Educational Sacred Cows: Title, Position, Status. Does reinventing school mean reinventing the language we use?

Within a shifting global landscape I have been contemplating the elements of school that have remained constant and questioning whether a shake up is needed.

Only this week in Australia the idea of a ‘newspaper’ has been thrown into question, as print media realised that the tectonic plates have shifted in this industry, and now many people will lose jobs over the next three years. In the newspaper world the classified advertising was the sacred (cash) cow that provided resources for other activities of the newspaper, but they have acted too late. I think most of us could see that coming? (ebay, Gumtree, Craigslist)

Can we start thinking about the immovable sacred objects of education, those things we have held onto for generations, and throw a magnifying glass over them to ensure our sector remains relevant for now and into the future. Why? To ensure we can continue to provide the best education for your kids.

Every industry has positions, titles and language that are peculiar to that sector, and in education, with hundreds of years embedded into the culture, we know exactly what these terms mean:

  • Principal, Headmaster, Headteacher
  • Deputy Principal, Vice Principal, Deputy Head
  • Bursar, Business Manager
  • Assistant Principal
  • Director of [insert specialty area here]
  • Head of [insert faculty here]
  • Teacher

This list reflects the historically hierarchical nature of schools. It shows success and progression as a linear journey and is a remnant of the industrial era. Organisations of people do require order, accountability and clarity in decision-making, however, this does not preclude thinking differently about what it looks like today. There is something empowering about developing your own role descriptor that creates a sense of ownership.

We can make comparisons between the military hierarchy and school structure. As our western culture emerged from two world wars in the 1950s and the baby boom took hold school culture was being set. If it worked in the army, shaping soldiers, it could definitely work in school with unruly children. Some schools even had a position called ‘Sergeant Major’.

The term ‘Headmaster’ is enough to send a shiver down the spine of many who were once sent to the ‘Headmaster’s’ office – rarely conjuring happy memories. The titles prefixed by ‘Head’ are still in existence and clearly tell us where they sit on the chain of command.The word ‘Principal’ has mostly replaced ‘Headmaster’ and is a less terrifying reflection of the role. In many sectors titles and role descriptions are changing.

There continues to be discussion around the role of teacher, with the skill of ‘teaching’ being one of many that an educational professional brings to his or her role, today. We hear words like coach, guide and mentor, in much the same way that ‘learning space’ is a different way of thinking about ‘classroom’.

Why should we think about changing the roles and hierarchy in schools?

Gen Y career expectations (yes, them again) – They aren’t necessarily motivated by titles, but engagement, purpose and cause. These guys as less likely to aspire to climb the ladder and more likely to put time and effort into making a difference in the world.

Lateral career progression opportunities – In the structural hierarchy there are very few Queen Bees and plenty of Worker Bees. By giving freedom to innovate and develop job roles around a task, career development has many more options and work is more satisfying.

Culture of leadership – A broader understanding of ‘who is a leader?’ and empowering anyone to step up.

The words we use are significant. They convey meaning, give purpose and connection. The marketing industry has grown exponentially because of the importance of using the right words and images to describe a product that people will buy.

I really don’t mind if you agree or not. I would just rather that we have meaningful conversations and assess where we put valuable thought, time and resources, in order to engage and inspire a generation of young people in a very different world from the one in which I grew up.

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