Leadership - Believe in the power of language

10th January 2014 at 00:00
The words school leaders use can build motivation, loyalty and self- esteem

Language can make or break a school. Careless talk can sap energy or offend; targeted talk can motivate and increase aspirational thinking; positive talk can spark enthusiasm and a willingness to go the extra mile; and negative talk can demotivate and create an unpleasant environment.

No wonder, then, that the majority of successful school leaders recognise the importance of language in the story of their school's accomplishments.

"It isn't a question of political correctness," one such leader says. "We all recognise that the language we use in front of the students at assembly, in tutorials and lessons and when we take them on trips is an important consideration. So we discuss it as a group of staff, as it affects every aspect of school life."

If the wrong language is used, at best it can unintentionally convey messages that we don't want to send; at worst it can drain the energy and motivation of even the most optimistic and willing colleagues and students.

And yet we are all guilty of not giving the language we use enough consideration. This is not about vetting everything you say before you say it - that would leave you behaving unnaturally and your speech seeming staged. Rather, it is about setting yourself broad targets for the language you use that are anchored by certain predetermined aims.

For example, using "we" rather than "I" or "you" is important, not simply in the spoken word but in written form, too. Try to use "I" when taking the blame, and "you" rather than "we" when giving praise and celebrating genuine success. It's here that the buzzword of a few years ago, "personalisation", comes in.

Letters you send home that are supposedly personal appear impersonal when they refer to "your sondaughter" and fail to mention names. General messages of information are of course an exception, but here too presentation is important. More than one successful school leader has told us that the most important job they do is writing the weekly newsletter, and that they recognise how important it is to find the right words and tone.

Be careful in how you refer to staff. The term "non-teaching staff" can offend: it sends a message about the perceived value of certain tasks and certain people.

Considered language choices are also necessary when it comes to grouping students. Using "general ability" descriptors for bands and streams or referring to the "bottom set" are the modern equivalent of stamping "remedial" on the inside cover of a book. These words encourage a misplaced notion of a single type of general ability, rather than the more generous, multifaceted form promoted by developmental psychologist Howard Gardner.

Any why not try replacing "work" with "learning"? It's amazing what a difference it makes when you refer to children getting on with their learning rather than their work.

What's in a word?

Thoughtful use of language goes beyond these examples, of course, and school leaders should monitor all communication. The language used in job descriptions and advertisements, the school prospectus, marking, school reports and staff handbooks is as vitally important as the spoken word in assemblies, tutorials, lessons, corridors and playgrounds. In meetings, implied messages are present in everything that is said and in the body language of participants.

So important is language that it can be worthwhile for school leaders to ask for help from time to time. A visit from a knowledgeable outsider, who checks the language of the school and offers suggestions, can be incredibly useful. They will be able to see into the blind spots you may have and offer an alternative perspective on language that you may think unimportant but that can have a significant effect.

The following quote from poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge will help you to keep in mind just how influential language can be: "Language is the armoury of the human mind and at once contains the trophies of its past and the weapons of its future conquests."

This is an edited version of the chapter "C is for Common Language" from The A-Z of School Improvement: principles and practice by David Woods and Tim Brighouse, published by Bloomsbury at pound;24.99. To claim your TES subscriber 20 per cent discount, visit www.bloomsbury.comeducation and use code GLR 8RW

What else?

Regain a work-life balance with careful time management.


Get TES online and delivered to your door – for less than the price of a coffee

Save 33% off the cover price with this great subscription offer. Every copy delivered to your door by first-class post, plus full access to TES online and the TES app for just £1.90 per week.
Subscribers also enjoy a range of fantastic offers and benefits worth over £270:

  • Discounts off TES Institute courses
  • Access over 200,000 articles in the TES online archive
  • Free Tastecard membership worth £79.99
  • Discounts with Zipcar, Buyagift.com, Virgin Wines and other partners
Order your low-cost subscription today