Is Your Learning Environment as Inclusive as You Think? An Interview with Kate O' Sullivan

Is Your Learning Environment as Inclusive as You Think? An Interview with Kate O' Sullivan

Episode 42 of The Teaching Space Podcast is an interview with Kate O’Sullivan discussing how we can be more inclusive.

While I normally just provide an episode outline and links as show notes, this content is so good, I have supplied a full transcript.

Podcast Episode 42 Transcript

Welcome to The Teaching Space Podcast, coming to you from Guernsey in the Channel Islands.

Hello, and welcome to The Teaching Space Podcast. It's Martine here, thank you so much for joining me. Today I am joined by a guest on the show.

It's my great pleasure to introduce you to Kate O'Sullivan. Rather than me try to reveal the very, very large number of layers to Kate and all the amazing things she does, I'm going to ask her to introduce herself to you.

Martine: So hello Kate, welcome to the show!

https://www.kateosullivan.org/

Kate: Hello Martine, thanks for having me.

Martine: It's my pleasure, tell us about you.

Kate: Okay-

Martine: That's a huge question. That's a massive question.

Kate: Okay let's see if I can do it because I always go blank the minute we ask people this don't you. Tell me about yourself. So yes I am Kate. I currently am living in Edinburgh. It is freezing, we had our first frost here today. I have a daughter and a girlfriend and I'm self-employed as a writer, kind of broadcaster and photographer.

And my thing is creating online and journalism. And I tend to cover a lot of topics around the area of sort intersectionality, identity, feminism, LGBT+ issues, social justice and kind of looking at opening up conversations that can be quite simple but also quite challenging. You know those ones when you start having a conversation perhaps if you're at a dinner party or something and you're chatting someone and suddenly find yourself in that conversation and think, "I am out of my depth here."

It tends to be those that I lean in towards, because I think a lot of us struggle with those and I think particularly with the political climate and so many changes happening around social policy, both home and abroad at the moment, there's a lot of people who are suddenly finding themselves realizing that they have kind of almost blank spaces in their knowledge about other people and the communities and some of these policies that are changing.

I think it's quite an anxiety-provoking state for people, where they feel like they've failed in some way or they feel that maybe they're ignorant in some way. Or it can actually make us feel quite defensive. We can often sort of really feel like "well I'm a good person. I'm not racist. I'm not homophobic." And we can't always address sometimes the fact that a lot of these things crop up because that's the way we've been conditioned.

So I think I'm trying to host conversations and write articles about just making these things explicit, so we can see them and perhaps not feel so afraid to have conversations. That's kind of what I'm doing, which is quite a big aim and quite a broad aim. And also a very exact and minute aim all at once, is how I feel.

Martine: Multi-layered, definitely multi-layered. In some respects, education is at the heart of what you're trying to do by the sounds of things because you eluded to the fact that there's quite a lot of fear around saying the wrong thing in regard to certain topics.

And what you're trying to do, from what I understand, is kind of equip people with what they need to get rid of some of that fear. Would that be fair to say?

Kate: Yeah. I think it's sort of really balancing that line between personal growth to get yourself in sort of a confident place and to acknowledge that you're not going to know everything. And that you know, particularly when you're talking about systems of oppression, they're not ... they're not always obvious. It's not as simple as somebody used a really bad word against this person, and that makes them racist.

It can be quite layered and very institutional. And we're all subject to those. And sometimes it's really hard to see as a result.

So I think it's that kind of personal growth that sort of not feeling bad about that but feeling empowered to address it.

But then at the same time there's kind of that real much more community focus of are you being inclusive? Are you getting out of your bubble? Are you thinking about other people? And are you working emphatically with people?

And I think that's the word that kind of really has to drive so much of these conversations, is the word empathy. Because it's, that's such a skill that we, it's really hard to teach and learn. But it's so crucial I think to so many of these conversations going a lot easier and smoother I think.

Martine: That's such an important word. And actually one of the reasons for this conversation we're having, just to give you a little bit of background, I'm gonna steal the word empathy and take it. Its mine now. Take it to my initial teacher training students.

