Stories have always played an important part in my life, from my Father reading me Bible stories as a child, to enacting stories as an actor and as more recently as a teacher exploiting the power of stories to develop the speaking and listening skills, imagination, empathy and vocabulary of children.
So many of our early moral messages come from stories, they broaden our perceptions and seep into our dreams, sometimes blurring the line between reality and fantasy.
Last Friday I had one of the most 'blurred' experiences of my life. A few weeks ago an unexpected email popped into my inbox from the Royal Court Theatre. The message explained that the playwright EV Crowe (whose play 'Kin' was shortlisted for the Most Promising Playwright at the Evening Standard Theatre Awards in 2011) had written a new play 'Hero', the subject of which was a gay male primary school teacher. The play was to be directed by Jeremy Herrin at the Jerwood Theatre upstairs at the Royal Court. An online search for gay primary school teachers threw up my name and so EV Crowe, the cast and director were requesting a chat with me, seeing clear parallels between my journey as an 'out' gay primary school teacher and some of the events in the play.
As an ex-actor myself, this was an intriguing proposal, but as everything I do as a school leader is child centred my first thought was 'how can I involve the children in this experience?'
Thus a deal was struck and writer, cast and production team came to our school where I led a session with a group of pupils during which we explored and reflected upon our work around tackling homophobia. I was incredibly proud of the pupils, they were articulate, profound and respectful. They were able to make the point with great clarity that it is not about gay or straight teachers, it is about great teachers.
Following the pupil led session I shared some of my own stories of being a gay man in education over the past 15 years. I recounted stories of staff-rooms where homophobic language was used to label pupils and insult staff and parents. I recounted stories of school leaders I had seen turn away when victims reporting homophobic bullying, I recounted stories of how ashamed I felt when I lied about my male partner of 12 years rather than admit I was gay to school staff and I recounted stories of anxious, confused children who openly expressed their sense of difference, only to be told 'not to be silly'.
After I had shared my stories, the 'Hero' team went away, re-visited the script, blocked out their moves and readied themselves to tell a new and important story of their own.
Part of the privileged position I am in right now, thanks to recent publicity and the Pink List nomination is that people I have never met from all over the world write to me, email me and Tweet me in order to share their stories.
These stories come from a variety of people in a variety of contexts from right across the globe and certain patterns are emerging- I hear from:
-teachers who are frightened to come out who feel their school leaders/parents/governors won't support them
-parents who know there is homophobic bullying going on in the school their children attend and see nothing is being done to curb it
-gay teachers who work in schools and especially faith schools who are frightened to come out
-people who still feel scarred by homophobic bullying or bullying around gender stereotyping who feel that the development and potential of their adult lives has been (and in some cases continues to be) seriously impaired by the bullying they suffered at school and in workplaces
As this living compendium of stories accumulates in my synapses, one thing becomes abundantly clear; homophobic bullying and gender stereotyping has been damaging children in our schools at least since the 1950s, 60s, 70, 80, 90s, 2000s and it is still wrecking young lives even as I type.
Yet we know that many school leaders are afraid or unwilling to tackle these issues head on, for the sake of generations of young people to come, I find this unacceptable. Homophobic bullying, any form of bullying, is a child protection concern. A school leader that fails to tackle homophobic bullying for whatever reason is in my personal opinion, putting children at risk.
As school leaders we can invest time in debating theology, have discussions about semantics with reference to the use of the word 'gay' or 'homophobia', or we can simply get on and train our school staff to make things better for all the brilliant young people in our care.
Rachel William's article in The Guardian this week illustrated how difficult it can be for gay teachers to be open about their authentic identity in schools due to lack of support and fear of reprisal. I have often heard said 'why should do gay people want to talk about THAT in school, it is not relevant to your job, its private and you should keep it private'. But some heterosexual colleagues are given flowers in assembly on the eve of their weddings and some quite rightly talk openly about their weekends or holidays with their husband or wives. Some of the children in our schools will have gay family, friends and grow up to be LGBT themselves, they deserve and need a representative diverse range of authentic role models in schools.
The view that being gay is a 'private' matter is most likely based upon the still fairly common misconception that being gay is purely a sexual act; yet when heterosexual teachers talk about their weddings and holidays they presumably do not share intimate details of their wedding night- it would be wholly inappropriate, the sexual part of their lives is merely one facet. It may come as a surprise to some, but LGBT people do really boring stuff too, like pay taxes, watch the telly and work for charities, oh and some make really great teachers!
An effective school leader is one who gets the best people for the job, to allow prejudice of any kind to get in the way of hiring the best teachers results in diminished opportunities and life chances for our children. Our schools need to be full to the brim with inspirational, authentic and excellent teaching role models from a diverse and representative range of backgrounds. In this way children can see all their possible futures living and learning alongside them. If school leaders are not confident in hiring diverse workforces, we need to invest in training and open and honest dialogue in order to get over prejudice, fear and misconception.
In this way we will truly put the children first.
Stories have alway played an important part in my life. Last Friday, upstairs at the Royal Court Theatre, actors Danny Mays, Tim Steed, Susannah Wise and Liam Garragan under the direction of Jeremy Herrin brought EV Crowe's 'Hero' brilliantly to life. I had not been prepared for the intimacy of the production, the intensity of the performances, the complexity of the script and the finely observed dialogue which resonated with countless conversations I have had through my 44 years with friends and colleagues gay, straight and everything in between.
The script had undergone a final polish to reflect the cast's visit to our school and for a few moments in a packed theatre on a Friday night my real life and the stories being told so vibrantly by EV Crowe seem to merge, a surreal and profoundly cathartic experience and one I expect never to be repeated, nor one I will ever forget.
Hero is a courageous, vital and important piece of work, I wish all school leaders, all school governors and all school staff could see the show and talk through their fears and their misconceptions afterwards. For this reason I hope the piece is a huge success, is performed far and wide and perhaps is even filmed for mass teacher training consumption.
I believe there needs to be a greater effort to attract LGBT people into teaching. We need to let LGBT people know they will be welcomed and supported in our wonderful profession and that they can be great role models for pupils. It is a privilege working with these amazing young people who will go on to shape the future; it should not however be a heterosexual privilege to talk openly about your family, or who you love, who you live with and what you did on your holiday.
Authentic teachers are more efficient teachers and more efficient teachers are teachers who raise standards.
EV Crowe captures something in 'Hero' I did not expect, a sense of inertia driving forward genuine change. The stories people continue to share give me real hope that an increasing number of school staff can see the benefits of placing the needs of pupils before endless philosophical and theological debate. The Equality Act, OFSTED, the National College for School Leadership all increasingly recognise the need to tackle homophobia in our schools and communities and the signs are there that there is an increasing number of teachers that can see this too. I remain optimistic, maybe we are on the cusp of lasting change.
After all, it's important for everyone to be themselves, isn't it?