Education, and much, much more!

Please feel free to share this link with any friends, colleagues or professional networks that you feel may be interested in reading this newsletter.

My aim is to continue to grow this community and share good practice with others, so please also feel free to invite people to check out wiseducationblog.com or @_WISEducation on Twitter.

The fourth issue will be out in June. If you or anyone you know may be interested in contributing an article for this issue then please do get in touch, as I’d love for you to be a part of it!


Thank you for your support!

Sadie

Supporting whilst unsupported: Navigating pastoral provision in international schools

Working in a pastoral role at an international school is an enlightening experience. 

I distinctly remember interviewing a candidate for a pastoral position at our school who was UK-based and had never worked in an international context before. 

When discussing how they might deal with a number of different safeguarding situations, they said they would refer the student to outside help, or get external agencies involved. 

And I remember thinking… what external agencies? What outside help?

In the parts of the world where many international schools are located, there can often be a lack of social service intervention, a lack of local counselling support services, and a lack of sexual health clinics.

As Liz Cloke’s recent article on ‘5 pastoral care differences in international schools’ highlights, to say that things don’t work the same way internationally as they do at home in the UK is an understatement. In fact, working internationally has given me a greater appreciation of just how much (albeit not perfect) support there is at home for young people.

As an international school pastoral lead, things can be complicated.

Not only are you working with the problem in front of you (whatever that may be), you are also working in a culture that has its own beliefs, values and taboos, that may completely conflict with your own (westernised) beliefs about how things should be handled.

Without a better understanding of the cultural nuances of the country you are working in, there can be a risk of unintentionally causing enormous offence, which will of course be completely detrimental to the support you are trying to give a student. For example, in Asia, the concept of face (and the associated fear of ‘face-loss’) is extremely powerful. Understanding this can be essential in interpreting why students, or families, may be resistant to the help you are trying to offer.

As a western teacher, a lot of these things can be completely invisible to us at first.

We cannot afford to take for granted that we are guests in a country, and must learn to work with (not against) the cultural complexities that we encounter.

The problem with international schools is that the poor or culturally insensitive handling of a situation could result in the worst case scenario; a student being removed from the school by their family, and sent elsewhere. 

After all, international schooling is a choice, and most families have the freedom and means to move if they are not happy with how a school has handled a particular problem. 

In this regard, dealing with concerns that may have normally involved social service intervention at home may require you, as a staff member involved in pastoral care, to concede some ground in the best interests of the child.

The plan in place has to be sensitive to the wider cultural factors.

There are often situations that challenge your tightly held values, but what I have found is that these can also lead to some of the most resourceful approaches to pastoral care and support that I have seen.

This is where the saying ‘it takes a village’ is very much applicable. 

Within Eastern culture I am in awe of the notion of extended family (or even the families of friends) who will step in to help, for example, if a student needs a place to stay due to a family breakdown. This sense of community really does ‘catch’ students and, even if in a slightly haphazard or unconventional way, can temporarily provide the much needed family support or parenting that they require.

Although I don’t currently work in a school that has boarding provision, I know of several other schools that have had students staying with them throughout the pandemic, who are yet to see their families. It is also relatively common for Chinese and Korean families who have sent their children to Thailand to have them live in homestays with other Chinese or Korean families, whilst they complete their schooling. I often feel for these students, that even whilst they have been given the opportunity to receive an international education, with all of the hopes that come with that, they grow up in a home, family and country that is not their own. 

And now, with it coming up to a year since the initial worldwide lockdowns (and familial separations in many cases), this is undoubtedly taking its toll.

I guess the point of this article is that although many international school students can seem ‘privileged’ from the outside (and are in many ways), they can also be very much alone when it comes to getting the support they might need.

Whether that’s because they are guests in a country, and therefore external agency provision doesn’t extend to them. Whether it’s because of the strain of the arrangements (and often sacrifices) that many families have made in order for them to be there. Or whether it’s because of cultural factors that make the request for support or support intervention much more complicated. Schools very often unintentionally play an enormous role in the coordination of support, and in doing so pastoral staff are often also very much alone in their navigatigation of this.

This is where it becomes incredibly important to have a good team of counsellors and pastoral staff to share the burden of this responsibility… otherwise there can be a great deal of restless nights (this is of course still likely to happen, but at least you are not alone). It is also important to have a good counselling network within the local international school network, because often there is no clear reference point from which to gauge the appropriate course of action. The hope is that by discussing issues that arise in a confidential manner with other trusted school counselling staff (who may have valuable prior experience to share) you can come to some plan or resolution, however imperfect it may be. Finally, given the impossibility of ever truly being able to fully ‘see’ or understand an issue through the eyes of someone from a culture different to your own, it is essential that schools ensure that there is an identified, native member of staff, that can be consulted in such situations.

