Paper trails hide what truly makes a school
School websites are strange beasts. Some of the best schools have websites that look like they were designed on the janitor’s Nokia. Other schools hide imperfections behind a veil of well-photographed loveliness, as sincere as the animatronic pirates in Disney.
Every wise parent knows that the website is the lip gloss of the school and that, to peek behind the curtain, you need to visit. Not just on the open day, but on a working day, as close to combat conditions as possible.
And that’s where we live, of course. We don’t just visit the school, we occupy it, and we are it. We’re all too aware of the tics, heartbeats and rhythms that make up the school, and we see it without the grease paint. I’ve noticed that teachers often use humour when talking about their jobs that many outsiders wouldn’t understand. A few years ago, on Educating Essex, one teacher famously dismissed a class with the phrase, “Clear off, scumbags,” which animated certain sectors of the permanently shocked brigade. How could a teacher speak to pupils like this?
Every teacher I knew got it. He had a positive relationship with his kids that was so strong it could suffer a little parley; it was a comment that unified rather than divided them. It was a tiny glimpse into the kind of staffroom conversation that goes on every day, as teachers speak frankly and with perfect humanity and love about their pupils, but in a way that might scratch a sensitive soul’s tender parts.
This is what we mean when we say that, sometimes, it takes someone who works in a school to understand some aspects of it. Of course, any informed person can have a perfectly good perspective to add to the debate: you don’t have to be a teacher to talk about exam reform, for example.
But there is so much inside a school that people rarely see, but that has such value for those of us in the goldfish bowl. At lunchtime yesterday in my school, I watched a supply teacher who had barely been there a few months get a send-off of cakes and cards from a community that values every member of its team. At the same time, pupils were walking around selling cakes for charity; the school band was playing; the leader of the Duke of Edinburgh cohort was building her next Sea Cadets group in the corner of the office; a teacher was giving up her lunchbreak to coach an anxious A-level pupil through some syllabus cold spots; a library club was lifting off. And this was all happening within earshot of my desk.
Parents and inspectors see the paper trail, and forensically sift through the traces and results that remain. But this world within a world is a secret garden, known only to God and school staff. It can be the difference between a joyless slog and a joyful job; it can take a digit off of your staff turnover percentage, and it can make men and women get out of their beds in the morning.
There is so much more to schools than schooling.
Tom Bennett is a secondary teacher, director of the ResearchED conference and the government’s school behaviour expert @tombennett71