As an English teacher I’m always delighted when literature insinuates itself into real life, no matter how tangentially.
A couple of days before the end of term, I overheard a conversation between one of my fellow deputes and a first-year pupil.
My colleague had caught him in the school atrium with a large screw that had obviously been removed from part of our superstructure.
Patiently, she went through her concerns, pointed out the excellent state of the school buildings, the respect pupils showed for them, the compliments visitors always paid to the condition of the school fabric.
Then, as the coup de grace, she asked the question: “What happens if we ignore the small things, like screws and bits and pieces coming off the furniture and fittings?”
He looked suitably thoughtful then came out with: “Things fall apart!”
Wow! WB Yeats via Chinua Achebe, uttered by a Scots pupil to a Canadian teacher!
As well as being a neat, if unconscious, quote, there was perhaps more truth in the words than either realised.
It is the taking care of small details that leads to a positive school ethos: it may be the fabric, but equally it might be a ‘Good morning!’ exchanged between teacher and pupil, a smile at a doorway with the door held open, a brief comment of acknowledgement, shared responsibility for any litter dropped.
Equally, mutual respect is found in the celebration of staff and pupil achievements, senior management attendance at extra curricular activities, a welcome face to visitors, the willingness to share a laugh.
I was amazed when our school was inspected some years ago that none of the inspecting team spent time in the school atrium. Our pupils stay on campus throughout the school day; the atrium is their social area at interval and where they eat their lunch; many staff dine beside them and interact socially.
If ever our positive ethos was on display it was in this central area.
Ultimately, the inspectors’ report praised our ethos as first rate and it was good to have official acknowledgement that it permeated the classrooms, but I still believe that it is in the small details that a school’s ethos is best displayed; it is in these tiny manifestations that the ethos becomes tangible, and embedded.
Effective Teaching and Learning is our job, but it is accomplished most completely when it is pursued in the optimum conditions, when pupils feel safe, valued and comfortable – in or out of class.
The establishment and maintenance of an ethos that puts these conditions at the very centre of school life is a major responsibility of all in the school community; the ethos of any institution is dynamic, organic and, if not cared for, easy to lose.
It is a safe bet that, when school staff return to their August in-service days, the phrases “quality assurance” and “measuring impact” will be very evident.
Standing in our atrium for the last ‘break duty’ of the session, it was impossible not to look around and, at least internally, slightly misquote Yeats: “Things Fall Apart, if the centre cannot hold”.
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