On compliments, equality and Virginia Woolf

After participating in an international three-day-meeting that gathered hundred educational actors to discuss the future of educational work, I feel glad I could express there my opinions and I see the topics which were important to me, having received some resonance . In a session called “The political in the civic education of the future”, which I initiated and moderated, fifteen educators from different countries agreed, that we need to integrate – again – a sensitivity and consciousness about power relations and inequality among us, educators, if we want to stay credible for our learners. I am satisfied with such a result after years of observing this necessity on my own without being able to mobilize enough supporters of my idea among particular circles of people.

My enthusiasm is nurtured by compliments I receive from several colleagues in the end of the meeting: „I wish I would be able to talk in public smoothly as you do”, “Silvena, you are so smart, I admire you”. While I feel flattered to be appreciated and to receive compliments, these compliments hurt, too. They show me something I wasn’t perceiving before. How come most of them came from women? How come incredible personalities, potent educators and programme managers as those women are, feel the urge to tell those words as if they say, “I will never be like you”, even though in my eyes they already are?

We admire in others what we don’t allow ourselves to be

This pain is about the difference between being and feeling we are. If I draw on my modest psychological knowledge of human mind, I have a clue – those compliments don’t mean me. My behaviour only awakened an impulse which lets the other person remember a part of themselves that didn’t have space to exist and flourish so far, but which is a part of their personality, of the way they are meant to be. When we are not allowed to be beautiful, to be loud or to tell what we think, we separate symbolically these qualities from our identity, start to behave as though we are not like this and to believe we are not. Later we even forget that it was us who sent These qualities away from us to be able to survive, to receive the love we so much depend on to become who we are. But our qualities do not disappear. They can’t. Just we don’t have conscious access to them anymore. The only way we stay in contact with them is when we see those in others. Then we become a little emotional. “Oh, how beautiful she is”, we think – and it is our own beauty we see in the other, and we feel it mixed with the nostalgy for the part of us we haven’t been in contact with for years. “How well he can tell his opinion”, we think and what we admire in him is our own banned strong opinion, mixed with the anger that we were not allowed to speak up. While we still own the potential to live our full range of qualities, our conscious mind censors what we should show as behaviour because it fears sanctions. I guess feeling that, brought the pain when I received those compliments – the joy of being appreciated and the regret that others long for but cannot yet or believe to not be able of speaking up and sharing their ideas freely in a space I have believed to be nurturing for speaking up.

The System Plays a role

And while this aspect is more rooted in the individual personalities, let’s say, I start to wonder what part of it might be related to the system. To power, to name it with the right word. How does the way we are, the way we talk, the way we set agendas, the way we interact with each other encourage or discourage sensitive or less confident members of a network to participate in the common sense-creation? What role does velocity, tempo, language, ability to be strategic play in that? I wish I could answer that questions in a way that confirms how great we do in terms of ensuring equality. But we don’t.

Concerned with how to teach others living democracy, the way we understand it, we have little time to look around. Little time to look beyond the structures, beyond the visible, established ways to participate in the conversations we lead among each other, little time to look how those actually work. We have worked with each other on the meeting for three days – it was held in English and Russian speakers received simultaneous translation. I attended most of the sessions and I don’t remember hearing a single statement in the plenary which was told in Russian. I forgot about that. I was too busy dealing with the topics I wished to bring forward in those debates. Too busy to stop and suggest a simple switch towards equality – to make some sessions in plenary in Russian with translation provided in English. In a group, in which most of the people speak and understand Russian, what purpose could it have to prefer to hold the meeting in English? I become aware of that too late. The meeting is over. I tell my Russian-speaking friends afterwards with the help of translation, that I regret we didn’t come to this idea during the meeting. They feel embarrassed. “It is our fault”, they say. “It is us who should improve. The problem is ours. We need to learn English. English is the international language, not Russian”. I am stunned. Similarly, as I felt joy and pain in the same time when I got complimented for how smart I was and how freely I talked, now I feel approval and anger in the same time. The approval goes to the honest humbleness of those people – a treat I cherish a lot. The anger goes to my disagreement with the statement – No girls, it is not your fault. And it is not your problem. It is ours. Both Virginia Woolf and Paolo Freire would think so. It is a power-gap and I am angry you don’t see it. And I am angry I didn’t see it. Easier than anything else we can find ourselves in a power disposition and stay blind for it. Both the privileged and the disadvantaged parts to it.

Power matters

I wonder how much credible power we then really have to teach others recognizing inequalities and power relations among their societies, communities and teams. How credible could we embody such knowledge to inspire others to follow? And what is the value of education for democracy if it fails to dismantle the mechanisms of inequality by its own example?

Maybe we fail and maybe that is normal. We do mistakes, we learn all the time. That’s human. But there is an act of decision to that, each moment. A decision to open our eyes and to deal with what is inconvenient for the sake of integrity – or to keep our eyes closed and to broaden the gap between our talk and our walk.

We Need to stay Learners

Deciding for the open eyes moment by moment is what I believe we should start with to sustain the impact we have as educators. As long as we don’t forget to be learners ourselves, we can stay credible educators, close to meeting our own standards. I feel thankful for the lesson. And thankful to Julia Cameron, whose “The right to write” I was reading this morning inspired me to spend 20 min writing this text instead of thinking about it while the porridge was getting boiled. She was mentioning Virginia Woolf’s ‘Room of one’s own’ which made me think of the incredible female colleagues which complimented me. And whom I admire.

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