Because part of my sort of day job is to help people who are interested in perhaps making a move into teaching. Helping them kinda get ready for making that move. So we do, essentially an initial teacher training program targeted at people interested in post-16 education and adult education as well. And we do lots of stuff on equality and diversity. I mean, it really is the backbone to a qualification which is fantastic and right and essential.

But, I do sometimes feel certainly from the material that I use to deliver my topic that there is a tendency to be a bit tokenistic, you know.

I mean an appalling example would be, so if you're going to do a PowerPoint presentation in your session then make sure you have at least one black person, one person in a wheelchair, etc, etc. and it's just awful. It's so tokenistic and I see that quite a lot and I really want to see some change there. I'm not entirely sure where to start.

Kate: Yeah. I think that's where a lot of people are as well. And I think there's a lot of people who are trying with the best will in the world and sometimes that is the start. I'm fairly sure that's how I started. It was being particularly aware as a photographer saying "oh, we don't have a single model that looks like X, Y or Z." You know, whether it's her skin tone, whether it's her age, whether it was whether she was able bodied, whether they were cis-gendered.

You know, I think that's probably how most people start, because they're sort of aware that we've been sort of perpetuating an idea that is a very homogeneous looking resource quite often.

You know it's often a very white, very straight, very able bodied, very cis-gendered, very affluent quite often. You know working class narratives are often only presented as a tragedy. Particularly when it comes to literature.

I mean it's quite exhausting sometimes, what you have to draw from. I really feel that as a sort of literature graduate. Sometimes you just think God, the only things I sort of knew where the things like cares where it was just like gloom, doom and women were abused. You know, that was kind of the only narrative you could have if you were working class.

So I think you know, I think once you're at that stage where you're sort of aware of it, it can be very hard because you look up and realize that well I live in a bubble. And then we start saying things like "well I live in a very undiverse area," or "the resources I have are not very diverse," as if these things are easy to overcome. Of course you are. That is that institutional layering of oppression.

That is how you know, we have black girls that grow up thinking that white dolls are much more, attractive or better behaved. You know, there's a study that's been done over 40 years of young children playing with black versus white dolls. And sure enough, every single child chooses the white doll as the good doll. The white, the beautiful doll. The white doll who's loved more. Because that is a message that's come through across all media.

You know all their lives up to that point, these children are five. They do it again at six, seven, eight, nine and ten. It's one of those, to watch the videos kinda like one of those you know ... having to sort of you know, swallow hard kind of moments when you really realize what you're up against.

So then, it's sort of then, you realize that it's something, you have to really commit to inclusion. And it's something that, you're right, it can get tokenistic. And sometimes it's about really thinking about things.

So the example I used, the one to do with photography is like oh we don't have a model that looks like our community. Well that's great. But of course the other side of that is I cannot just say "oh, I've ticked that box. I've put this model in front. I've put a speechless, voiceless woman on the cover of something. Great. Job done." Because, am I hiring people who are doing the writing? Am I using things like copy editors and all these different steps in the process. And that's when you start moving beyond a sort of tokenism because it's intrinsic.

You’re sort of opening the door and saying “I am not going to be a gatekeeper here”. And in the classroom that would be things like, why do sourcing materials, or say talking to the community that surrounds you. Who can we see? Who can we use? Who is coming in and doing work experience? Who's being hired? Who am I referring to if I'm using a YouTube resource? You know, that sort of layering.

And you know, we're currently looking at some really depressing statistics around how much representation there is. You know, you're looking as little as one percent for some resources aimed young people of being B.A.M.E characters and that's really miserable. And as a result, it can't be just one character suddenly turns up.

We are gonna have to make a wholehearted effort to say it's not good enough. 50% of my curriculum needs to be representative. And it doesn't matter if 50% of my classroom doesn't look like that because this is about the young people in front of me being aware that this an issue. But also being aware that when they go forward, that's what they should be doing. Because perhaps they will be in an environment where 50% of their community looks like that.

It's sort of, we need to sometimes stop this "well our school isn't a very diverse school so we don't need to address that." What you've said to all those children in front of you is that it's not our responsibility to address inclusion and diversity or racism or homophobia or any of these things because it doesn't effect our community. It affects everybody.