The irony of working in a support role, is that often you may find that you are unsupported. This makes forging these networks in the international school context of utmost importance.

Rethinking our thinking: The tale of the preacher, the prosecutor and the politician

In order to grow, ‘unlearning’ can be just as important, if not more so, than learning.

That feels like a funny thing to say as someone who works in education.

Schools are in the business of learning. It’s where we learn how to read, how to write, how to pass exams, how to make friends, how to deal with conflict, and ultimately how to become an adult, ready to enter the world.

They are ‘learning’ and ‘thinking’ institutions.

But as much as we teach students to learn, we should also be teaching them how to ‘unlearn’, ‘rethink’, revise and update not only their knowledge and ideas, but also their beliefs about the world.

Recently I started reading a book called ‘Think Again: The Power of Knowing What You Don’t Know’ by Adam Grant, and it quickly became one of those books where I ended up bookmarking every few pages and found myself constantly nodding away like a crazy person.

Grant’s book examines the art of critical rethinking and encourages us to question our opinions and open our minds. He explains how in life we favour the ‘comfort of conviction’ over the ‘discomfort of doubt’. In doing this we have a preference for ‘echo chambers’ which reaffirm our views, and we surround ourselves with people that agree with us to a fault. 

We tend to shy away from and actively avoid environments and people that challenge our assumptions, and cause us to rethink. These are threats to our egos and sense of self. 

Grant argues that given the magnitude of information, knowledge and technology that is now available to us, there is a need to question and update our beliefs more readily than ever before.

In the book, Grant draws upon an observation made by a colleague of his, which outlines how we all take on one of three different personas when expressing our views or opinions; the preacher, the prosecutor, or the politician.

The preacher – this is where we are the ‘enlightened one’ who knows the answer. We often take on this persona when our closely held beliefs are in jeopardy, and we need to protect and promote our ideals.

The prosecutor – this is where we demonstrate our opinions by setting out to highlight the flaws in other people’s thinking. We prove we are right by showing that they are wrong. We shift to this mode when we vehemently disagree with another person’s reasoning.

The politician – we slip into this persona when we’re trying to win over an audience by campaigning and lobbying for the approval of others.

The problem with taking on any one of these three personas is that it means that we don’t rethink our own views. 

Instead Grant calls for us to take on a different persona; that of the scientist.

The scientist searches for the truth and does so by seeking to test out hypotheses about their thinking, and gathering updated knowledge that can prove or falsify their beliefs. Adopting this persona requires us to grant permission to ourselves and others to have the flexibility of thinking to change our minds. 

The problem with granting a flexibility of thinking is that when we’re in preacher mode we can view it as a sign of moral weakness, as a prosecutor it means admitting defeat, and as a politician it’s because we are fickle.

Grant jokes that the facts that we defend most strongly often tend to be the things we know less about. Rather than basing our arguments upon the latest scientific studies, we fall back on lines we remember from conversations past, hearsay, or ‘that thing I heard from my friend’s brother in 2006’.

This really made me laugh, and also forced me to acknowledge how true this is.

How many times have we regurgitated or asserted an opinion based on that thing we heard someone say that one time that we really liked the sound of.

I’m embarrassed to say that I have done it many times, without even recognising it!

I didn’t question it. I never fact checked. I’ve rarely sought to update my views. 

The fact is that our thinking should be constantly evolving. The more we change our mind, the closer we (hopefully) come to the truth.

When I reflect upon when I have seen these personas in an educational context, I feel that the preacher and the prosecutor personas are most prevalent. 

Just this week I had a student tell me that she wasn’t going to choose Sociology as one of her A-Level options (although she wanted to) because her father had told her that ‘it wasn’t a proper subject’. She went on to say that she didn’t think she would be going to go to university because he had also said this would be a ‘waste of time’.

This sort of preaching can be dangerous when it is projected upon impressionable young people. 

I’m sure we have all been subject to damaging views like this growing up. 

‘PE is pointless, Drama won’t help you in the real world, you’re going to fail in life unless you’re good at Maths.’

Parents (and teachers) often like to give their opinions on A-Level subjects, and even career choices, but often their schooling and experience is frozen in time, and ten, twenty, or even more years out of date.

Many jobs and careers now require degrees, and the world isn’t what it was. People can have multiple careers in their lifetime, and the skills gleaned from the social sciences seem to be increasingly sought by employers.

Sidenote: I really don’t believe that going for university is what is best for everyone, and there are many different routes to success!

My worry is that often our students will stand by the beliefs of someone they love and respect, even though these views may be outdated and no longer ‘true’. So, they need to be able to become the scientist, to either prove or falsify this hypothesis for themselves.

