Three Lessons Schools Could Learn From My Pimp
The Education Endowment Foundation is a fantastic resource for educators. It has replaced:
‘They say we can’t use toilet rolls for building rockets in Early Years anymore because someone might die of poo germs.’
‘Hey, you know we want to improve the effectiveness of our marking? Well the EEF website has
a tonne of evidence-based research we could use as a springboard.’
This week the EEF released their latest report on closing the attainment gap between disadvantaged children and, err, well the other group. What’s the term for them? The un-disadvantaged?
Anyway, the report is eye-opening, go read it. This quote caught my eye:
“What matters is how schools can effectively and efficiently use the resources they have (both financial and human) for maximum impact.”
I love the vision of an effective and efficient use of finances. That sounds wise and manageable. The vision of an effective and efficient human is literally the lowest expectation we could have of an educator. It’s like Asimo – the Japanese robot who appears at car shows but can’t do stairs – it’s a satisfactory approximation of a person.
The thing is, Teachers are so much more than that.
Birds, Bees and Bombshells
By 11 years old I made the decision to run away from home. I actually decided four years previously but stayed to protect my three younger brothers. My biological mum was pregnant with my sister and my youngest brother would follow a couple of years later.
What tipped the scales, was the talk delivered by my PE teacher, Mrs Gawtry on periods and human reproduction. While most of my friends giggled at the drawings on the overhead projector and a middle-aged woman with a slight lisp, repeatedly saying the word ‘penis’, discovering how pregnancy occurred gipped my throat in stone cold terror.
Since marrying my stepdad, my biological mum had given birth twice. On both occasions, my step dad’s visits to my bedroom increased. Now, not only, was my biological mum about to give birth again, I had just learned that what my stepdad was doing to me was how pregnancy occurs.
It took all the strength I had to leave my brothers behind, but I reasoned that even ending up dead on the streets was preferable than the hopelessness of my current reality.
How To Win Friends And Influence People A Vulnerable Eleven Year Old Girl
Sleeping on the streets wasn’t so scary. I already spent a lot of my time outside as it was safer than being in the house. When I wasn’t at school I was entertaining my brothers by building dens in abandoned houses or hanging by the magazine rack in any newsagents who kept the newspapers away from the door so we could keep warm. I was already a survivor and my pre-teen knowledge of the local area made it easy to find somewhere warm and dry to bed down at night.
Food was a different kettle of fish entirely. I was used to going hungry, but by day three my tactic of hanging around outside pubs looking for coins dropped by drunk guys fumbling in their pocket for their car keys proved inefficient. Ever the survivor/entrepreneur, I switched to blocking their entry to the bar, reminding them how dangerous the neighbourhood was, and offering to watch their car for 50p.
That’s how I met Jason.
Jason was an adult, but different to the ones I encountered at my house or in school. He was tall and attractive with slicked back, jet black hair. Also, he smiled a lot, smelled nice and wore a classy gold chain round his neck. From the moment we met, he showed a genuine interest in me. He asked me lots of questions about myself and was intrigued by my answers. He was generous, buying me an can of lemonade and a packet of crisps that I didn’t have to share with anyone. He hung out with me in the car park rather than leave me sitting there for hours while he drank inside like my parents did. He told me I was beautiful and seemed to see inside my soul. That evening, when we walked back to his house to watch TV and I said I was cold, he took off his jacket and placed it around my shoulders.
He literally had me at hello.
I’m Not Worth it
The only adults I had any consistent relationship with outside of my chaotic family were those in school. School was my only example of what a good human looked like. I scanned the adults for data constantly. Did they like me? Was I safe? Were they dangerous? The most heartbreaking reality about my time in school was that I was 100% sure the adults knew what was happening to me at home and that they were OK with it. That they agreed with my stepdad, I was ‘cheap, dirty, guilty black b*****d whore and got what I deserved’. I believed this because I was clearly scruffy, unwashed and smelled bad. I was convinced being beaten, neglected and abused was obvious. Also, because talking about sex was limited to a cold presentation in the gym during which no one indicated that an adult forcing a child to have sex was wrong.
Few of the adults around me picked up on the signs of what I went home to every night. I had the same expectations as everyone else. That meant taking responsibility for things that just weren’t my fault. I was too embarrased to say there were no pencils, crayons or paper in our house so when I had homework I would have to steal a pencil from school or not do it. One teacher lined us up every Monday to check our nails and repeatedly instructed me ‘When you brush your teeth at night, ask your Mum or Dad to clean your nails.’ I would look at him with a cocktail of emotion swirling behind my eyes. Anger, despair and shame. I didn’t have a toothbrush and my parent never touched me unless it was to hurt me. Why on earth would I invite them to touch me? This guy was at best living on cloud cuckoo land. At worst he was in agreement with my parents, condoning their behaviour. Either way, by my reasoning he was obviously not a safe adult and I spent the whole time he taught me in fight or flight mode.
