I’ve often wondered to what extent a Headteacher sets the feeling of a school. In my first school, the Headteacher, aside from being the most inspiring woman I have ever met, driven by titanic strength, vision and conviction, was also a drama teacher.
Although our twice-weekly whole-school assembly was conducted in impressive silence, our children were, for want of a more nuanced word, loud. It was a loud school. Not in a threatening way though: these were children who bubbled over with the joy of being. They raced through corridors, laughing and “talking” with one another; yet their version of “talking” sounded very, very similar to shouting.
I think in three years I was there, there was one fight. I’m not even sure that was a fight, if I’m honest; I remember someone in the staff room saying there had been one. No-one seemed too worried, so the likelihood of its existence is to be questioned.
Now, I could write an encyclopedia about the other impacts of the ethos and leadership which made my first school a bastion of educational opportunity, but I’ll save those ramblings for another time. I only want to focus, today, on why students must talk.
Now, I never had a problem getting students at my first school to talk. In my first year, they would speak unprompted; as I grew in teaching capability, I knew they would talk about whatever I asked them to, whenever I asked. When I practiced “hands down” questioning, it was extremely rare that a student would not talk to me. At the time, I prided myself on having created a safe environment for students to speak. Now I know it’s not that simple.
Becoming articulate should be a central aim of a schooling system. Our world is built on communication; written, certainly, but the majority of our communication is spoken. I’ve never had a written job interview, for example. I can think of a paltry few professions which do not require some level of discourse with colleagues or the public. In English, writing down your ideas about a text is never as powerful as balancing these ideas with alternatives; alternatives locked in someone else’s head, accessible by talking.
On arriving at my new school on my interview day, the first thing I noticed was the lack of noise. These students were quiet. They were quiet in lessons, in corridors; even in the lunch hall. Again, I wondered if the demeanour of this school’s (again, exceptional, visionary, committed) Headteacher was partly the cause: where the first Headteacher had reveled in her exchanges with students, the second spent much of her time visibly calming students down; not threatening or shouting, but ensuring they were calm and collected around the building.
I was sold: this was a wonderful environment to work in; peaceful and calm and quiet. What a different life I would lead in this school, I thought. Except, again, it’s not quite as simple as that.
Getting students to talk has proved more problematic than I could have imagined. Although most will gamely go ahead, group discussion is often more like one individual speaking. Feedback can be especially painful, and I’ve had to tweak my “talking groups” to divert disasters of shyness leading to a stifled session.
Don’t get me wrong; these students can be loud – I’ve seen (or rather, heard) them at bus stops, on buses and around the area outside the school grounds. And of course, it is laudable that they are so calm and quiet in school.
Yet students must speak in lessons, and I have made it my duty to ensure, as far as possible, that every student I teach speaks in every lesson. Last week, two students refused to give feedback on the excellent work they had done. After some coaxing, and another student supporting them, one finally managed to come to the front and explain her work. My heart burst with pride. The other student?
I don’t want to force her. She’s in year 11, she finds public speaking incredibly tough, and she’s very far from guaranteed her targeted A grade at the end of the year. There’s a lot going on, and in the race to get her a GCSE she can do something with, I’ve made the choice to leave this battle, and keep her on side.
But I can’t help but think: we shouldn’t have students in year 11 who are afraid to speak their mind. We have to make our students speak, and speak loudly and with pride and confidence. Sure, it’s scary. Sure, it’s difficult. But not being able to articulate thoughts in public or even small groups will prevent these students from accessing the opportunities their grades should rightly open up to them.
Assessed or not, talk forms a vital part of the education we offer children. They all must talk.