And that becomes a kind of, we use the term sort of white supremacy around those kind of ideas because you are perpetuating a system that continues. That you benefit from.

Whether we like it or not. I get better treatment as a white skinned woman. And that is a privilege that I enjoy. So when I address anything when I'm a speaker at an event, then I always ask who else is involved. Who's hired behind the scenes? What's your marketing material like? Is one of the first questions I ask, because I really see that as my responsibility.

I've done a lot of work with events who've suddenly looked up and "oh we have not done enough on this." Like great, I can make these suggestions, I know some amazing people. It can be that small or that big a gesture.

Martine: I can really relate to what you say about people's response of "I don't live in a particularly culturally diverse place," because I live in Guernsey. It's a tiny, weeny island of 60 odd thousand people. And it is a default response. And I don't mean to criticize my fellow Guerns but it is something that I hear quite a bit.

And as you rightly point out, that means we have to work even harder to have this conversation and do this work, and do this research and just make it intrinsic. As you pointed out, and that's so important.

It is difficult for trainee teachers to know where to start. And you know I didn't want to sound negative about the tokenistic approach earlier, in so far as everyone's gotta start somewhere. And it's about awareness. And I get that. But it's about the next step is elevating it. Quite often, what I've done in the past is with my trainee teachers I've said, “you can start by doing this tokenistic approach, but what next? You tell me. Is it okay? Why is it not okay?” And we end up having a really interesting discussion about taking it that next level.

What I'd really like to think about, if this is okay with you Kate, is some practical steps that trainee teachers can take in order to make sure their learning environment is really properly inclusive. What'd you reckon? What can they start by doing?

Kate: I think there's certain terms that would be really helpful to get familiar with.

Because once we are okay with certain terms, and what they mean, we don't have to fear them in our environment.

Things like the fact that I said white supremacy. For a lot of people I can imagine they absolutely hate hearing that expression. It's a very normal expression that we need to normalize and say we live in a culture right now that values white skin. That has white values and that is absolutely institutional.

There are fantastic folks out there. Reni Eddo-Lodge did 'Why I'm No Longer Talking to White People About Race.' She has a series of free podcasts attached to the book. And it's an audio book as well. So in terms of accessibility there's some great stuff that you don't have to buy the book in order to sort of understand the concept. And you know you've got audio as well, which helps for anybody that has access issues.

And I think she really sort of broke that down, particularly in the UK.

There's 'So You Want to Talk About Race,' which is this US version of in terms of you've got sort of a more international kind of background. It sometimes helps.

But I think once you sort of got to terms with that idea, understanding words like privilege and what that means it can be very very hard and can really get people's backs up to get this idea across. And it's something that really needs to be got across to young people who are gonna go and vote soon. They are part of the next generation that's gonna be shaping policy. And understanding that we don't all have the same starting blocks in life makes an enormous difference to how you go forward in presenting material when you're teaching. And how what you expect of your students as well.

So a really sort of basic way of understanding it is if you are white, if you are able bodied, neuro-typical, you have a reasonable, you're sort of within that body mass index that's considered healthy, rather than overweight, you are straight, you are cis-gendered.

All these things kind of add up. Means that you will have a slightly better start than somebody who does not present like that. And it means that your work will go harder, no one's denying that you’re not working hard but the privilege comes in when your starting block just is so much further along.

There's so many people, that just putting their name onto a CV immediately it takes in something into that interview, if it even gets to that stage. And there's a lot of research about people changing their names in order to get to an interview. And what happens at that stage.

So we've got privilege. We got white supremacy. And you know, terms that just strike fear. Understanding some of those can really change the way we go about finding resources, the way we talk to people and the way we encourage the young people that we're working with. Because, as I said, it's not necessarily just that we're representing them sometimes and showing them what it means to be seen.

I mean it would've made a huge difference to me as a 16 year old to have seen a better representation of the LGBT+ community. I grew up during Section 28 which was the really homophobic piece of policy that was put in by the Tory government that basically forbid any encouragement of a homosexual lifestyle. It meant that there was no resources. And it’s now just not there. It takes a long time to put those things in place. And to put teacher training in place. That we can be more inclusive in our approaches. That it just is there, it's just seen whereas that didn't exist for me.

