Making Change Stick: The Power of Language

Can you impact culture through adopting new terminology and ditching the old? Does the language of your school point to the future of school education or the reinforce times past?

What do these words have in common? Headmaster/Headmistress, Teachers/Masters, Period, Subject Head/Master, Classroom, Timetable, Homework, Year/Grade, Bells, Detention.

These are the highly recognisable words of ‘school’. Films and TV shows rely on the predictable context of the school – the teacher at the front, unruly students and the expected way that the ‘business’ of school operates.

School has developed its own unique culture and language, probably because:

Children are graded by year of birth and taught the content and skills considered relevant to their age, delivered by content experts.

For the factory workers the day was divided into periods ‘on’ and periods ‘off’, ‘smoko’, tea break, lunch break and when the final bell sounded they could clock-off and go home.

Systems and language form the code by which institutions can be efficiently managed

When I started my teaching career the teachers’ staff room was known as the ‘Masters’ Common Room’. The word ‘Master’ came into use because the teacher had mastered the content in sufficient depth to be able to teach. Clearly, the ‘Headmaster’ knew everything.

What’s the difference between:

A prison and a correctional facility

Shell-shock and Post-traumatic-stress-disorder

Probably very little. The new descriptor reflects societal trends or a move away from often stigmatising terms. For example, it is now more acceptable to use words that describe a disability, rather than label a person, from ‘blind’ to ‘vision-impaired’.

Language provides a strong cultural anchor, and an effective mechanism to facilitate change is  through changing terminology that reflects the vision or direction.

At Northern Beaches Christian School (NBCS) the terminology in use is carefully considered and changed to words that support the vision to transform school.
Here is a selection of some of the roles at NBCS:

LAM: Learning Area Manager for Faculty Head

GLM: Grade Learning Manager for Year/Grade level coordinator

Care Managers attend to pastoral care of students and manage low-level discipline matters, these are non-teaching positions.

The language of the school day:

Learning Session (LS) – Period

Learning Spaces – Classrooms

Notice the strategic placement of the outcome – ‘learning’ and ‘care’, reflecting the key functions of the role.

Art spaces are called Tate and Louvre, other learning spaces are named after the school’s mission focus – Rwanda, Cambodia and Moree. The prison-sounding identifiers such as H4 and D2 have been abandoned.

The senior leadership have role titles describe their responsibilities and support the vision of the school:

Director of 21stC Pedagogy – supporting teachers in the use of learning spaces

Director of Innovation – encouraging teachers to try new ideas and building the culture of innovation

Head of Primary/Middle/Senior Years – the focus on the learning and developmental needs of students that are unique to their age group

There is one word, however, that is enduring: Teacher. The actual skill of teaching is one amongst a variety of roles that the teacher today undertakes, these include coach, guide and facilitator. However, there does not seem to be a better term than ‘teacher’.

Embedding any change takes time, continual reinforcement and reward. Maybe one day, hopefully soon, Welcome Back Kotter* will reflect a humorous historical context that will have little resemblance to the school experience of this generation.


*School-based sitcom of my youth that launched John Travolta’s career

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