I’ll be honest, I did question why I’d sacrificed my Saturday lie-in, as I got on a train at 8.11am yesterday. (For those thinking ‘Surely you’ll just have Sunday though?’ you’d be wrong, I was up early again for figure skating this morning!) I’m not very good at new things, or rather, I don’t feel like I’m very good at new things! Having moved halfway down the country by myself and started a new school I suppose there’s been quite a lot of ‘new’ in my life of late!
However, accompanied by a good friend and having already tapped into the TfL network, there was to be no backing out – and I am very glad that I didn’t. Attending my first WomenEd event, the London network’s first face-to-face ‘Unconference’ since Covid struck, wasn’t at all what I expected, but it was every shade of brilliant.
I’d come across WomenEd before; being fairly active on Twitter in educational circles, it’s hard not to be aware of the network of women that always seem to have each other’s backs and be doing Something Important. However, until I attended the 2022 London Unconference, I’d kind of felt that WomenEd wasn’t quite for me. (I couldn’t have been more wrong, but I’ll get to that.) It seemed intimidating, a club that I couldn’t possibly fit into. Queen of Self-Doubt that I am, I assumed there would be some kind of qualifier to be a part of this vast group. On the outside looking in, I saw women in Senior Leadership positions, women with MAs and PhDs, women with life experiences I just haven’t had yet.
And then I was asked if I’d like to go to the Unconference. I said yes on a whim: I’d never been to any kind of networking event or conference, but I knew I wouldn’t be brave enough to go alone!
Twelve months ago, it probably would have been my nightmare. Sitting in the hall of a school I’d never been to, in a part of London I’d never visited, with people all around me that were complete strangers, bar one friend and two faces I recognised from Twitter. And yet, there was the most wonderful feeling of camaraderie in that hall. Around me, I could hear women introducing themselves to total strangers they’d just sat next to. There were women meeting each other for the first time since Covid and for the first time in-person, after two years of Zoom calls and tweets being their only medium of communication. There was an unspoken air of it not mattering where you came from, what phase you teach, if you’d moved on from teaching, whether you had children, whether you were newly qualified or had served twenty years in the classroom. In that room, in that moment, everyone was welcome.
Everyone was incredibly welcoming, all day long. Even I found myself getting talkative in a session on amplifying women’s voices through the history curriculum, quiet as I am. I wondered if the event would be for me, and somehow I found that it was – it was for everyone. There were sessions that appealed to me as a barely-qualified newbie, and for the numerous headteachers and deputies who attended too. And there was fantastic crossover: some sessions and talks bridged the divides and opened up conversations across the levels of qualification.
I think a mark of the atmosphere at the Unconference is this: at no point during the day did I use the word “just” to describe what I do. So often, I negate my role or my experience with that four-letter minimiser. “Just” a Year One teacher, “just” my second year in the classroom, “just” a teacher in a small school. Yesterday I was not “just” anything, and it felt fantastic. Every experience among those hundreds of women was valued and valuable.
Being from a small school, it’s easy to become quite insular in that it’s easy to forget there’s a whole world of education out there. It is not just my one-form-entry bubble! Hearing from so many different women, listening to how they got to where they are today and recognising how many paths there are to that fuzzy concept of ‘success’, was inspiring in every sense. Professional and personal growth are important to me, and widening my perceptions by meeting so many different people showed me that there is no single way to achieving those ends – and equally that neither one is something that can ever be completed. Growth is exactly that, the act of growing (wordhippo definition) and I’m quietly thrilled to finally be part of a community of women whose every energy is focused on lifting others to facilitate this.
At the close of the Unconference, we were all asked to make a pledge, something that we could each do to continue to Break the Bias and continue to grow. I held the pledge card in my hand, my mind swimming with ideas from the day and my pen poised but unable to produce words. What could I put on this card that was anywhere near the inspirational words I’d heard, or anywhere close on the scale of confidence surrounding me?
Only being three years post-graduation, and two years into my classroom career, I am quite used to being the youngest in every room of educators. I hoped that it wouldn’t be quite so apparent at a meet-up of educators from across the London and further afield, but it was not to be. I wonder if there are other young women out there like me, looking in from the outside and thinking that maybe WomenEd isn’t for them? So, I’ve found my pledge at last, more than twenty-four hours post-Unconference.
WomenEd is for everyone. Between now and next spring, I pledge to make other young teachers aware that it’s as much for them as it is for those with years of experience. I left the Unconference tired enough to nearly sleep on the train home, and yet wildly energised by how much I’d learnt, how many connections I’d made and how much I couldn’t wait to do it all again.