So I think that I would really encourage people to have a look at that. Another thing that people get really hung up about is well, how do I do it because I'm a white woman? And what do I do when I want to talk about or you know, reference something? And I think this is educational but how do I know that I'm not stepping on toes? It's perhaps looking at the term cultural appropriation or cultural misappropriation.

And as a sort of a primer to it, the idea is that we are using something from a culture and we've removed the people from it.

So it might be something like, I have a background in primary education, I have done post-16 because I did special ed. But it would be things that you just have a lot of primary classes. You'd have like little teepees as like reading corners. That's great, but the teepee actually has a really strong cultural and spiritual purpose for indigenous community. And we've removed the people from that. So perhaps it isn't appropriate that we've put that in our very white colonial classrooms. And we've removed any kind of reference to it. And we can't say "oh well it's educational. It's important they see a teepee," if we’ve taken all the references around it that actually make it important and an educational or appreciative tool.

So I think the first step I really think is just getting comfortable with these terms that can often just make us really pull back. And perhaps not put things in for fear of getting it wrong.

And perhaps or we just like dig in our heels you know. I'm not a racist person. You know, I'm not homophobic. You know as somebody who only really came out very late in life.

You know it's only in my thirties that I started to question these feelings that I had. That's internalized homophobia. If I can be homophobic of myself, I'm fairly sure straight people can homophobic, you know. We right need to sort tie ourselves in knots at this idea of I am too good a person to let this happen. We all do it. We all make mistakes. And I do it all the time.

And it's really important at those times, we don't double down. If you get feedback from within our communities and our classroom. If we look at our materials and think, "oh wow this is very colonial, this geography topic I'm doing," or you know, whatever it is.

Don't double down. Think, okay, what is my next step? Sit with that discomfort.

And I think that is the kind of foundation that then will really help you go about looking for those resources. And asking around and talking in a way that you feel you can choose the right language. You're not bulldozing up to somebody. Because it's no one's job to educate you.

You know, you're not walking up to the South Asian woman and you know saying, “I really need to be more inclusive, can you tell me about this experience?” Let's pull back from that. But it does mean that I'm really aware of this and I'm glad you're here. Would you be interested in, and I'm really aware of my privileges.

Just changes the emphasis of the conversation that you're trying to have. And also, you know, dealing with the reaction of something. This is exhausting. I don't want to have this conversation. And not being upset by that but understanding for that person, they're living with that identity every day.

So I think, that would my biggest advice. Rather than go to this resource and it'll teach you how to do it. Or read this thing and you will be a better person. I don't think there is a thing that's going to fix it. But I do think working on ourselves and those hangups and where our bias starts and ends is possibly the best start ever.

Martine: I'd really like to ask you about your school experience. Cast your mind back. It's not that long ago-

Kate: It was. That's the sad thing, it was.

Martine: I think we're a similar age actually. I think so-

Kate: You're thinking it's not that long, and you'll have a goodness when you see it in black and white, right?

Martine: Absolutely. So cast your mind back. From an equality and diversity and inclusion perspective, is there something that you felt could've been done a lot better when you were in school?

Kate: Yeah. I think I was very lucky in a lot of ways that I had, we had a lot of student teachers at my high school. And then again at my college. That meant that not that somebody was sort of a more mature, sort of more experienced wasn't capable of, but we definitely had these student teachers who were really keen to kind of make things very relatable and be a lot more hands on. And they weren't as perhaps, frightened of topics that were seeing policy change.

So as I said, I was a child of Section 28 and it was completely forbidden for about I think it was almost two decades to even touch on a topic that related to homosexual experience.

So for a lot of teachers, they never had any training or background other than you will lose your job if you discuss this. And for some people that was kind of a relief because it didn't relate to their experience, they wouldn't put themselves in a position that they felt uncomfortable with. But for some people obviously, they really felt that they needed to talk to young people. Because they understood what it is to grow up with that stigma.

