Does your language make or break your school?
Schools are full of sticky labels and monikers. We simply love putting names to people and things, but some of these tags are derisory, damaging and divisive.
What really gets ‘my goat’ is schools that make a big deal about being ‘inclusive’ yet they use language that creates divisions. Schools that have ‘top sets and bottom sets’ and ‘low and high achievers’ are guilty of creating academic apartheid. No wonder the children in the ‘Hawking’ maths group have a sense of self-importance that builds year on year. Ability grouping polarises, alienates and creates failure.
But it’s not just the children where labels cause harm. Adults are victims too.
Some schools refer to some of their adults as ‘non-teaching’ staff which quite frankly is a dinosaur term that is hugely disrespectful and massively disaffecting. This creates a ‘them and us’ mentality too.
What Makes A Good School Now? is a book by Tim Brighouse and David Woods; they say that ‘Non-teaching’ staff “is as offensive as it would be to refer to ‘non-white’ staff or pupils. It probably betrays a subliminal message about a hierarchy of the value put upon certain tasks and certain people in a bygone age.”
Not every school operates using this label because they see every adult in a school as a teacher. The site manager, office manager, administrators, cleaners, librarian, bus drivers, governors, mid-day supervisors etc are all teachers. They are significant adults who are seen and their behaviour and interactions all count. Even if there is no direct interaction with pupils, they are in a position to be watched and children will learn something from them. How they dress, what they say, and how they ‘are’ will teach children something. There is always some kind of learning going on.
Every adult employed by or involved in a school is a role model and a teacher, whether or not they realise it. Yet, some schools use the umbrella term ‘non-teaching staff’ and so lump together very important people that work together as part of the school learning community. The implied message is fixing children’s mindsets.
If children see particular staff as ‘non-teaching’ then we are saying that it is only teachers who can teach. The message is a powerful one that extends beyond the school gates too. Every member of staff has value and most schools do recognise the roles different people play. The best leaders care for others and they respect the dignity of all staff and the teaching role they perform. It’s what Andrew Moorish (2016) says in The Art Of Standing Out when he encourages stand out leaders not to make a distinction between teachers and teaching assistants.
Unfortunately, schools are hierarchies and there can be a sliding scale of value with teachers seen as being higher up the food chain. This is certainly felt by some members of staff who don’t feel cherished. I’ve seen it time and time again. Cleaners can often feel like they are at the ‘bottom’ yet they have enormous value. Who worries about their wellbeing?
Ask cleaners what they do and they might say they are “just cleaners” and keeping the school tidy. Yet, ask another cleaner who understands the vision and purpose of the school and is a valued staff member – this person might say, “I’m helping teach children about their environment!”
This reminds me of the story about President John F. Kennedy who was visiting NASA headquarters for the first time, in 1961. While touring the facility, he introduced himself to a janitor who was mopping the floor and asked him what he did at NASA. The janitor said, “I’m helping put a man on the moon!”
We’re all teachers
Every member of staff is a cog and a team member but not everyone ‘gets’ the purpose, vision and the value they are adding. Staff that aren’t classroom-based teachers are still teachers in every action they perform. A school is a place where every action is a teachable one with value. How many staff realise this? Are they told this when joining?
Staff induction should include an organisation’s vision, aspirations and expectations of all staff. This needs to make explicit that an adult’s role in a school is multi-faceted. If safeguarding is “everyone’s responsibility” then so is teaching.
All the adults in a school have something to offer their community to share and teach. Foulkes and Wallis (2015) remind us that many staff have a wide range of links with the local community and are often able to draw on a network of local support. They remind us that staff can “be a valuable resource of unexpected skills and interests. A passion for music, art or cookery can be exploited to support a range of integrated learning opportunities.”
Schools need to make the most of their staff and allow them to share their talents, skills and ‘hyacinths’.
Did you realise that your caretaker was also an accomplished guitarist who could certainly teach children how to play? Did you realise that one of your science technicians speaks fluent Spanish? All members of staff have a ‘hidden’ side to them containing private and professional interests that they could share. It always pays to look beyond the job title and see that every human resource is a teaching resource.
Many school staff deserve far more respect and recognition and need to be included as part of the team. Of course, teachers have earned their title by way of qualifications and training but to describe other members of staff as ‘non-teachers’ doesn’t recognise a person’s value and worth in a learning community.
What makes a good school? That’s easy. It’s one where every adult is valued, seen as a teacher and invited to the awards evening for the part they play in educating children.
If you are a ‘teacher’, believe it or not, you do have respect. I’m not so sure that goes for other people who work in a school. The wise leaders in a school will always find ways to thank everyone that works there and to see all adults as teachers.