Adults were a threat so I became skilled at hiding my fear of them along with my complete my lack of self-worth, belief and respect by making people laugh, bullying or withdrawing into myself. Sometimes I’d be identified as a problem and sent to spend time with a different adult. This meant leaving the classroom which I hated. I often dragged my feet down the corridor embarrassed and angry at being singled out as different.
The adults I met in these sessions paid special attention to me, but after a few weeks with seemingly no impact, I noticed them become frustrated with my inability to comprehend and embrace the belief they had in me. By thirteen I was aware that I had more training in reading people than those trying to help me. There didn’t seem any point in buying into their plans. Also, I turned any academic failure as proof of my worthlessness which gave me reason enough not to try. I reasoned that as learning was a game set up for me to lose I would move the goalposts. If I didn’t try, I didn’t fail and didn’t have ‘the talk’ about how I was ‘letting myself down’ and how I ‘could do so much more if I applied myself’. These statements from adults who didn’t care about me! Give. Me. A. Break.
The chasm between the nine-carat, plastic, middle-class culture in school and my limited and warped view of the real world outside was vast. I spent the first two years of secondary school trying to make sense of the beliefs and expectations which were completely new to me and in conflict with everything I knew from home. Trying to blindly follow rules you don’t know, understand or even buy into, is exhausting and so I switched and spent the last three years translating the disconnect from the adults around me as an indicator that education wasn’t for ‘people like me’.
I was fourteen when I when I finally gave up on myself.
Who’s In Charge Here?
In any industry, an administration is set up to serve those at the sharp end delivering the product. Unfortunately, in education today, those roles have become reversed with teachers – that’s humans who want to make a difference – being forced to focus on a data-driven system that appears to value the quick fix of measurable results over the more difficult to quantify long-term impact. All the GCSEs in the world aren’t going to be much help to a fresh young adult whose mindset limits her from speaking to or owning her successes.
As a disadvantaged child, school had the potential to be a window to a world that I believed was unavailable to me. Unfortunately, it mostly rubber-stamped my suspicion that I just wasn’t good enough. Not because the adults I met didn’t care, but because caring came below their own fear of being seen as not being good enough. Prioritising building authentic relationships and human connection was too big a risk to the average time-short teacher.
That’s why I owe every success I’ve ever had to the five adults who decided to be put being human first. In fact, they saw being human and essential part of being a teacher – an enhancement on their role as educators. Like Jason, they knew the power and value of relationships, connection and trust. They knew that the level invested in that lifted or lowered the bar of any further success.
Like marketing agencies, investment banks and Apple, those five teachers and a pimp knew that the secret to successfully embedding a culture, creating raving fans or securing a previously out of reach GCSE grade was all down to manoeuvring someone to a point where they are ready to buy in. That magic moment when the client or student takes ownership of their own capacity.
How they achieved it is mind-boggling simple.
Belong. Believe. Behave.
One element of my experience as a learner is still alive and kicking in school today -the effect of putting these three B words in the wrong order.
You’ll rarely hear these sentences because they don’t need to be spoken. They ooze through the tone of every conversation between management and teams. Between the way leaders interact with managers and managers interact with staff. It’s the unwritten but tangible feel of a place that any objective observer sees through the fog and notices.
A ‘Behave + Believe = Belong’ institution plays the game like this:
Level 1 – There are rules around how we expect you to behave. Whatever you do should be in alignment with those rules and we will make decisions about you based on how much you stick to or break the rules.
Level 2 – What you think matters because thoughts lead to actions. You must completely buy into our belief system. No need for questions. What we think is the ‘normal’ standard. If it’s different to your concept of life from home then you’re wrong and you must conform to the middle class view.
Level 3 – Congratulations! Having completed the first two levels you now belong. You’re on the team.
While a ‘Belong = Believe + Behave’ institution plays the game like this:
Level 1 – You belong. End of. You’re part of the team which means we hold an unconditional positive regard for you. No. Matter. What. This is your place and we start with a huge respect for you as a human. When you’re a jet, you’re a jet all the way….
Level 2 – We believe in you. We hold a vision of success for you, even if you are not able to do that for yourself yet. We know the finish line might look an impossibly long way away but this is not our first rodeo! You don’t need to worry about the ‘how’, we have a roadmap and are 100% confident that we can help you navigate it. We will start from where you are now and help you plot a route. You get to show up and do the work.