And so a lot of the time we sort of had this, in some ways I can, immediately spring to mind we had this great science teacher, she was our chemistry teacher. And our biology teacher was sick right during our sex education syllabus. Which she was like, "oh great I noticed how you timed that." And she made a really big joke of it. And she was really young. And she was like "okay take advantage of the fact that you have a young teacher and see how you can make her blush." Was kinda of her approach, which was amazing. And it took a lot of the shame out of that conversation.

Because I think particularly I think for sort of young people sort of ... I haven't quite seen it in my daughter yet, she's really young but I'm seeing the beginnings of that kind of shame response. Our bodies are something that is uncomfortable to talk about, or to be visible. And there's certain ways you behave. And you know things that are desirable and not desirable and that's the end of discussion. And I think that can be really limiting for young people. And it can be very dangerous.

When we start talking about healthy relationships. Healthy relationships with our bodies. Healthy relationships with each other. And before we even get onto those, you know the topic of intercourse.

So I think in some ways I was very lucky that that shame was removed. And I felt very at ease as a result.

But for me, I have grown up in a family that their attitude… we had a friend whose daughter was a lesbian and I can remember family members saying like it was this huge tragedy. Well she'll never have children. It's just awful. And they were trying to be really accepting like, oh we don't have a problem with her but gosh could you imagine having a daughter who'll never have children. Which of course is fundamentally untrue. It's just not true. And yet, that was the thing that struck me more than anything.

And I buried my feelings. To me that was, I can really pinpoint that oh, this is not okay the way I feel about girls. And I hadn't really explored very much but explored very little. And up to me I just didn't see, well you can be attracted to boys and girls and sexuality is fluid, no? Oh no, it's really not. Okay. We don't do that. And because it was completely lacking in school, there was no one to correct me anyway.

You know, all the sex education materials that we looked at were you know, there is a man, there is a woman. They have sex. A baby arrives. They raise it together. I mean, that's just erasing a ton of experience from single parent families, to IFV, to, there's so many things.

And of course, they were all white. They were often in the 70’s porn kinda thing. The guy often had like a mustache. Is what I remember really clearly and being quite traumatized by this.

Martine: Well that's gonna traumatize anybody.

Kate: Exactly, I was like where is this material coming from? Because I see people didn't often didn't want to sort of really tackle it. You know, who wants to sit and look through a pile of sex education resources, right? But it's really important.

And there's great places now doing really inclusive education. There's actually an organisation it's called amaze.org and they have, they focus on young people and it's fully inclusive. So they talk about things like coming out. And they talk about masturbation in a really sort of almost body neutral way. They're explicit but they don't assume gender is binary. And I just think it's extraordinarily forward thinking.

And so important because we know from so many people who've spoken up for the transgender community. Most people know. And they know very young. And the risks to mental health for people who cannot live authentically and cannot fully realize their potential, is devastating.

So those kind of resources, and it's also not keeping it just within sex education, it's looking around yet not talking in binary terms about gender and sexuality. And not reducing it just to the active sex. There's so much more that goes with that, that just was not visible.

You know, it wasn't in my English literature. It wasn't in my geography when we did sort of more social side of geography. It wasn't in sex-ed at all. It was forbidden from being there. And that needs to come right the way through education now.

It's, you know, there's been so much focus on I think it's become like, I think it's become the gender equivalent of being a plastic straw and the zero waste debate. But there's kind of you know, gender neutral bathrooms. Gender neutral toilets within schools are so important because it means that somebody doesn't have to, they're just there. It's just not a big deal. And somebody doesn't have to you know, wave their hand and signal "I need a different option here." It shouldn't be on the person who's still probably trying to figure themselves out. Let's be honest.

And there's been quite a focus on schools. Whether they should have them or not. Well actually, this, the law's already been changed that you can put them in and implement them. That changed quite a while ago. It's just taken a long time. And that's an example of how long policy takes to actually implement. That it's just not standard yet. You know, this is a couple years ago, this changed.

