This article was originally published on the Tes website. 

The pessimistic message of ‘catch-up’ needs to be avoided in school. One leader explains how they tackled this through staff training.

Annie Witcher is assistant principal and director of teaching and learning at Rivers Academy West London.

It has been a tough 12 months for schoolchildren and a time when they have faced daily news headlines and dialogue dominated by the words “catch up”, “lost learning” and “Covid generation”.

When a child hears these words, the message they hear is “I’m behind” and “I’m not where I should be”.

As academic and author Judith E Glaser once said: “Words create worlds”, so, at a time when things can feel so out of our control and uncertain, we want our students to feel safe, cared for and calm. And it is our language that has the power to do that.

It became clear to me that we needed to create a shared approach about the language we used to help reduce the anxiety students, and their teachers, were feeling.

This is why we set about working with our staff to discuss why certain words and phrases should be avoided, how best to do this and to find out from students how they had found this approach.

Credit: Tes. Rivers is taking a whole-school approach to the power of positive language

Step 1: agreeing on the right words

The first step was to co-create the language with teachers – what we would aim to avoid and the positive language we would use instead.

To do this, around 31 members of staff joined our online session the week before the return to school to create this list and share our best practice.

We decided against the phrases “catch up”, “what you have missed”, “you’re behind”, “we don’t have time to finish the syllabus” and “Covid generation”.

We decided, instead, to replace them with “Let’s build, strengthen or enhance what we already know’’, “map where you are”, “master the skills’’, “everyone is in the same position because we’ve all been away”.

Step 2: rolling out the training

The school’s Inset day provided the perfect opportunity to set this plan in motion: a shared approach and strategy for teachers, created by teachers.

The whole Inset included more than  100 teaching and support staff. Ideas were shared via the chat function, comments and feedback were given and role-plays acted out in smaller breakout rooms.

Staff could virtually drop into question rooms with session leaders to address anything they felt still needed answering around the approach we were taking.

Step 3: test running the language

As mentioned, a critical part of this day was to help staff put what we were discussing into practice with role-play scenarios and conversations.

Doing this meant they could act as critical friends to each other on the best approaches to take and how best to avoid those pesky language pitfalls.

From this, it became clear that we would need the language to lead these conversations positively with our students, as those who need the most support may not be coming to ask us for it.

Those “requests” for help with learning may instead come in the form of disengagement or disruption to learning – either their own or that of others.

However, it is our job to push through the distancing tactics and support the child underneath the bravado, who feels so far out of the race they won’t even enter.

We need to show them that we can map that path together to build on and develop their learning, and we will move towards that finish line together. The role-plays were a great way to help staff be prepared for this on their return.

Step 4: reflecting on how it has worked

A week has passed since our full return to school with all students but already it has been calm, purposeful and settled.

Students have shared how tough they have found it over lockdown, for example, we’ve had a Year 12 English literature student who was supporting her two younger siblings through their primary schoolwork every day, then doing her own.

But with our approach to engage and enthuse all our students back into their learning and the school community, it is clear that using the right language has been a powerful way to bring positivity to what has been a tough time for all.

One student, Isabella, told me that “at home, you’re just with your thoughts thinking I can’t do this. But teachers have been really positive since we’ve been back. They’ve just been making us feel that we will get through this together.”

Another student, Jack, added: “They’ve been really helping to motivate me, and I know it sounds silly, but hearing them say it in person is just so much better than in an email. I know we’re not all in the same boat but we’re all in the same storm and we’ll get through it together.”