Level 3 – Everything we do is to embed a sense of belonging in you. We focus on starting from where you were – not moaning because you aren’t where we wished you were. We never stop believing in you. We value your experience, rather than swooping in to rescue you from it. And all this is done because we want you to realise your capacity to make great choices for yourself. We’ve modelled a way of being, a behaviour that draws on that capacity to create autonomy. You get to decide what your mindset will be. Think about your choice, make it and be prepared to explain it.
Spot the difference? A top-down, stick over carrot culture is always easier to set up and run but it’s also a really small game to play with a streetwise student or client for whom the stakes are high. It’s lazy. Thankfully my team of adults (or Everyday Heroes as I like to call them) had a ratio of five human-first teachers to one profit-first pimp. Here’s how that translated for me.
1) They Engaged Me In A Relationship
Jason, though a vile human trafficker, knew that in order to get my buy into an agreement he had to start from where I was. An outsider laying down the law is rarely an attractive invitation. Instead, he invested time and energy in earning my trust.
My five Everyday Heroes found small ways to validate and acknowledge me. I felt significant because they valued me rather than reading the data from the test I took on a day I hadn’t eaten and sticking me in yellow group. I mattered to them. I was important to them. I belonged.
2) They Enrolled Me Deeper
Jason reframed my story by replacing what I believed about myself with a new truth. He believed that I was beautiful and special and opened the door to me believing that too. He knew this small shift was essential for facilitating a much bigger shift later on.
My five Everyday Heroes treated me like I had already won but just couldn’t see it yet. They encouraged me and reframed my limiting self-beliefs and language into I can, I do and I will statements, then set me up to win so I could prove it to myself.
3) They Enhanced The Relationship
Jason failed miserably at this stage, which is not surprising as he was up against champions.
After a couple of days staying at his flat, he took me shopping for clothes. This was beyond a dream come true as it was something my parents had ever done. Money was for beer, not RaRa skirts.
In the first store, across the road from the police station and child services offices, he gave me an outfit to try on in the dressing room. I stood there, alone for the first time since I been under his spell, and held up a completely inappropriate outfit for any woman of dignity, let alone an eleven-year-old girl. In the silence, I stared at the outfit and my child brain started to try and process what was actually happening. Through the confusion, one clear thought came to mind.
“Mrs Cook wouldn’t like this.”
Mrs Cook was the first of my Everyday Heroes as my teacher from five to six years old. She loved me, though she never said it. She didn’t have to. Every action, gaze, smile and sentence screamed it. She also wore a floor-length brown smock, underneath which was a long sleeved roll neck top. Also brown.
Mrs Cook made such an impact on me that at that crucial moment in my trajectory away from the hope of school and towards the despair of reality, her face appeared in my head. I saw her smile, heard her gentle, judgement-free voice encouraging me to make a good behaviour choice.
That’s all it took. I dropped the outfit to the floor, left the dressing room and ran past a bemused pimp who, clearly unaccustomed to escapees, took a few seconds to realise what was happening before he realised his cash cow was pegging it and began screaming profanities at me ordering me to come back. I didn’t stop to listen and instead darted over the main road and straight into the child services office.
I knew well how the system works from previous stays in and out of foster care. I threw myself on to the front desk and shouted at the young woman behind the counter ‘I refuse the right to remind silent!’ which I’d mashed together from watching American cop shows in the 80’s!
Eventually, a social worker took me to my Nan’s house and, five years later, I harassed child services into liberating my siblings.
I’m not suggesting that schools enlist the service of their local pimps for advice on getting better results. What I am calling for is a Human Revolution. We’re overdue. We’ve had an industrial one and a technological one, this is next.
I’d take authentic relationships over effective and efficient ones any day of the week. This doesn’t mean not fulfilling your obligation to the administration, it means doing that and holding onto your WHY – the reason you became a teacher in the first place. It means remembering the teacher you were before you became the teacher the system wants you to be. One your first day you may not have been confident in all of the mechanics but you certainly knew why you were there.
I’m using celebration and provocation to call for a Human Revolution in our schools, and anywhere where passionate humans are being led to believe that human connection is of less value. It’s already beginning. What I know about revolutions is that they never start at the top. Instead, they grow from one person at the coal face, one caring person who says. ‘No, this is not OK. We’re better than this.’
That leads to engaging and enrolling others by asking better questions and soon that conversation is enhanced way beyond effective and efficient.
I believe you’re better than effective and efficient. Do you?