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Describing a School as ‘Challenging’ Won’t Make it Easier to Work There – So Perhaps we Could Stop Doing it

If people think changing the name of something makes it automatically become that description, then why don’t they call themselves Millionaire McSexypants, asks Tom Starkey

  • Describing a School as ‘Challenging’ Won’t Make it Easier to Work There – So Perhaps we Could Stop Doing it

For the majority of my career I’ve worked in places that have been deemed to be ‘challenging’. I’m not a huge fan of the term. It’s a bit of an educational misnomer.

I find getting out of bed on a Monday morning (or any other morning, quite frankly) to be ‘challenging’; the weekly trolley smash to get the shopping with my two sprogs is ‘challenging’.

Heck, managing yours truly can often be a tad ‘challenging’.

Working in a school that has underlying problems isn’t challenging – it’s rock hard.

Rock. Hard. 

But ‘I work in a rock hard school’ hasn’t really got the same ring to it. There’s none of that positive sheen and gloss that people so love to present to the outside world. You’re not going to see a job advert for HoD that goes:

“We are looking for a passionate member of staff to come and work in our tough-as-nails-that-have-seen-some-terrible-things-during-wartime school.”

I understand the reasoning in using the word. I realise that ‘challenging’ offers an aspirational alternative to ‘rough as a hedgehog’s five o’clock shadow’ – but I also know that in education there can be a tendency to do a bit of semantic juggling to paper over some pretty large cracks.

I sometimes wonder whether people genuinely think that if you change the name, the nature of the thing will automatically follow. If so, I also wonder why those people don’t simply call themselves Millionaire McSexypants. Those people are delusional. Or lazy. Or both.

So here’s a tip to all senior management out there – if you’re referring to your school as ‘challenging’, you’d best be doing everything you can to help your staff meet that challenge. Otherwise it’s just another euphemism designed to muddy the waters. Or ‘a lie’, as I like to call it.

The other problem I have with the term is that every school has unique and particular challenges, no matter how well or how badly they’re doing. If it’s not behaviour, it can be workload. If it’s not workload, it can be pastoral issues. If it’s not pastoral issues it could be staffing – and so on, and so on.

Even the most pleasant, together schools, where the kids are polite, and well-rested staff look forward to functioning at optimal capacity to help their charges (I have heard wild rumours of such places), have their own challenges to be overcome.

I can drag a class of 35 through GCSEs when 27 of them have severe behavioural issues, and yes, that’s challenging – but so is taking a talented top set class through their A Levels, which is something I haven’t done for so long that the prospect of it would be one that fills me with dread.

For something to be challenging, it doesn’t necessarily have to be at the extreme end of things.

It’s sitting down with a kid whose parents are going through a messy divorce and who doesn’t know how to take it. It’s taking some Year 10s on a skiing trip (even when they’re being absolutely brilliant). It’s break in drizzle. It’s making sure that your targets exceed last year’s. It’s parents’ evening when the expectations are sky high. It’s a million other things teachers have to do in thousands of schools up and down the country.

Every day. The very DNA of this job is challenge, no matter where you work.

Granted, some of these challenges may be, well, slightly more challenging than others. I wouldn’t mind swapping the behaviour issues I deal with frequently for something a little bit more genteel for instance – but I’d be willing to bet my hurriedly scoffed Friday canteen fish and chips (with extra chips) that there’s not one school in this country where working there does not present some form of challenge.

It’s just that they’re different types of challenges, that’s all.

Words are important, as is the way we choose to utilise them. As professionals under pressure, we shouldn’t have to be given the extra challenge (HA! LOOK WHAT I DID!) of trying to negotiate terms that don’t really mean what they’re supposed to; and we should try to appreciate that one teacher’s challenging isn’t the same as another’s even though they both come under the same banner.

And now, I’m off to do the weekly shop. Always up for a challenge, me.

Thanks for reading.

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