In the first half of our conversation, Jo shared their story of navigating difficult spaces in their early years, forced to conceal parts of their identity in order to find acceptance. It was not until their eighteenth birthday approached that they were able to give voice to the fact that they were ‘not straight,’ and have since been unpacking the effects of remaining bottled up in fear for so long.
Due to Section 28, which prevented schools from ‘promoting homosexuality,’ Jo was unable to see the hidden parts of their identity reflected anywhere in the classroom. But now as primary school teacher, they are able to advocate for LGBTQ+ inclusion, open up conversations around mental health, and embody the representation that would have made all the difference in their own childhood.
If that wasn’t enough, they’re also bringing out a book.
You and your brother have written a book, Bottled, that’s coming out early next year; what is the book about and how did you both come to produce it?
Bottled is a children’s picture book that facilitates conversations with children and young people about their feelings, their mental wellbeing, and this concept of becoming an emotionally honest person. My brother is a fantastic teacher, and I feel really fortunate to be able to work with him on something that I genuinely believe is going to make a difference to the work that he does in his school and what I try to do in mine. If we can find a way to encourage more teachers to do that same work, hopefully we’ll see some real changes in classrooms.
In terms of how it came about, as a family we had a beautiful upbringing, but none of us were ever honest about the way we were feeling. We laughed and we smiled, and if we weren’t feeling that, we kept it to ourselves, and we laughed and smiled still. That was just the way that our family worked, and I think it’s the way that a lot of families work. Then a number of years ago, mental ill health came to our immediate family in a really devastating way, and during that period of time we realized as a family that we didn’t have the skills to talk openly about how we were feeling. So over a period of time we taught ourselves and then taught each other to be emotionally honest, to talk about how we were feeling, to ask each other how they were doing, and genuinely listen to the answer.
Tom and I were having a conversation about how our family had changed as a result of this, and we felt this immense responsibility that as teachers, we impact the lives of so many young people; they spend more time with us sometimes than they do at home. We realized that there is a space for schools to teach children the language and the skills that they need, and give them the practice so that they grow up to be more emotionally honest people. This means that if they are impacted by mental ill health – which I think so many of them will be either personally or within their friendships and family – they won’t be floored by it like we were. They’ll come to it with skills that will help them to navigate it in a healthy way.
That’s where the idea of the book came from. Tom and I started to collect this ‘empathy library’ which was a selection of children’s books that you can use to teach empathy, emotional honesty, and to open up conversations with children. There are so many brilliant books, but we felt like there was one missing; there wasn’t a book that talked about this umbrella idea of being radically honest about how you’re feeling in a safe, respectful way, of building emotionally honest spaces where that’s encouraged and supported, and of finding a healthy way to navigate even the most difficult emotions together. That’s what we wanted to create.
What are some of the barriers and inhibitors that keep us from being honest about our emotions?
The first thing is not having the language to talk about the way that they’re feeling. Often children are taught to discuss the key emotions such as happy, sad, and angry, but there’s such a wealth of untapped emotional language. When we work with teachers, we ask them to write down as many emotion words as they can, and think about how many of those words the children and young people they work with will experience, and usually the answer is: all of them. Then we ask them to circle how many of them they think their children could use to describe how they’re feeling, and often it’s only two or three.
When I was fifteen, I was trying to tell one of my closest friends that I was really struggling with something, and I couldn’t do it. It got to the point where I had a piece of paper and I was drawing these ridiculous symbols that I was expecting her to follow, because I couldn’t actually say the words, or even write the words – or maybe even think the words – to describe the way that I was feeling. It takes a long time to learn that skill.
The second thing is practice. Being able to honestly talk about how you’re feeling and listen empathetically to others is a skill that requires some practice, it’s not something that you can tune into right away. The people who are good at it are the people who practice doing it a lot, and until we practice having emotionally honest conversations, it’s much easier to avoid them because it’s scary.
A lot of people are scared that the people around them don’t want to hear the honest answer to ‘how are you?’
The third reason that people may not talk openly about the way that they’re feeling is because they think that no one wants to know. They think that the people around them, their friends, their family, their colleagues, wouldn’t be interested if they were feeling sad, or angry, or if they were struggling with something. A lot of people don’t realize the fantastic community that they have around them, and that’s what prevents them – and certainly used to prevent me – from talking about how they’re feeling. A lot of people are scared that the people around them don’t want to hear the honest answer to ‘how are you?’
As a teacher, how have you gone about creating emotionally honest spaces, and what results of that have you seen among your classes?
One of the big things that I’d advise all teachers to do is to teach empathy from the books that they already use. Teachers don’t have any time to add additional lessons to their timetables, but if you just have a three or four minute conversation in your English lesson where you unpick a character’s feelings – why they’re feeling that way, what that would feel like for you, how that character could navigate it, how you could be a good friend to that character – all those quick discussions allow children the opportunity to build their language, skills, and practice without it being personally connected to them. You then start to see that seep into their own experiences, so that if you had a conversation about anger through a book, you can draw on that when a child is experiencing anger themselves.
