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From Label to Leader: My Story of Inclusive Language, Identity and Diversity #InspireInclusion

by Nicole O'Connor

Labels and identity are a staple of Northern Ireland's cultural landscape and are deeply politicised. The use of labels can often be contentious and weaponised, making them a complex form of personal expression. For me, my relationship with labels has been far from linear.

For many, their labels are inherited and explicitly linked to their familial background. I suppose I'm no different as my primary labels growing up were foster child and adoptee. These labels were identifiers for support and served a safeguarding purpose. They didn't cause me any issues or hurt until the later years of primary school when a curious peer asked if my brother was my "real" brother. This term followed me into my teenage years and became one I inflicted upon relations in an attempt to take ownership of a word that once hurt me. I eventually learned to use it as a teaching opportunity to better inform others.

Often labels are used for the basis of statistical gathering, tracking metrics and informing research. If labels weren't in use, the census would be incredibly short! Without holding an analytical magnifying glass up to them, we wouldn't be able to prove the serious inequity issues that impact women in the workplace, such as the gender pay gap, access to promotions and more.

While statistics can be helpful, they can also constrain the labelled, acting as a catalyst for a self-fulfilling prophecy. The 2020 Better Futures report by Adoption UK revealed that: 

"In school, [adoptees] are much more likely to be excluded, to have complex special educational needs, and to leave with few or no qualifications." (Adoption UK, 2020)

I learned some harrowing statistics about care-experienced and adopted young people when I was applying to university. 

There is an annual campaign called Tick the Box by the Fostering Network that encourages care-experienced young people to tick a box on their UCAS application form so that universities know they are entitled to support. At the time of my application, I remember researching why this campaign was needed. The statistics for care-experienced young people attending never mind completing university were incredibly low, and sadly the dropout and acceptance rates continue to be low.

A report called Breaking the Care Ceiling states that:

"Fourteen per cent of care leavers go to university compared to 47 per cent of young people who didn't grow up in care. It will take 107 years to close the gap at the current rate of progress." (CIVITAS, 2023)

I find myself wondering how many go on to educational leadership or similar levels of profession?

Statistics like this, and the many reports about Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs), always drove me on and turned into a powerful motivator to prove my apparent life trajectory wrong. 

I attended university and indeed returned to complete my postgraduate. Since then, I've taught in fantastic schools and my love for educational technology has opened doors to work with leading edtech giants such as Academia, Adobe and Apple. Upon reflection, I recognise that this is an example of the potential and opportunity that arise when you are empowered to break free from predetermined narratives.

Labels play a significant role in shaping how we present ourselves, both online and offline. Many of our social media bios are filled with labels and identifiers. They act as convenient introductions but they omit the complexity of individuality. 

This brings me back to a keynote speech from Hannah Wilson @Ethical_Leader at #WomenEd Northern Ireland's unconference at St Mary's College, Derry back in September 2022. She challenged us to introduce ourselves and answer the question, "Who are you?" without falling back on professional titles. 

The message was simple, you are more than a teacher.

Labels, both empowering and hurtful, have been an integral part of my story. As a member of the LGBTQ+ community, I expected that many of the gendered labels I would encounter would be linked to my sexuality, but in actuality, it has been the casual, everyday misogyny that has raised its head more often.

The impact of language is profound. In professional spheres, when the term "girls" has been used to address me and my colleagues, it can feel like diminishing the respect we've earned as peers and leaders. Yet, in a social context, this doesn't faze me, e.g. girls' night, girl maths, girl dinner. I find myself reflecting on the irony of feeling some discomfort by the former. It's just a word after all.

Yet one word can make all the difference. 

One that I struggled to identify with was 'leader'. 

This was used to describe me and some colleagues at BlendEd NI @BlendEd_NI during lockdown when we were supporting teachers with digitally remote learning. The accidental rise in our profiles catapulted us to opportunities and meetings we wouldn't have dreamt of prior. 

Overcome with self-doubt, I sought coaching from @NicholaLynagh, whom I met at a #WomenEd Northern Ireland unconference. 

During those imposter syndrome moments, it was essential for me to learn from more experienced leaders than me. Nichola helped me value the diversity of age and experience in professional settings, which has been pivotal in my growth.

This diversity is reflected within the #WomenEd Northern Ireland network. With network leaders in their 30s, 40s, 50s and 60s, we collectively possess a vast skill set and a wealth of perspectives to draw from. In the Northern Ireland educational context, it is a rarity to find groups with such a broad representation of age, geographical spread, and educational sectors. 

It's no coincidence that #WomenEd Northern Ireland represents one of my most valuable examples of professional collaboration. My inclusion as a network leader by Jackie Hill @hill1_jackie, Mary Lowery @marylowery1, Mairéad Mhig Uaid @MaireadMhigUaid and Amanda Murphy @am52429087 is a testament to good practice. I was recognised in a professional capacity as a collaborator, learner, and leader. The added diversity came about naturally and incidentally as many of my labels weren't known until a few meetings in!

I believe true leadership means looking beyond labels and recognising the power of diversity. Often that means acknowledging bias and setting your preconceived ideas to one side. 

Nurture and encourage the potential you see in someone, whether it is a pupil or a colleague. 

You just never know the impact that could have in the future.



Adoption UK, 2020

Cover Image generated using AI in Adobe Express

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Sunday, 14 April 2024

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