Dare to dream

Helen Jeys, Head at Alderley Edge, discusses her visit to the Global Conference for Girls in Education and how she plans to inspire the new Year 7s

I was incredibly fortunate to attend and speak at this year’s Global Conference on Girls in Education in Washington DC, alongside Claire Hewitt, the Head from Manchester High School for Girls.  With almost 1,000 attendees from countries as diverse as Tanzania, Poland and Afghanistan to Iran, Australia, the USA and the UK – I knew from the outset that I would be hearing speakers from an incredibly broad spectrum of experience and that this – in itself – would be inspiring. After also experiencing the searing heat and humidity of Washington DC in the middle of a mini heatwave, I was grateful that the conference would be held in a fully air-conditioned hotel. Thank goodness!

The conference was set to focus on several key areas; leadership, innovation, STEAM (why do we still focus so much on STEM in the UK rather than STEAM, I wonder?) global citizenship, health and wellness and equity and inclusion. Claire and I had planned to speak in a health and wellness segment on proactive approaches to pastoral care; those that were introduced during my time as Deputy Head at Manchester High School for Girls but also those introduced in my present school, Alderley Edge School for Girls. Speaking to a global audience was a huge privilege and the response of those that were facing the same challenges as us in the UK and were searching for strategies to help young women face these challenges – was incredible. The fact that all of us as delegates were there to focus on girls’ education brought with it a sense of comradery and a shared intention that resulted in our presentation being part of a dialogue that spanned the length of the conference.

There was also an amazing array of speakers who left me with much food for thought but there were some real personal highlights. For instance, Azar Nafisi, the author of Reading Lolita in Tehran and The Republic of Imagination provided a fantastic opener and spoke about choice as the essence of freedom and the role of artists such as her to ‘disturb the peace’. In fact, her wish that we could teach girls to be a little less dutiful chimed with the view of many of the speakers. How do we encourage girls to take risks, to challenge themselves and to – also – remember that there is a real world in the realm of the virtual?  Indeed, to forget this is to forget our very humanity. Her final comment – that ‘education is the hallmark of where a country is going’ – was a timely reminder of the importance of an educational system that reflects the wellbeing of the children we teach rather than serving political agendas.

Another speaker who focused on girls’ wellbeing was the famous American author, Rachel Simmons. Her book Enough As She Is is now on my summer reading list after her discussion about the impact of self-criticism and what she called ‘role overload’ on girls. She talked about the various pressures that girls took upon themselves – to be academically successful, to be perfect physically and to be the ‘good girl’. The impact of this overload – together with risk aversion – means that we as a society have to change to accommodate girls. We need to teach girls to ‘fail without shame’ and to tackle the imposter that questions our ability at every turn. Her emphasis on self-compassion and common humanity are areas that we can all focus on in our schools to improve the mental health of all the children we teach.

I was also inspired by those who spoke on leadership.  Highlights included Conor Neil, President of Vistage in Spain and a professor of Leadership Communications at IESE Business School. Speaking about leadership, he talked about the importance of competence, inspiration, problem-solving abilities and honesty – the importance of leading with humanity. Conor Neil was utterly inspirational and – if you get the chance to hear him speak – do; his view that the book we should all read about leadership is that of our own lives and the importance of genuine stillness and reflection in our daily practice has left me with much to consider. Furthermore, the talk from Halla Tomosdottir’s, the Icelandic Business Woman of the Year 2017 and the 2016 Presidential Candidate, was greeted with a standing ovation. Her lessons to be bold, to be ‘sincerely you’ in leadership, to choose good principles and to be president of our own lives were those that she believed would result in authentic and principled leadership; lessons, certainly, that can be transmitted to our own students.

The conference ended with a dialogue with Billie Jean King. Her comment ‘if you see it, you can be it’ was, for me, the message of the conference and it was this message that I was able to bring back to my school on the evening of my return when I talked to my new Year 7 cohort. For girls to understand that there are no limits – and that they have the opportunity to dream and to aspire – is the message that I want my own students to believe. Certainly, the course left me with no doubt that we all have huge challenges but that we – as educators and leaders of schools – have the capability and position to facilitate the change that is needed. Exciting stuff!

For further info, please visit Alderley Edge School for Girls.

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