It’s also important to model it really clearly to them. When you train to be a teacher, you talk about modeling all the time: if you want your children to write with cursive handwriting, you need to model it to them, and if you want children to have honest and healthy conversations about how they’re feeling, you need to model that to them as well. You can’t be a perfect picture of positivity all the time in your classroom and expect your children to then be honest when they’re not feeling like that, and the teacher will just be setting their child up to think that something is wrong with them because they can’t achieve that positivity.
It is much better for a teacher in a classroom to say, ‘I woke up this morning and I felt really sad, I don’t know why I felt sad, but I felt really heavy, I felt really upset, I felt like I didn’t really want to come to school.’ That doesn’t then mean that we can’t have a great day learning together, it doesn’t mean that we can’t smile and laugh and find moments of joy, but I would be honest with my class and tell them that I’m feeling a little bit sad that day, and when I experience other emotions as well. If the children can’t see anyone around them being open or honest about their feelings, why would they be?
You can’t be a perfect picture of positivity all the time in your classroom and expect your children to then be honest when they’re not feeling like that.
So many teachers assume that children have this skill without giving them the opportunity to build it. All the time you will see teachers saying, ‘Why did you hit this other child? Why are you crying? Why are you upset? Why are you angry?’ If this five year-old is running around in the playground playing football, sweating, and hasn’t taken their jumper off because they don’t even know they’re physically warm, how do we expect them to know they’re angry or upset, know why they’re feeling that and know how to navigate it unless we teach them those things?
In terms of modeling, you talk in your Pride & Progress podcast about the idea of being honest about your identity in the classroom as well. At what point in your educational setting did you decide to be open about that side of who you are?
For a long time I thought that the work I was doing around inclusive education and emotionally honest education were separate things, but they overlap so much; they’re like two circles in a Venn diagram with a massive intersection. It’s as important for me that I am open and honest about my emotions in my classroom as it is that I am open and honest about the person that I am, but it’s taken me a long time to get to that point.
When I first started teaching, it meant stepping back into educational spaces for the first time since I was a child in them, and I folded myself back up and built that box back around me. I’d grown up during Section 28 in primary school and in the immediate shadow of Section 28 in high school, and as a result I didn’t see any teachers that challenged that typical idea of what a male teacher should look like, so when I started teaching I became that person: I dressed in that way and I spoke that way. There were a lot of things that I was hiding and guarding because I didn’t think they were acceptable in educational spaces, because I’d never seen them there when I was a student.
That went on for a long time until I was teaching Year 6 a few years ago. A child was unhappy with a decision that I’d made in the lesson, and they shouted something very homophobic at me in front of the whole of the class; it was one of those moments we wish we had more often when the whole class was silent! The child left the room and I made sure they were with an adult who could safely regulate their anger and make sure that they were calm. When I turned back to my class, there were thirty children staring at me, waiting to see what I was going to say.
For a moment, I thought I would just brush past it – I’m going to tell them to get on with their work, I’m not going to address it – and that felt safe to me. But I imagined what I would be saying in that silence. If I didn’t address what just happened, first of all I’d be saying that the use of language that we’d all just witnessed was acceptable, and second of all I’d be saying that being gay, being queer, being lesbian, being trans, all of those things that fall under the language being used in the classroom, is something that we should be silent about. I couldn’t do that. So I spoke really openly and honestly about what the child had said, how it related to me personally, who I am, how I identify, and we had a really honest conversation.
I couldn’t imagine what difference it would have made to my life if somebody had been able to do that for me when I was in primary school.
What came from that was the airing of some massive misconceptions. A child in my class put their hand up after I asked a question and said, ‘Oh I know this one! Being gay means when you’re a bit weak or pathetic or you’re not very good at something.’ They weren’t being rude, they genuinely thought that was the definition of the word; they were using that word in the context that their family and their community had taught them was correct. That is so often what you see with children, in my experience they are incredibly accepting, but they aren’t always taught correctly. So we had this really empathetic and honest conversation where we unpicked the language, we talked about what had been said, why it was wrong to say it in that way, and why we should be open about who we are as people. It was such a brilliant conversation
When the conversation came to an end, I asked my teaching assistant to take over for a moment, I left the room, I walked to the staff toilets, and I just cried, so much. I think partly I was crying because it still hurt to be called those names, even all those years on, and partly I was crying because it had been fifteen years since I was in primary school and it felt like nothing had changed in that moment. But I think mostly I was crying because I felt like I had done something really important, and I couldn’t imagine what difference it would have made to my life if somebody had been able to do that for me when I was in primary school.
Since then, the power that I felt when I realized that I could be that person, I could show that there were different ways to live, that’s what has really encouraged me now to be more open and honest, and to be more visible in my school and in my classroom. We talk so much about representation and why it’s important for the young queer people in our schools, but it’s just as important for the straight cis children, because when I think about the people who weren’t kind to me when I was younger, it wasn’t the queer kids, it was the straight kids who hadn’t been taught any better. So me being open and honest and visible in my classroom isn’t just to support young queer people who might recognize parts of themselves in who I am, it’s also to show everyone that there is a wider spectrum of ways that you can exist and be free and be happy in the world.
Jo can be found on Twitter and Instagram at @jjbrassington.
Click here to pre-order their book about encouraging emotionally honest conversations with young people, Bottled.
Click here to listen to their podcast about LGBT+ inclusive education, Pride & Progress, with co-host Adam.