This year’s International Women’s Day is an opportunity to empower the future generation of young women and girls, despite the challenges faced in this year’s pandemic.
Kate Jefferson is headteacher of Millbank Academy. She shares her experience of leading her school through the pandemic so that no child is left behind and her advice for other women working in education so that they can fulfil their potential.
International Women’s Day is a chance for people around the world to celebrate the achievements of women and empower the next generation to overcome existing barriers, some of which have been heightened by the pandemic. It is a growing movement to advocate for equal rights and for accelerating gender parity. After 90 years of IWD, the unity and power of women are going from strength to strength.
Our pupils will be the next generation to narrow gender divides. Children must understand that we are all responsible for our own thoughts and actions. We each choose to challenge, or to accept, the status quo. Together, we can choose to address gender bias.
The pandemic and leading the school through COVID-19
It is a privilege to be a school leader at any time, but for me the pandemic has brought with it a heightened sense of purpose and direction. I joined the profession to improve the life chances of children, and that aim has never been more important. A good education is an emancipatory force; it provides a child with the building blocks to lead a purposeful and fulfilling life.
I want to ensure that our pupils recover not only academically, but also pastorally. We must teach, and demonstrate, resilience to restore hope in the future. Over the past year, I have seen how committed my staff are in helping children through this.
Whilst the online provision at Millbank has been outstanding, and is certainly something that all schools have improved at this year, it is no match for face-to-face tuition. Assessment of learning is challenging remotely and gaps will have emerged. Children now need to be back in the classroom so that we can start the process of assessing, rebuilding core knowledge and moving forward.
The last lockdown saw a huge rise in the number of young people experiencing mental health issues. Children have experienced loneliness and boredom, due to separation from their peers. Pastoral support has been key so, as well as making sure the children have time to talk through and share their experiences, we partner with experts and organisations such as the Anna Freud Centre. We also have a mentor in school who is in the playground at breaktime and she plays a really key role in helping children to find resolution to disputes, helping them build those friendships again that they've lost during lockdown. We need to give children chance to connect to their community – to their peers and their teachers.
In the first week back, we will also have a PSHE (Personal, Social and Health Education) lesson each day. These lessons will aim to re-establish routines and boundaries for children, support them to decompress after the stress of lockdown, and look forward positively to the future.
For IWD we will use these lessons to focus on inspiring female role models. We will ask the children to reflect on the strengths and qualities that they admire in others, and to consider their implicit gender biases through stories and group discussions. The IWD website has a host of helpful resources for teachers.
My advice for other women
As a headteacher I know that teaching is a demanding but rewarding role. In a challenging year, my message to other women working in education is:
- Lift up other women.
Strong women encourage others to excel. Collaborate to share resources and work. If you are in a position of leadership, create the opportunities for others to shine. Support colleagues by removing obstacles: what can you do to facilitate their success?
- Do not put a ceiling on your own success.
“The most common way people give up their power is by thinking they don’t have any.” (Alice Walker). Beware of imposter syndrome! Women often lower their expectations of what they can achieve, and they are statistically more likely to doubt the worthiness for roles they are eminently qualified for. Look for your strengths and celebrate these. Reframe your thoughts and use them to challenge yourself to move forward.
- Choose to challenge.
As individuals, we must take action to challenge stereotypes and to address discriminatory barriers. Speak up with confidence to overcome challenges. In your classroom, create opportunities to discuss and dispel harmful gender biases. Empower your children to create the inclusive future they deserve.