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They said what?! - The things we say to each other

Recently, I've been thinking about the language we use in schools (for example, how we communicate/ outline expectations), heavily sparked by GCSE results day and reflecting on the impact this has on students.

Regularly hearing teachers referring to students 'failing' GCSEs having achieved grade 1-3 has become a sad part of education, but only after discussing this friends/ colleagues and inviting Twitter responses did I realise how big an issue this is throughout education.

Initially, I hoped that some of the language used (like 'failed') was due to laziness or absent-mindedness and that it represented a minority. However, the more I've spoken to people, the more it feels like the tip of the iceberg. From students to leaders and everyone in between, education seems to have a problem with communication.

From the ridiculous ('despite being left handed...') to the apparently malicious ('they told me I would go to prison') to the horrific ('n*ggers can't read') as students, to the ill-thought out ('you're just an NQT') and damaging ('they learned despite you'***) as professionals, it is very, very easy to leave a negative and lasting impact with little effort.

But why does this happen? And why with the frequency that is suggested?


The first and most obvious cause, usually heightened by workload; student apathy/ behaviour; change management; evaluation/ monitoring and colleague relationships. With less time to do more work under further scrutiny, we're looking to be as efficient as possible, and this efficiency leads to comments designed to communicate a message as quickly and bluntly as possible, with little thought about the consequences. The problem with this, of course, is that although in the short term this 'gets the job done', in the long term it is massively damaging to all concerned.

Lack of emotional intelligence

A low emotional intelligence quotient can significantly impact vocabulary with a failure to understanding other's feelings meaning the impact that words have is not considered. Many of the examples people gave from their own school days related to comments on their appearance made by teachers (e.g. 'you're fat') and the lasting impact this had on their confidence and self-belief. Low EQ can also evidence an inability to cope with emotionally-charged situations - which may well have been caused by poor vocabulary or communication choices in the first place.

Validation/ power

We've all seen it - a perceived student challenge of teacher authority (or even a teacher doing the same with leadership) and the reaction is a poorly worded response aimed at quickly re-balancing the hierarchy by reminding the listener of their place. This is what leads to comments like, 'you're just an NQT' or something similar to highlight a perceived lack of skill/ knowledge/ understanding or to emphasise a perceived superiority. This also means great ideas that less experienced members of the profession have (and less confident students) tend to fall by the wayside.

Pay back

Similar to the above, but darker in motivation. A perceived challenge is made by a student/ teacher and a response comes with a view to humiliating. This is why comments like 'you'll never amount to anything' or 'thicko thinks she can do maths' are made with little thought to the long term impact this can (and will) have. Probably the worst part of this, is that every teacher I know has seen an example.

Just plain awful people

This represents a minority of a minority, but we've all encountered that member of staff who just seems to hate kids and even that member of SLT who feels the same way about other teachers. Inexplicable, baffling, but present.

But what can we do about it?

So, those are some of the motivations behind why we say some of the things we say, but what can we do about it? As ever, some of the answer lies in taking time and evaluating what has happened in the past to better inform future decisions (and in this case - language).

Reflect: As simple as it might sound - think before you speak! Reflect on what you are about to say or what you plan to say in the future. As mentioned above, a lot of the negative language and communication in teaching (teacher to student, manager to teacher) is triggered by a lack of reflection and an overemphasis on quickly completing tasks. Break this cycle and better relationships can be built.

Imagine context / impact: With World Suicide Prevention Day having just passed (Sept 10th), it is more important than ever to think about an individual's context before communicating or making language choices. Always remember that there may be more going on than you are aware of and your words could have greater impact than you know. With this in mind...

Be positive: It's difficult at times, but use positive language to positively reinforce what it is you want. Resit students are trying to improve a 'pass'/ achievement, not rectify 'a fail'. There is an 'area for development', not a weakness etc. Also, try not to use 'absolutes' in discussion: words such as 'never', 'all', 'always', 'none' etc. can be damaging if used incorrectly (e.g. when sanctioning a whole class when only 3-5 needed to be sanctioned).

Be clear: This is absolutely vital in communicating a message and identifying vocabulary which won't negatively impact a student, colleague or team member. Make sure there is absolute clarity in what you are communicating. This can be difficult to do at times, but reflecting, remembering context and staying positive will help enormously.

Stand up to it: Probably the biggest single thing we can all do to make sure students and colleagues aren't negatively impacted by language/ vocabulary is to stand up to it and not be afraid to step in and correct. If you hear a colleague referring to a student as 'having failed' - step in. This can be difficult if happening between a colleague and line manager, but even in these cases, it is important to approach the line manager and let them know about the potential effects their language choices can have. Again, very difficult to do this at times, but the right thing to do is never usually the easiest.

A bit of a hefty blog this week (and not even sure if it makes much sense), but thanks to all of those who contributed or indulged me in conversation. It really was overwhelming how many people have messaged, posted or discussed some of the things that have been said to them.

***Said to me in one of my first ever NQT observations and I struggled to recover (having regularly achieved Good/ Outstanding when on placement there). Many years on, I think about it regularly.


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