By Tallulah Bygraves, Head of Selection at Teach First and former Science Teacher
Disclosure is an ugly term. Even the word hints at a dirty secret, and then there is the stigma attached to those little square boxes, unapologetic in their attempt to pigeon-hole and stereotype. I know why so many applicants choose to tick the ‘prefer not to say’ box – I was one of them.
It seemed unreasonable to me that I was expected to serve up my secret shame for inspection, having barely come to terms with it myself; I imagined some faceless prospective employer googling ‘dyspraxia’ and drawing assumptions about my ability to do the job based on a list of signs and symptoms, many of which did not apply to me. Even when I tried to open my mind to the fact that my disclosure might be used positively, the thought of someone giving me a chance by virtue of my misfortune, smacked of pity. If I made a success of my life, I wanted to do it despite my disability, not as a result of it.
In 2009 I went through the Teach First Training Programme assessment process ‘preferring not to say’ at every juncture, and I was made an offer. I got placed as a Science teacher in the East Midlands, at a school in a small ex-mining community where over 35% of pupils were classed as having Special Educational Needs (SEN). My pupil’s learning difficulties, the environment they had grown up in and the level of support offered to them greatly differed from my experience. My disability had been undiagnosed throughout my school days but time was invested in recognising my strengths and developing my confidence and this had allowed me to overcome my difficulties regardless of the fact that they had no name attached to them.
No one expected much of the pupils I taught and very few teachers had time left to invest in them, as a non-specialist school, efforts were concentrated on the pupils without disabilities who were considered more likely to achieve at grade C or above. Pupils with mild disabilities were generally placed in bottom sets and those who were considered to have more severe disabilities were lumped into one class, dispassionately named the ‘S-band’. I arrived at the school after 6 weeks intensive training and was handed my timetable. Despite the greater experience of my colleagues, I had been assigned three out of the five S-band classes.
In my first term I struggled with behaviour and engagement; more than 70% of pupils in my Year 9 S-band class had been diagnosed with complex social, emotional and behavioural disorders (BESD/SEMH). I went to my Head of Department for advice; he told me not to waste my efforts trying to plan lessons for the S-band, but to “put on a YouTube video or give them something to colour in.” A rush of anger overpowered my usual deference and I found myself saying “I’m S-E-N” out loud. The silence and confusion that followed made me realise the importance of those words. I began to wear my disability with pride and to disclose it openly to other colleagues, my pupils, their parents and anyone else who would listen. Other members of staff tilted their heads as if they had missed something, it didn’t fit with their image of me as Teach First trainee and Imperial graduate. Parents looked relieved and a little more hopeful; their guard, which had no doubt been raised by my ‘privileged’ Southern accent, began to fall away.
The reaction of my pupils was far less satisfying. Most of them flatly refused to believe I had a disability, they had never heard of dyspraxia, and besides, how could I have a disability, I was a teacher. For the first time I began to spend my working hours drawing attention to my difficulties rather than away from them. I stopped making excuses for walking into desks or tripping over power cables. Instead of pretending to be on top of everything, I explained the lengths I had to go to to overcome my chronic disorganisation. I shared with them how difficult I had found handwriting when I was at school, how long it had taken me to learn to tie my shoelaces and what sorts of everyday tasks I still struggled with. Peeling vegetables and eyeliner, in case you’re wondering. We laughed and joked about it, but something shifted. They were more likely to ask for help, more of them confided in me about what they found difficult and as I understood them more, I became better at accessing the help they needed. Slowly pupils started to come to my lessons on time, instead of calling me mardy they decided I was ‘actually all-reet’. For my part, I constantly reinforced the faith I had in them to surpass their expectations and I tried to get them to see that their disability did not have to be a barrier to success. This approach was not remarkable, except for the fact that I spoke from experience, and just like that, my secret shame became my superpower.
There was a tangible impact too. My year 11 class spent ages discussing topics with me, but many of them struggled to put their thoughts on paper. The multiple-choice questions in the GCSE Foundation paper confused them and they often got them wrong because of their poor literacy, in spite of knowing the right answer. Realising this helped me build a case for them to have scribes or readers within their exams. The impact of this was significant, one pupil went from a predicted D grade to a B overnight.
In my current role as Head of Selection, I am often reminded of the flipside of failure. One of our competencies is Resilience; it can be a hard characteristic for graduates to evidence, but people who live with a disability have a clear advantage. They have often experienced failure, they have put themselves out of their comfort zone and whether they consider their disability a significant barrier or not, they are likely to have shown determination and tenacity in overcoming the specific challenges it presents. I recognise the value of this every day.
Finally, if teaching has taught me the benefit of being open about my disability, then working in recruitment has reinforced the necessity of those little square boxes. My early paranoia that someone might fail my application based on my disability, couldn’t have been further from the truth. Our selection team don’t see this detail when screening, its value comes later when we evaluate how fair our assessment processes are. We use this data regularly to analyse performance within key groups so that we can reflect on our assessment design, and continually improve our commitment to inclusion.
As our trainees enter the classroom, these metrics are critical to understanding our success. One of my key questions at the end of each recruitment year is whether we have met our diversity targets, as a starting point I want to feel confident that we have supported everyone to perform to the best of their potential, but the importance of diversifying the teacher workforce goes beyond that. The pupils that our teachers will go on to inspire need role models that they can identify with, whether this is based on gender, race, social background, sexual orientation, being neurodiverse or having a disability, they need to know that success is a possibility for them as much as anyone else.
I’m sure my pupils taught me more than I taught them in that first year, but perhaps the most important thing I learnt was that success could occur as a result of my disability, and not in spite of it.
Head of Selection at Teach First and former Science Teacher