Checking my Professional Privilege
Whilst deciding to quit a well-paid job that you enjoy, without an offer of future employment might sound like a hasty thing to do, I can assure you that my decision has been well-considered.
In this post, I outline some of my thought processes around starting this project, particularly relating to the world of work. If you don't have time to read the whole post, I have highlighted three key takeaways below.
For the past few months, I have been carrying a niggling burden of guilt about my privileged position in the world and my lack of proactivity in paying that privilege forward.
It’s full credit to the school where I currently teach, that I leave safe in the knowledge that my students will grow to achieve their full potential, whether I am here or not. The passion and commitment of the school body, aided by the access they have to a wealth of resources, means that any given student’s success is independent of the presence of an individual member of staff. This is a good and sustainable thing, and it’s how schools should operate. Unfortunately, I did not have this same feeling when I left teaching in the UK. Educational inequality is not just a nationwide problem, when considered on a global spectrum, the disparity is even more palpable than I could have ever imagined. Having attended one of the best grammar schools in the country and then taught at an inner city comprehensive, I was always acutely (and at times uncomfortably) aware of this disparity. Having now taught at one of the best international (primarily fee-paying) schools in the world, the contrast to me is more stark and apparent than ever. It’s humbling to know, and important to remember that in no context are we ever irreplaceable, yet I do believe in some contexts we are needed more than in others.
Viewed by many as a somewhat selfish pursuit, my decision to leave the UK state education caused some of my peers to bring into question my morals - how could I proclaim to be so outraged by the socioeconomic achievement gap in UK education, yet “sell out” to work with the “haves” in one of the wealthiest countries in the world? I think what both they and I underestimated, was how much I would grow both personally and professionally during my time overseas and how well positioned I would be to pay that privilege forward after 4 years here.
"I do believe in some contexts we are needed more than in others."
Let me compare a potentially incredible teacher with a potential Olympic athlete as an analogy for the professional growth I have gone through over the past 4 years. According to Andrew B. Bernard, Who Wins the Olympic Games: Economic Resources and Medal Totals, research suggests that factors such as the per capita income of an athlete's home country, along with the size of the population are much more accurate predictors of their chances of Olympic success. So what does this have to do with teachers? In the same way that a country with a higher GDP/capita has more freedom over what it chooses to invest its money in, a “cash comfortable” school system can do the same. So what do they spend their money on? It is widely acknowledged that one of the strongest factors determining a students achievement is the quality of their teachers. My current school invests highly in the professional development of their staff. One of the phrases I hear regularly is that we “build our people bigger than our problems.” I have been fortunate enough to have been on the receiving end of this mantra during my time here (see below). I have been exposed to professional development from thought leaders in their respective fields, Dylan Williams (formative assessment), Doreen Miori-Merola (cognitive coaching) and am undoubtedly a more well rounded and skillful holistic educator than I was when I left the UK. I am now in a position to pay that learning forward to those who otherwise wouldn’t have had access to such opportunities.
It would be impossible to get through a post on privilege without talking about money. Akin to how wealthier countries can afford to pay their athletes more so that money is not a constraining factor in their ability to apply themselves fully to their sport, financially, I would be lying if I was to say that I am not better off than I would have been if I hadn’t have left the UK 4 years ago. Talking only from my own experience, one of the motivating factors for some teachers to leave the classroom and climb the leadership ladder in UK states schools, is due to the increase in pay. A good remuneration package for classroom teachers is imperative in keeping good people in the classroom.
Indeed, another reason teachers at UWCSEA are so good at what they do, is because they have been blessed with financial freedom that enabled and encouraged them to put a high level of consciousness into refining their craft of classroom teaching. I am, of course, not implying that I have saved enough money to revolutionise the pay structure of UK comprehensive schools, however, I am now in a position where money does not need to be a motivating factor in my decisions (for a short time at least!) With financial freedom, comes the biggest gift of all - time. Time to reflect on my own privilege and how best I can pay it forward.
So what am I going to do about my professional privilege? When considering this question, a line from a song comes to mind, “If I hadn’t seen such riches I could live with being poor.” Sometimes I feel like I’ve been given access to this secret stash of gold, I’ve been able to take what I need from it both (professionally and personally) and I’m faced with the decision to sit on it, or to redistribute it amongst those who I know would benefit from it. My decision to leave is me proclaiming my desire to do the latter, or to at least make a conscious effort to try and do so. It wasn’t that I was unhappy by any means with my life in the UK, but now having been exposed to a whole new world of learning, I feel it is my duty to take some of what I have learned back to the context I was in previously. Having been filled up professionally, I feel I can now be more use there than I am here. How exactly, I will try and articulate in another post but for now I think it is important just to acknowledge that inequalities do exist and that having had the honor of walking both sides of that divide, it’s my duty to consciously try and narrow the gap between the two.