Lindsey Johnson takes a ’selfie’ with students from Craven College
A key question for many LGBT+ staff candidates and recruits is how to move up the FE ladder and yet also remain true to themselves.
“The first thing is to know what kind of leader you want to be and work out if you can be authentic,” says Lindsey Johnson, principal of Craven College, Skipton, North Yorkshire. “I believe that being authentic is a lot less hard work than trying to pretend you are someone you are not. You will also be more productive and much, much happier!”
Lindsey studied for a degree in agriculture and then obtained a masters in equine science, before teaching in land-based colleges for 19 years and subsequently moving into leadership roles in general FE colleges.
“I’d always wanted to be a farmer and it was not unusual to have tom-boyish women in farming. I’ve always worn men’s clothes and this is what I’m comfortable in and how I present. It was the most non-issue ever. In fact, when I came out while working at my first agricultural college my boss got the shock of his life. He’d always known me like this and I have just carried on.”
Lindsey says those in a senior positions in college have a responsibility to be visible leaders if they can. It means standing up for and amplifying the voice of individuals who are marginalised by society. “I would never advocate to a leader that they ask staff outright about their sexuality. Yet I find – and it happens to me all the time – that although lots of people won’t ask you outright, they might say that their cousin is gay to open conversation and make that other person feel comfortable that they can be authentic, or it may be that they are looking for some insight themselves.”
Lindsey adds that college leaders have so many things to be alive to – not only protecting the characteristics of LGBT+ staff but those of many other minority groups in their workforce and giving every individual a chance to be true to themselves and letting them know it’s ok.
Take, for instance, women of menopausal age: “Some women may have bad nights, memory issues, or have hot flushes … But if we want them to be the best they can be, let’s try to understand their needs and support them. My general philosophy is everyone has something to give and surely everyone deserves to be happy?”
That’s where FE colleges are brilliant, says Lindsey. “We are absolutely central to our community, we work with employers, we collaborate with LEPs and local authorities… it’s a travesty we get overlooked and people forget to think where their chefs, IT network engineers, plumbers – all these people with amazing vocational skills – actually trained. That’s where AoC campaigns like #LoveOurColleges and #And Colleges are so valuable in raising our profile.”
After becoming vice-principal at The Manchester College – England’s largest college – Lindsey went through “a massive learning curve”. In Manchester, the population was much more open and accepting of LGBT+ than many other places. “People came to me about LGBT+ issues and at first I didn’t understand why. But I then realised it was because of how I physically present and, I guess, my authenticity in that respect.
“I identify as non-binary and prefer the use of ‘they’ and ‘them’ pronouns rather than ‘she’ and ‘her’, though I do prefer people to just call me Lindsey (labels are for beans!). I was asked by staff and students why the college was not represented in the Manchester Pride. So, we set about joining in and, importantly, successfully involving the whole college group – staff, students, LGBT+ and allies.”
Now one year into a new leadership role at Craven College, Lindsey says moves to make the college more open began with a discussion among all staff about inclusivity in light of the George Floyd murder and Black Lives Matter protests. “We now have an inclusivity working group but need to do more.
A local group on social media called Skipton and the Dales for Social Change looks at local needs – including those of a growing Asian community, many of whom have moved out of Bradford for the green and space of Skipton.”
Lindsey says education is around citizenship and ensuring that students understand their social responsibility. Craven College runs a citizenship calendar encouraging the whole college to get behind events like LGBT+ History Month, Black History Month and Holocaust Memorial Day – now all key dates in college life – with discussions around the different issues in lessons.
The need for colleges to remain supportive has been heightened by isolation during lockdown. Lindsey cites difficulties that transgender students can often face while being cut off from a supportive college environment where they can be more their true selves. Instead, they can feel trapped at home where they have to hide their true identity.
FE has to be all-encompassing, Lindsey stresses. “In lockdown last year, I was talking to a Pakistani girl whose biggest fear was being sent back to Pakistan for an arranged marriage. As a college, we are able to support such students and their families. We must ensure we systematically work at breaking down anything that inhibits equality, diversity and inclusivity.”
Lindsey sums up: “What’s really helped me has been meeting some positive role models early on who said I can do whatever I want – work in agriculture, or teach, for example. I’m really passionate about ensuring others – both colleagues and students – get the opportunity to choose what’s right for them, and just be themselves.”
Emma Bofinger joined Nottingham College in December last year. An interrupted degree in Spanish and politics led to her completing an apprenticeship as a secondary school teaching assistant (TA). TA posts with permanent contracts were scarce so she successfully applied for a support role in college. As an active member of the LGBT+ community, Emma contrasts working first in school and now at an FE college.
“When I worked in a school, I ran some awareness and inclusion training on LGBT+ issues for other staff, based on my own experience and what I had seen happening among students. I felt that improving support for transgender students was a priority, yet there were some things I wasn’t allowed to talk about.
“For example, I couldn't mention national statistics from Stonewall on bullying by teachers, perhaps because they were worried that this would make our teachers look bad. There is a big need for more training, especially run by trans-led and LGBT+ organisations. Most people are not malicious, just unaware of the small things they do that are actually really harmful.”
In school, Emma found colleagues were very accepting and LGBT was not an issue in the staffroom. Yet it was inappropriate for her to talk about it with students; they must not know if their teachers were gay, while straight teachers talking about their partners and children was seen as normal.
"It’s important for everyone to get a basic understanding of what the letters LGBTQIAP+ represent, the common problems students might face, particularly transgender students, and how to support them. It's also important for staff to be able to choose to be out in school if they want to be, and for students to have LGBT+ role models,” says Emma, who is bisexual. She wants to break down the myth of bisexual people having to 'choose sides' - whether you are gay or straight depending on the gender of your partner. “My relationship status doesn’t change who I am.”
Now let’s contrast schools with FE colleges, many of which have a fully comprehensive LGBT+ policy. Last year Emma filled out a Nottingham College application form that gave applicants a choice of title and asked for preferred pronouns (whether candidates see themselves as he, she or they).
In fact, many staff at Nottingham College, regardless of gender and orientation include their pronouns in email signatures. “Seeing that can make it much easier for someone who is trans and/or non-binary to then mention their pronouns instead of colleagues guessing and getting it wrong,” says Emma. “It's trying to create a more supportive and inclusive environment.”
Much can be done to make the job interview and application process easier but what about first impressions from open days or inductions? As a college newbie, Emma says how she was made to feel welcome and safe when on an induction tour of her new workplace.
“For my first two weeks I was introduced to people across the college. Many had rainbow badges and pronoun badges on their lanyards, giving me lots of little signs that this was a welcoming, supportive and aware place for people with different genders and sexualities. And when visiting another college campus just before Christmas, it made such a difference to see a big LGBT display with loads of Stonewall posters. It’s quite a small thing to stick up a poster but it does count. Anyone from the LGBT+ community would soon notice that. It shouldn't be the end of the story, but it's an important first step.”
Of course, the larger the college, the more like-minded people there will be from every minority group - and normally more activity. “When I was applying, I was excited to see that there was an LGBT+ group for staff at the college,” says Emma. “We have an LGBT+ cafe that meets once a month - along with other similar support groups for carers, BAME people and people going through menopause.”
The message from colleges to the LGBT+ community could not be clearer, says Emma: “We look out for all minorities.”