Have an inane school mantra? It is what it is...

School mantras are meant to inspire and motivate. But all too often, says Omar Akbar, they end up having the opposite effect

man in cardboard box, thinking

Whether it’s Steve Jobs, encouraging his employees to “think different”, or Dyson employees being asked to “solve problems that others ignore”, companies feel the need for mantras.

A company mantra – a slogan to motivate staff and ultimately increase revenue –  is not only understandable but can be necessary for employees to remain both inspired and inspirational.

Unfortunately, in education, the mantras all too often serve one of two purposes. They are either used as a stick to beat teachers with, or they are designed to ensure that staff never ever dare to speak out against workload.

It is what it is

Long before the hard-bodied buffoons occupying Love Island ever started to use this expression as an acceptance of a muggy situation, heads of department used it to express their lack of control over decisions made from the top.

While more savvy middle leaders have mastered the art of acting like a nodding dog in meetings, and then doing it their own way afterwards, for many, there is no wriggle room. It is indeed, what it is.

The not-so-hidden meaning is obvious: you can do nothing about your marking policy or the number of book scrutinies. And as for learning walks? You’ll get trampled to death by them. It is what it is.

Make rapid improvement

Yes, company mantras can be corny-sounding and annoying, but at least they are intended to motivate and inspire. If no one was encouraged to “think different”, for example, you probably wouldn’t be reading this on a smart phone.

All too often in education, however, the mantra seems to have an inimical assumption: that teachers aren’t getting it right. Take the “make rapid improvement” mantra, for example. The only possible translation for this can be: you are not – and never will be – good enough.

Improvement isn’t enough. You – and the kids – have to make it rapidly. How rapidly? Very rapidly. As “rapidly” is such an ambiguous term, you can be assured that yours and the kids’ improvement will almost never be considered sufficient.

We do what’s best for the kids

My personal fave. At some schools, this very popular mantra has the sole purpose of silencing teachers. Don’t want to do three Saturday interventions per half-term? Tough! “We do what’s best for the kids.” Got a problem with 45-minute learning walks? Clearly, you’re selfish!

Obviously, teachers indeed do their best for their pupils. But is it a coincidence that this mantra – while stating the obvious – can also be used to coerce teachers into pretty much anything?

Unfortunately, the mantra is also used to justify blatant lies. Triple marking, for example, is of no benefit to pupil progress yet the practice is still pedalled with a neatly tied “we do what’s best for the kids” ribbon. There is also nothing wrong with teaching from the front, yet some members of SLT will no doubt tell you you’re not doing what’s best for the kids just because they don’t, well, like it.

A contra-mantra

With the current crisis in recruitment and retention, I believe we need a contra-mantra before we can have an actual mantra.

How about: “I did the best I could with the time and resources I had available”?

Omar Akbar is a science teacher, and author of Bad School Leadership (and what to do about it)

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