So, I think sometimes we can get really hung up on one aspect of making sure that everybody is included at the sort of cost of well where else am I doing it within this educational setting? You know, yes I am. I'm teaching chemistry or physics but there are times and we know this within classrooms where those discussions are gonna come up, or material that we're using, or something that we're looking at can lend itself to a much more inclusive conversation. It's kind of a, you're one part of a collective whole, aren't you?

And I think for me, it would've taken just one teacher. One teacher to maybe visibly be out or be sort of able to spot. You know, the signs of somebody who was really struggling with their identity. Or just to talk really frankly or just slide in you know, like a little reference.

We're still having it in, recently in the US there's somebody has been legally dismissed because they referred to their wife. And you know were like this is inappropriate behavior. Yet I haven't seen anybody, any female teacher who's been fired because she referred to her husband.

Martine: Wow.

Kate: Just yeah. Exactly. You know, it's still very culturally relevant. And particularly around young people. People have a really hard time sort of separating sexual aspects of sexual identity and identity.

You know, the queer community we're all about like different style choices and you know subversiveness and there's so much more going on there and yet it is often reduced to well this is an act that I can't agree with so, done.

So if you're hosting conversations or just making it a gentle and safe environment and signaling that safety, you are possibly part of something that is gonna help someone live a much more authentic life.

And just not waste the time I did.

I wasted 20 years of bad relationships before I went "oh, I don't think I like men as partners. Well this is a revelation." And things changed. You know. That could've been avoided so long ago, by just having a more inclusive educational setting. I really believe that.

Martine: Gosh it's just such a massive reminder about the important role that teachers play in society. I mean, what a difference you can make.

Kate: It really is. And it's one of the things I feel so passionate about teachers you know, being given appropriate times to prepare these lessons to be, have their work properly valued, to be properly paid and have the time off, you know. And the first to kind of support schools you know. And if teachers make mistakes I'm like "do you know how much pressure this teacher's under to perform?"

I think it's really important that the support goes both ways. Because teachers are so powerful. They really are. Like, everyone can remember a good and a bad teacher, can't they?

Martine: Oh, definitely. Definitely. Wow. That sounds like another conversation for another podcast episode. Goodness me.

Wow. Kate there's so much good stuff there. Thank you very much. I told you listeners she has lots of layers and that's very positive. So thank you for such a thoughtful response to the topic of this episode. There's so much both trainee teachers and experienced teachers and trainers to think about. And what you've said.

Thank you very much.

Kate, where can people find you online? Because everyone's gonna wanna stalk you online now.

Kate: Very welcome to. I can be found as kateosullivan.org. That's my website. And you'll find links there onto my blog. And my podcast where I host interviews around these kind of topics. They just make the every day quite explicit sometimes. I think people really struggle with it otherwise.

I also have a Patreon community that's linked there. And the Patreon funds kinda everything that I do. It pays for all the podcasts. And I make sure everything's transcribed. And one of the reasons is for access, but also because I have teachers and things who often use them as material to teach from or to become part of their learning and education. And I do live broadcasts on there and some more podcasting. Some blogs. Some essays. With a view of just you know, people who want to invest a little bit more time they can then help substitute my pay so we can do it. It's kind of a crowd funding community, which I love.

And online, I'm trying to think, so I recently changed all of my media handles you see… I am Kateo_Sullivan. You can find me in most places. I'm a bit sweary on Twitter and less so on Instagram but still quite sweary.

Martine: I love that. Hashtag, a bit sweary.

Kate: A bit sweary. I kind of had this idea that you know, all language should be available to us, so we ought to use all of it.

Martine: So if people want to find you on social media presumably you've got some links on your website to all of those.

Kate: I do. It's all linked. If you go to kateosullivan.org you got links like all up the top for everything you might need. From the podcasts, to Instagram. Whatever floats ya boat.

Martine: Awesome. Thank you so much.

Kate: Thank you.

Wrap Up

Huge thanks to Kate for a fantastic interview. It was a real pleasure to talk to her. Before we conclude the episode I have something exciting to tell you about. My first book The Productive Teacher is now available to purchase online. To find out more hop over to theproductiveteacherbook.com and you can grab your copy via that link.

Thanks for tuning in. I hope you’ll join me next time.


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