Lightbulb #6 – Stick it in a box and close the lid

Outstanding. Meeting expectations. NQT. SEN. Dyslexic. ASD. Special measures. Good. ADHD. Able. Meeting standard 5. Gifted and Talented. Making progress. Teachers use terms like this on a regular, even daily basis, and although I’m used to them now, I remember feeling very overwhelmed by them when I started school-based practice on my PGCE. Everything had a name, a label, and if it didn’t have a full word it had an acronym that sounded similar to all the other acronyms. It was overwhelming, but having said that, they were also oddly comforting – everything had a name, a definition, something to help me make sense of this crazy, busy, swirling new career I had entered.

Except hardly any of these terms are actually that helpful. Once I’d finally got my head round what they stand for, I had begun to feel that such labels are worse than reductive: that actually, they encourage us to be lazy, criteria-driven and quantitative, rather than active, descriptive and qualitative. These terms encourage us to put ourselves, pupils, our subjects, our workplaces, in neat little boxes with little sticky labels, and to screw the lids on tight.

Take ‘outstanding’, for example. It’s the holy grail of inspection judgements, the Aladdin’s cave, the treasure hoard of Smaug. The word itself refers to something that is unquantifiable, something that defies the norm, which is remarkable, which literally stands out from the crowd. It’s a daunting prospect. As an NQT I very much enjoyed David Didau’s ‘The Perfect Ofsted English Lesson‘, which has plenty of excellent, practical and research-based ideas or teaching excellent lessons, complete with a handy tick-list of criteria at the end. But if ‘outstanding’ is all about being different, how can this possibly be boiled down to a list of criteria? Granted, Ofsted’s lesson criteria for the ‘Outstanding’ and ‘Good’ judgements are quite broad, but doesn’t that make it worse? Not only are there boxes to tick, but the criteria are wide enough to cover all manner of sins. Hardly outstanding now, is it?

I’m not going to go through each and every label on the list, but another one which really drives me nuts is SEN, or ‘Special Educational Needs’. It’s handy, it’s catch-all. So catch-all, in fact, that practically any student has a special educational need of some description. Of course this refers to what most of us understand as those students who require additional support with their education, often under the umbrella of dyslexia, or low working memory, or attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, or autistic spectrum disorder (all of which are also catch-all terms, but that’s by the by and would keep us going all night). A student’s special educational needs are endless and particular to each child, and might be simply that they are often kept awake at night by parents arguing, or aren’t given breakfast before they come to school, or are bereaved, are worried about their little brother’s upcoming operation and haven’t been able to focus enough to complete their homework to a high enough standard that week. It might be that they have a greater aptitude for Science and Maths and they really don’t ‘get’ Shakespeare, or ox-bow lakes.

So what do we do with such a huge concept, and potentially infinite variations of additional support and resources we could and should deliver to help our students, with their multiple needs, get the most out of their school? We break the terms down further into compartments that we can slot our students into: we provide larger font worksheets and bullet pointed instructions in Comic Sans MS to support our dyslexic students; we give our two G&T students some extension work they can get on with quietly in the corner while we manage the behaviour of students with ADHD; we’ve got colour-coded notes to support the ‘visual’ learners…and so on. We’ve addressed SEN…on paper. We’ve ticked each box, but what about the individuals within each category? It would, of course, take hours that we simply don’t have to tailor-make all our resources to individual students, but to fully address the special educational needs of all our class, that is, essentially, what we would have to do. The SEN label is helpful, but for all the wrong reasons.

One last label which has recently struck me is the elusive ‘great’. Personally, as a teacher, and I’m sure I’m not alone, this is the quality, more than ‘outstanding’, that I really want to embody. It is the most intangible quality I can think of, with a myriad of different definitions and thousands of ways in which we might see it in ourselves or our colleagues, which is why, idling on Twitter a few days ago, I was struck by Teacher Toolkit’s thoughtful article ‘Visual Anatomy of a Great Teacher‘. Although the article claimed that it was “not a list”, I couldn’t help feeling that it really was a list, a list of idealistic and often contradictory characteristics which could arguably used to define great. And they were hard to disagree with, and I agree entirely with the writer in stating that:

“language and descriptors that commodify teachers and pedagogy to fit neatly into descriptors can only be limiting by its reference of labelling.”

Quite right, I say. So how can we possibly seek to define great? In the same way as we define outstanding. It’s simply yet another label with which we can feel categorised, boxed, restricted – a gilded cage, perhaps.

Teaching is a dizzying and dynamic career, and the world at large is no less incomprehensible. The world we live in is infinitely more complex, dangerous and intricate than we can possibly comprehend, so I suppose it’s only natural that we impose labels on everything around us: healthy, sedentary, techie, sexist, progressive, cool, normal, masculine, feminine…I could go on forever. But as campaigns such as HeforShe are highlighting so eloquently, there is nothing more dangerous and reductive as imposing labels on what we encounter.

I don’t pretend to have offered any solutions, only a challenge, and perhaps a particularly pertinent one at the start of a new term of government. Let’s dispose of labels. Let’s revolutionise our education system to look at our children, our teachers, our schools, as highly individual, highly contextualised, highly unique, no longer items of data that can be summarised by a series of numbers, or a word, or, worse still, an acronym.


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