I distinctly remember having a sports sociology lecturer at university who I thought was the cat’s whiskers, saying that (sport) psychology was a waste of time, and I held that to be true for about ten years. It wasn’t until I became more of a scientist in my thinking that I started to challenge my beliefs by reading and listening to podcasts on this topic area, and I actually found out that I thought he was wrong! Ten years of avoiding something that I now enjoy, because I held someone’s else’s beliefs to be unwaveringly true.

Words matter, and as educators we must use them wisely. 

We need to give students space not only to make their own minds up, but to become scientists in their own learning and unlearning, thinking and rethinking.

We must encourage our students, as well as ourselves, to see our knowledge and understanding of the world as an evolving process, rather than a syllabus we learn and forever know. 

We need to guide them to realise that as things change, so can we.

Boys don’t cry: A personal reflection on the gendering of pastoral care

Boys don’t cry.

So the old adage goes.

As a society we have thankfully come to recognise the flaw in this thinking, as generations of boys and men have paid the price, suffering from suppressed and hidden mental health issues, and higher rates of suicide. In fact, in the UK, suicide is the highest cause of death amongst men under the age of 45.

An article by Dr Funke Baffour entitled ‘Male Suicide: A Silent Epidemic’ discusses the gendering of suicide, and examines possible explanations for the differences in male and female suicide rates. He explains that this is ultimately due to factors that you might have already guessed; men are less likely to ask for help, men have greater difficulty in expressing depressive or suicidal feelings, men have been socialised to internalise their feelings. 

These are quite sweeping generalisations and as Dr Baffour notes, research hasn’t been able to pinpoint the exact reasons for this just yet. She acknowledges that these are simple answers to a complex question.

It is coming up to the one-year anniversary of the first global lockdown, and it is clear to see the mental toll that the ongoing uncertainty has had on students. I have experienced more students openly expressing their concerns in the past few months than I have done in previous years, and the prevalence and severity of their problems certainly appear greater. This has undoubtedly been impacted by periods of physical separation from friends and families, ongoing fears and worries about the health of themselves and those they care about, and spending more time in dysfunctional family situations. 

This is further compounded in the international school context, where it is not uncommon for parents businesses or employment to have an international element. This may mean that at least one parent is regularly based overseas for temporary work contracts, or permanently working abroad and sending money home to pay for international schooling. What we’ve seen in this past year is that many parents have either been trapped abroad (or have had to remain away from their homes and families in order to continue earning money) or that parents have been laid off after finishing their most recent contracts. This has led to families experiencing greater financial stress, and perhaps even having to consider the viability of international schooling going forwards.

Students are stressed. Families are stressed. Households are stressed.

Things are different.

Prior to the pandemic I very rarely had male students self-refer themselves for counselling or pastoral support. In my experience, I have often had many more female students open up to me about their struggles. Indeed, I can probably count on one hand how many male students have come to me for help in the three years that I have worked at my current school. Whilst I recognise that the fact that I am also female undoubtedly influences which students reach out to me, I find this to be an interesting observation.

Over the past six months, however, I have started to speak to many more male students for the first time, who are reaching out for help because they are struggling to cope.

I feel that this is indicative (in part, at least) of the internalisation of the ‘boys don’t cry mentality’, despite the rhetoric around gender and masculinity increasingly telling us that it is ok for boys to show emotion. 

That it is ok for boys to struggle mentally and emotionally. That boys can cry if they need to.

Yet, I have recognised that when a male student comes to me upset and crying, it feels strange. It’s not ‘normal’. Or at least, it’s not normal in the sense that it doesn’t happen very often, and takes me by surprise. 

Even though I would like to consider myself open-minded and progressive in my thinking, I am aware that I have also internalised aspects of the ‘boys don’t cry’ thinking, because I don’t have much previous experience to draw upon. Because even in my limited experience, boys haven’t tended to cry, or open up emotionally, around me. Nor do I expect them to. 

What I have noticed, upon reflection, is that pastoral support or intervention for male students often seems to be delayed. 

When a male student is demonstrating changes in their behaviour such as an inability to focus or meet deadlines, a change from being easy going to withdrawn and angry, a change from engaging in lessons and taking pride in their appearance to coming in most days tired and scruffy, it is much more likely to be explained as a character flaw – a behavioural (as opposed to an emotional) issue.

He’s lazy, he’s disrespectful, he just needs to ‘sort himself out’.

We can often delay our response and misconstrue cries for help as ‘boys being boys’.

I can definitely identify this in my own thinking, and realise that I’m often slower in recognising that these students may need deeper help and support, and not just a superficial behavioural intervention or a pep talk.

Perhaps we are quick to give a simple answer to a complex question. 

Afterall, boys will be boys.

In our move to become more progressive in our thinking about gender not just being a binary notion… it’s not as simple as that… our gendered biases run deep.

Perhaps boys don’t cry because we don’t let them.